The first occasion a soldier faces real fear must not be on the battlefield. Just like any other skill, managing one’s fear and stress requires investment and practise.
Roosevelt said it best when he declared that, ‘Courage is the ability to operate in the presence of fear, not the absence of fear’. But what he didn’t say was that we can grow the courage within our people, and we can grow their ability to operate in the presence of fear.
Consider the first time you did something risky, perhaps it was your first free fall jump, opposed mission profile, enemy engagement, public speaking or if you think way back, maybe when you first asked for a date or rode a bicycle. The common theme with these examples is that our mind and body conspire against us.
When gripped by fear our pulse increases, breathing becomes shallow, muscles tense, and blood leaves the limbs to protect the major organs. Similarly, the brain’s capacity for complex decision-making is reduced, and focus becomes limited to what is immediately in front of you – reverting to simple and in-the-moment thoughts.
All of these evolutionary adaptations were fine for our ancestor’s survival; but these things combine to reduce our performance in a warfighting environment. For example, stress induced auditory exclusion can prevent us from hearing an important message in our earpiece, tunnel vision can prevent us seeing others when taking a sight picture of a target, and over-tensioned muscles can prevent us from grappling as efficiently with an enemy combatant than we do on the training mat.
In modern western societies we focus significantly, and appropriately, on safety. Clearly it is unacceptable to deliberately cause casualties in training. Safety concerns can; however, impede training realism when frequent halts are called, arcs of fire limited, and sound tactical plans adjusted to meet safety traces. And who can ignore the fluorescent vest/ belt of safety that seem to be everywhere? More often than not we see soldiers not invested in the training, because it does not seem real, it is too artificial; and the ever present, pervasive and overly obvious safety limitations add to this artificiality.
The overly obvious safety environment robs the soldier of a fundamental training element. That is, how do we prepare our soldiers to face a real risk, real danger, and thus real fear. More importantly, how do we prepare them to overcome it and ‘operate in the presence of fear’?
Whilst live fire combined arms and even joint training serials are phenomenal for delivering the hard skills a soldier needs, this is only a part of the solution. Regardless of the realism in training, the soldier will still know that they are participating in an exercise and should expect to come to no real harm. So if realistic combative training is not the whole answer then what else could help?
Frequently our operations take our soldiers into uncertain environments that could not have been anticipated in training. Indeed, often just the novelty of the situation itself can cause significant fear and stress; if you don’t believe me watch the wide eyed nature of the next bus load of fresh recruits at Kapooka. The ‘newness’ of the environment and their uncertainty limits them. But making them familiar with specific environments can also create problems.
Placing a soldier in the familiar training environments will mean that they will simply perform their SOPs. Whilst this repetition of expected events and actions is sound inoculation and aids development in that specific context, it falls apart when the situation changes; as the situation also does when a determined adversary interferes with our plans. So if repeated training inoculation isn’t the whole answer then what else is?
What I am describing here is learning; not about tactics, techniques or procedures as these boil down to drills that can be enhanced through repetition until they are familiar responses. What I am describing as learning is about increased self-awareness of one’s own thoughts and emotions; how they translate into physical reactions and behaviors; and how they impact and influence those of others. These change depending upon the circumstance and environments of risk, challenge, fear, danger and uncertainty.
Learning about oneself does not necessarily work in a familiar environment when we are within our comfort zone. Learning about our true self comes when we are under arduous conditions, when we are outside our comfort zone, when we are in novel environments and we cannot rely on masking our behaviors with TTPs.
The best environments to support this learning are ones of that have real risk, mitigated to a safe level, but where the mitigation is not necessarily observable by the participant.
This learning is best delivered in a positive and socially supportive environment, where constructive feedback for development is offered and gladly received. Sometimes the rigid structures of military hierarchy limits this form of feedback. Consider the perceptive private attempting to deliver feedback to their Company Commander!
So we need a safe environment, with perceived risk, in a socially supportive framework, doing something that is new or novel to support this learning about ourselves. Examples that build this are high end special forces training and live fire mission rehearsal exercises. These are phenomenal examples of outstanding training for high end forces. The realism of the scenarios and required responses, adrenaline and other physical, emotional, social, and cognitive reactions are all there. These events are frequently and thoroughly reviewed over and over again by masters in their field with a wealth of experience.
The only problem is that this sort of training is not accessible to everyone in our Army; usually even just to participate in this high end training requires significant preparation, equipment, investment – not to mention selection, as well as a raft of specialised personnel in support. So what to do? We need the gold standard effect at a rock bottom price in terms of people and resources as well as being accessible to all.
The key is that the learning from the event must be translatable to different environments and contexts focused on improving the human performance capacity of the individual and the group. In the Army context this must be ethically shaped by our core values of courage, initiative, respect and teamwork. At its heart the training must strive to enhance leadership or resilience or both.
The Australian Army has an outstanding product sitting on the shelf, recently it has been dusted off and given a polish by the current custodians. The sophistication and efficacy of this program has made significant impact upon the lives of the recruits undertaking the new Army Pre-Conditioning Program at Kapooka. Here, the program has changed the young soldiers to give them a significant and obvious boost to their self-confidence, performance, self-perception, and dare I say it; resilience.
The product is Adventurous Training, the new sheen of polish is the Experiential Resilience Education Exercise, the Military Facilitator course and the Experiential Leadership Development Exercise. These programs add more sophistication, direction and focus to the programs in a method that is accessible to soldiers and understood by commanders. The results are clear, measurable, significant and evident for all to see.
Adventurous Training Wing is the ADF centre of excellence for this adult learning in a reality based experiential environment. Whilst technical skills on a snow covered mountain, river, in a cave, canyon, or at sea are important; they are not the purpose. The purpose is to use that environment and the peers within a group to enhance their self awareness, impacts of behavior, cognition under combat stress, and how to deal with it all.
Adventurous Training has come a very long way in the past few years. It is now a sophisticated tool used to improve human performance and enable resilience through adaptation to thrive in a variety of environments. This includes preparing soldiers and leaders for the stress of combat, as well as practical performance improvement, supporting soldier intervention and return post deployment.
Soldiers and combat leaders must continuously invest in themselves by developmental programs such as Adventurous Training to build upon resilience and courage that then transfers to the battlefield. Just like physical fitness, muscles not exercised atrophy and grow weak; so too does mental fitness and therefore mental fitness requires resilience exercises to remain strong. Human performance is enhanced through Adventurous Training, developing the individual and group qualities required for battle.
About the author
Jeremy Barraclough is a 2001 graduate of Australia’s Royal Military College – Duntroon, he has served within a variety of appointments within the Royal Australian Air Force and the Australian Army as an enlisted soldier and commissioned officer. He briefly served in Afghanistan embedded with the US Army 4th Infantry Division and is currently the Chief Instructor of the Adventurous Training Wing, responsible for resilience, leadership, and human performance instructor training and development.
Grounded Curiosity is a platform to spark debate, focused on junior commanders. The views expressed do not reflect any official position or that of any of the author’s employers – see more here.