The Night We Cheated Death with Mental Toughness and Great Teammates
An undisclosed distance out to sea, a thunderstorm is brewing with sheet lightening starting to streak through the clouds. Peering through the green glow of my night vision goggles, I watch the submarine break the surface. Regardless of how long you've been in special operations, it's an awesome and humbling experience every time. Our small black rubber boat is starting to feel like a roller coaster in swells that are starting to grow to about 6-8 feet. In the distance I can see them smacking into the submarine with some force.
I turn the throttle and we begin our approach. On our way, my buddy and I smile and jokingly say one of our favorite lines when things begin to get dangerous... “This is sketchy, at best.”
Without getting into details, the environmental conditions make our recovery very difficult and our boat ends up vertical. For a split second I was staring straight up looking at the stars as I watched my teammate sling shot off the front of the boat over my head and out into the darkness of the sea. Then my feet flip over my head and I splash into the water upside down head-first.
I come up for the surface only to have my head hit the bottom of the boat. Thanks to the training from my instructors, I did not panic. I simply trusted the process and executed. I picked a direction and walked my hands along underneath the boat until I reached the side and broke the surface. I grabbed a rope attached to the boat, but the force of the swells, current, and prop wash, ripped the rope from my hand and tumbled me under the water. It felt like I was in a washing machine.
Unsure of which way was up, or how deep I was, and needing air, I pulled the actuator on my inflatable life vest. I had never done this before. I remember feeling embarrassed that I was pulling it, but overriding that embarrassment was a desperate hope that it would work properly. It did, and I rocketed to the surface as my inflatable vest filled and wrapped around my neck.
I began searching for my swim buddy. It was more out of a sense of duty than a realistic thought that I could actually find him. But God saw it different that night, and we found each other.
My buddy had taken a worse hit and was choking up water as we bobbed up and down in the swells that seemed to be continuing to grow. The submarine was well off into the distance now and the reality of the situation was beginning to settle in.
I could see the rubber boat through my night vision about 50 yards out bobbing up and down and being pulled by the current. We tried to make it, but the current was pulling the boat away faster than we were gaining on it. I couldn’t get to it without leaving my teammate. Even then, I wasn’t sure I would make it. We discussed the option of me making an attempt, then coming back for him. The reality was, that it would be very difficult for me to find him at night in these swells if we separated.
I went back to the fundamental process. Think through the options and execute. Rule number one taught the first day at training was to never leave your swim buddy. Trust the process: Separating was out of the question. We would solve this together.
Panic or process? Panic has no value. Our response must have value regardless of how we feel. Mental toughness includes an ability to act different than how the circumstance makes us feel. Initial emotion does not have to dictate next action. We have to think cause and effect. Don’t paralyze. Start doing things, and stuff starts to happen. Compartmentalize fear and let desire to survive (or succeed) fuel your discipline to the process. What’s my process?
Turn on your strobe. Next step, radio the submarine. Too much chatter and they can’t hear me...Panic? No next step, clear the net. Next step, get a compass bearing and distance to the submarine. Believe, think, and find options. If we’re not found, we had a very long swim to shore but not an impossible one... What we didn't know was that we were already found.
Just then, I hear the puttering of a small engine. I see the silhouette of my teammates in a boat about 10 yards away. I rip the strobe off my helmet and wave it as high as I can reaching up trying to keep it above the swells in his line of sight as we bobbed up and down. I see his head turn, and I know he’s got me. It was a better feeling than winning the lottery as our hands clasped together and he pulled me out of the water.
When we’ve failed, made mistakes, it feels like everything is going wrong, and the walls are closing, we tend to press. We get outside of the fundamentals and try to force things. We start to panic, drowning in a sea of “what if"
Get back to the basics. Trust your process. Trust your teammates. Execute the fundamentals. Remember, fundamentals are not just mechanical, but also in how you think and treat each other. The fundamentals are controllable actions of value that will bring you to the surface. You are never out of the fight.