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The Rescue Reflex

It happens all the time: An off-duty Soldier saves a citizen from death or serious injury. The humble hero says anyone else would have done the same. But would they? Could they even? Here, GX examines the science behind Guard Soldiers’ second nature.
©Shutterstock
©Shutterstock

Sergeant First Class Lance Black and First Sergeant Micah Marchand, both of the Arkansas National Guard, were driving by a Shell station in Marchand’s pickup one afternoon in July 2015 when they saw a fight in progress. Two young men were pummeling a third. The inside of the gas station was full of people. The pumps were crowded with customers. Yet no one was doing anything to stop the fight.

Marchand pulled in. He stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 295 pounds. He guesses the men in the fight weighed 160 or so apiece. He planned to pick them up, get them to stop and then go on his way. 

But as Marchand stopped the truck, he and Black realized this was more than just a fight. One assailant had a gun and was pistol-whipping the victim. Marchand and Black worried they were about to witness not just an assault but an execution. That turned a dangerous situation into an emergency. So they did what none of the dozens of eyewitnesses had the courage or the training to do: They intervened. 

The fight at the gas station involved several ominous factors: It was unexpected, unpredictable, out of control and, above all, life-threatening—not just to the two men fighting but also to Marchand and Black, and innocent bystanders. The two Soldiers’ training had prepared them to respond to such a situation on the battlefield, where danger is the rule. But applying that training here—thrust into the midst of a heated conflict in suburban Arkansas, in the absence of any rules of engagement or plan of attack—was an altogether different matter. Or was it?

Inherent Abilities
Over the years, GX has published countless stories about Army National Guard Soldiers who have saved civilian lives while off duty—from rescuing gunshot victims, to pulling people from burning vehicles, to thwarting a terrorist attack on a train in France. They seem to possess both a willingness and an ability to perform courageous acts that most civilians lack. And the quality is so deeply ingrained that it’s imperceptible to the Guard members themselves. When asked to reflect on their actions, these Citizen-Soldiers—who come from all ranks, all regions and all walks of life—say the same thing: “My training just kicked in.” 

But what does this statement mean? What is this strength? And how is it instilled? 

To answer these questions, it’s important to start at the very beginning, with the Soldiers’ willingness to help. While these heroes responded to different scenarios in different ways, they shared in common the belief that anybody would have done what they did. It’s a nice sentiment, but with all respect to these warriors, it’s utterly, demonstrably wrong. 

In some of these incidents, crowds of onlookers did nothing. Psychologists call this the bystander effect, which says the likelihood a stranger will help someone in need decreases based on how many people are around. There’s a perceived diffusion of responsibility—witnesses to an emergency conclude from others’ inaction that their own help isn’t needed.

Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) David Grossman, an Army Ranger, renowned author and former West Point psychology professor, says psychologists have run an experiment in which they put a board in the street with nails sticking out. (They are rubber nails, but nobody knows that.) Driver after driver passes by and leaves the board there. The experiment has a different outcome on military bases, however, where Soldiers are taught, from the very first day of Basic Training, that they are accountable for what they do and/or don’t do. “The first truck to come by, the sergeant tells the driver, ‘Get that [board] out of there,’ ” Grossman says. 

Why the difference? Soldiers joined the military to serve; therefore, they are inherently more likely to help. That’s the “nature” part of the answer. But there’s a “nurture” part, too. After enlisting, Soldiers are taught that helping is expected and they are trained in the skills to do so. 

Over time, nature and nurture blend. Helping becomes such a part of Soldiers’ identities that they often don’t realize that the reason they react while others stand idly by is partly a result of their training. “We’re not really good at examining our navels and coming to this inner knowledge of who we are,” Grossman says. “We’re just doing what we’re trained to do.”

That’s what Minnesota Army National Guard Sergeant David Baxley did one crisp fall morning in 2014 along a Minnesota highway.

The Biology of Bravery
On his way to work at Camp Ripley, MN, Baxley noticed debris along the road, the obvious remnants of a very recent accident, so he stopped his car. Dense fog veiled the severity of the wreck. He walked up to the first vehicle he saw, which was parked along the side of the road. The woman inside had no injuries. Her car was not damaged. Baxley guessed she pulled over after witnessing the accident and was in shock. She didn’t even seem to notice his attempts to get her attention. Standing there beside her car, he suddenly heard a scream. 

He looked up just in time to see a minivan burst into flames. It was upside-down in a ditch, and there was a man inside.

Baxley’s heart began pounding—an expected, and beneficial, reaction to a high-stress situation. Research shows that an elevated heart rate helps a Soldier think clearer, run faster and fight harder. It’s not the exact heart rate but how the person functions that’s key, although, as Grossman points out in his book On Combat, the sweet spot appears to be between 115 and 145 beats per minute. This state is known as “Condition Red,” according to a system developed by Grossman and two other combat researchers that categorizes the physiological and cognitive effects of psychological stress.

Less perceptible during Condition Red is the adrenal glands’ release of adrenaline, also called epinephrine, a hormone that boosts your ability to cope with danger. It sets off a series of rapid metabolic changes throughout the body—including in the pancreas, liver, blood vessels, heart and lungs—that ultimately result in improved blood flow, faster oxygen intake and increased energy production at the cellular level.

But Condition Red has its limits. Once the heart rate exceeds roughly 145, Condition Red turns into Condition Gray, when fine and complex motor skills and cognitive abilities drop off.

At this point, the higher the heart rate, the worse the symptoms. Weird things start to happen. Vasoconstriction sets in—that is, your body slows down blood flow to your extremities by narrowing your blood vessels. This survival mechanism is meant to limit bleeding if, say, you get shot ... which comes in handy if you actually get shot. But if you don’t, the lack of blood flow means you lose coordination with your hands.

As your heart rate soars, you don’t hear things properly, the only color you see is red, and you develop tunnel vision or depth perception problems. Under extreme stress, you could even lose control of your bladder and bowels. 

An important part of training is teaching Soldiers to continue to operate at a high level of effectiveness despite these impairments. If you ever wonder why drills seem harder than they need to be, or why the drill sergeant screams himself hoarse whether you deserve it or not, this is the reason. Soldiers must learn to overcome stress, and the only way to learn is to do. 

“To be effective, you have to be able to control the stress and not let it control you,” says Sergeant First Class Jerry Bowling, an Arkansas Army National Guard instructor since 1999 who now works at the Officer Candidate School. “We’re training to overcome those physiological things.”

The worst state is Condition Black, in which the mental and physical performance of even highly trained Soldiers is susceptible to breakdown. And that’s precisely where Georgia Army National Guard Staff Sergeant Anthony Orsi tries to take his trainees in the Ranger Training and Assessment Course (RTAC) at the Warrior Training Center at Fort Benning, GA. Orsi is a firm believer that if you’re not failing when you train, then you’re not training hard enough. “You can practice until you get it right. But that’s what amateurs do,” he says. “Professionals practice until they get it wrong.”

Orsi uses grenade and artillery simulators, openly second-guesses squad leaders and turns virtually every training session into a worst-case scenario, because the real world is never perfect. He strives to induce “vapor lock”—to create so much stress that the Soldier nearly ceases to function. 

“As a Guard Soldier … you need to be pushing yourself until you’re just about to fall off the rails,” Orsi says. “Once you figure out where your failure point is, that’s where you go, ‘OK, I can start building from here.’ ”

Back on that Minnesota highway, Baxley took off at a dead sprint toward the fiery van and the man inside, whose name was Alex. “I just heard [him] screaming, ‘Help me!’ ” Baxley says. “If you were ever in that situation—trapped in a burning vehicle—you’d want somebody to help you. You wouldn’t want somebody to just walk on by.”

When Baxley got to the door, he saw that Alex was trapped. His lower body was mangled, and the dashboard was practically on top of him. 

Every second counted. Baxley could feel the heat of the flames, and here is where his training kicked in—specifically, his ability to make decisions and act on them under extreme stress. He couldn’t see the seat belt latch, and he couldn’t afford to waste time trying to feel for it. So Baxley pulled out his pocketknife and sliced through the belt in one motion—a textbook example of calmly making and executing a decision under pressure. 

“Drill sergeants always say, ‘Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.’ You try not to get too worked up,” Baxley says. “Just do what you need to do and get out of the way. If you panic, nothing’s going to get taken care of.”

After Baxley cut the belt, Alex still couldn’t move. Baxley told him, “This is going to hurt, buddy, but we’ve got to go,” and yanked him out of the van to safety. A woman in another car was dead when Baxley got to her.

Baxley eventually left the scene to go to work. When he got there, he noticed blood on his hand. He had used that hand to protect Alex’s face when he sliced through the seat belt, and he cut it on the follow-through.

His body was so full of adrenaline, he never even felt it.

Unfamiliar Territory
Baxley’s experience sounds like something a Soldier might train for. Certainly in Iraq and Afghanistan, troops have pulled each other out of mangled Humvees regularly. 

Across a broad spectrum of scenarios, the Army has worked tirelessly to create something called “simulator fidelity”—training that mirrors real life as closely as possible. “We push the fidelity to new levels, whether it’s pixel density, or realistic representations of the rate at which the turret spins, or the smell that would actually come out of an individual with a horrible wound,” Grossman says. “The more realistic it is, the greater the stress inoculation you create.”

Soldiers often excel even in high-pressure scenarios for which they’ve had no specific training. The more difficult situations troops experience, the better they get at handling them. The details don’t matter so much as the raw exposure to trauma. When the average civilian is dropped smack in the middle of a full-on emergency—a child drowning in a pool, a gunman on the loose, a stranger bleeding in the street—the newness, the unfamiliarity of the experience is a shock to their system. It’s not that they don’t want to help or don’t know that helping is the right thing to do, but they can’t think how or can’t will their body to cooperate with their brain. They haven’t been conditioned to perform under catastrophic circumstances.

But Soldiers have, through realistic training, actual combat or a combination of both. And that makes all the difference. “Their long-term exposure to multiple life-threatening, stressful events certainly contributes to their ability to deal with that one instant [as a civilian],” Bowling says. “It’s like push-ups. If you’ve done a lot of push-ups, then when you have to do them for a PT test, it’s easier for you to cope with.”

In addition to the hormone epinephrine, a body that experiences a crisis situation produces an amino acid called neuropeptide Y, or NPY, which helps the body control blood pressure and memory. NPY also controls the way a brain handles fear and alarm, acting like a natural tranquilizer and facilitating clearheaded decision-making. Like epinephrine, it is also related to the vasoconstriction of blood vessels during an emergency. 

In 2009, Dr. Andy Morgan of Yale Medical School conducted a study of NPY that examined Special Forces Soldiers undergoing the extreme stresses of SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) School training, where Soldiers face POW-like conditions. During mock interrogations, their heart rates rose to more than 170 beats per minute. Morgan found that the SF Soldiers’ brains produced significantly higher levels of NPY than the brains of other Soldiers. 

In August 2014, Utah Army National Guard Sergeant Adam Kelley saved three people from a burning airplane—a scenario for which he had never trained. As it turned out, though, the emergency was a perfect application of his training.

While stopped at a red light in West Jordan, UT, Kelley saw a Piper single-engine plane taking off from a nearby regional airport. A pilot himself, he recognized that the plane was struggling to gain altitude, and he watched it crash in a soccer field. The light was still red, but Kelley mashed the gas and burst through the intersection.

As he drove, he called 911. The operator instructed him to stay away from the plane—an order that directly contradicted one of the most fundamental Soldier rules: Never leave a fallen comrade behind. At RTAC, Orsi prepares his troops for similar situations by constantly second-guessing them; it’s his way of testing their confidence. The 911 operator was a real-life second-guesser. With a life-or-death scenario unfolding in front of him, Kelley says there was no way he was going to stand idly by, no matter what the operator said. “By the time [emergency responders] got there,” he says, “everyone would have been burned alive.”

Kelley tossed his phone to a civilian on the scene. “You talk to them,” he said, as he rushed toward the burning plane. Although he had never been trained how to respond to a plane crash, in the next few minutes, Kelley applied training in a wide array of disciplines, from clear thinking under stress to medical decisions to leadership skills. (Side note: Asked if his training as a combat engineer helped, he laughs and says, “I didn’t need to blow the plane up.”) 

When Kelley arrived at the plane, he introduced himself to the three people trapped inside as he worked to free them. It sounds strange in the retelling. (“Hi, I’m Sergeant Kelley. I’m going to pull you from this burning plane so you don’t die.”) But he knew from his medical training that people who have suffered a brain injury—as he suspected the plane’s passengers had—react in unpredictable ways, so he tried to make them comfortable with his presence.

“We train, we train and we train,” Bowling says. “We learn how to control physiological stressors on our bodies. That allows us to think about those second- and third-order effects. Otherwise, you can only focus on the task at hand.”

The first person he rescued was a woman who said her back hurt, and Kelley guessed (correctly) that all three had severe back injuries. As he dragged each to safety, he carefully supported their heads so as not to exacerbate their injuries. He placed them behind vehicles, a response influenced largely by his combat experience. Kelley put the first victim behind his truck, which he had strategically parked so he could use it as a shield. “If the plane exploded, my truck would get hurt, but she wouldn’t,” he says.

Within seconds of Kelley delivering the last person to safety, flames engulfed the plane. Asked how he had the presence of mind under such a high-pressure situation to be cognizant of the victims’ injuries and to put them somewhere safe, he said all of it was a direct result of his National Guard service, both his training and his two combat deployments. Even getting screamed at by a drill sergeant helps. “It numbs your system to outside influences so you can stay focused,” Kelley says.

Mind Over Matter
Unlike Kelley, other Guard Soldiers encounter scenarios in their civilian lives for which they have prepared precisely. Such was the case in December 2015, when California Army National Guard Sergeant First Class Michael Long watched the car ahead of him launch over an embankment, fly 75 feet into the air and land in a lake.

Long had been trained, and even trained other Soldiers, in water rescue. When he arrived at the water’s edge, he fought the urge to immediately dive in and start swimming. He could see that the woman driving the car was not yet in life-threatening danger, and he knew that if he and others entered the water too soon, there might be more than just the driver to rescue. This was an application of both very specific training and his experience in Iraq. “I learned that when I deployed—not everyone out of the vehicle at once, right?” he says. “When you’re downrange, you don’t put out the whole convoy.”

Long waited for police to arrive so there would be people to help when he got back to shore. It was only a minute or two. Along with a police officer and an Air Force Veteran, he swam to the car and was the first to reach the woman. The water was freezing; he knew she was in shock. He asked her name (Tessa), and then used it repeatedly as he assured her he was going to save her. “Tessa, I’ve got you. You are not going to drown in this car, Tessa,” he told her. “Afterward, she told me that’s what calmed her down.”

Long’s obvious confidence allowed him to take command of the situation. “It exudes to other people,” he says. “She was confident I was going to get her out of there.”  

After the police officer broke the window and pulled her out, Long put Tessa on his back and swam her to shore, where more than a few witnesses had watched.  Asked why he helped when they didn’t, Long barely understands the question. A better question would be how could he not jump in the water.

“I get to wear the flag on my shoulder every day,” he says. “You can’t wear the flag on your shoulder and not help.”

Embedding the Edge
Now back to the gas station, where Marchand and Black encountered the violent assault. The best training instills in Guard Soldiers a “been there, done that” confidence like the kind Long had. It allows them not only to engage in a dangerous situation but also to believe they will be successful in resolving it. 

Combat experience greatly amplifies that confidence, and both Black and Marchand are combat Vets (Black went to Iraq in 2003–04, and Marchand in 2004–05). “After my deployment, nothing scares me anymore,” Black says. “I’ve been sniped at, my ambulance has been blown up. I’m still here. God has a purpose for me. There’s no point in being scared.”

Two young men beating up another was nothing compared to fighting the Taliban. At least that’s what Black was thinking, and studies show his belief in his own ability to manage the situation helped him do so. One reason Orsi makes training hard as hell is so Soldiers will encounter something in the real world and say, “This sucks, but it doesn’t suck as bad as Ranger School.” 

As they jumped out of the truck, Marchand and Black exchanged a look that said, Let’s go, we got this.

At its simplest level, training gives you skills you didn’t have before. You learn to crawl first, then walk. By the time you’re running, your training—repetitive, intense and at times demoralizing—allows you to use those skills without thinking about them. Marchand pulled out his pistol (for which he has a permit), chambered a round and pointed it—exactly as he had done thousands of times, both during Guard training and in international shooting competitions designed to test him in high-stress situations. 

Here’s the thing, though: Marchand doesn’t remember doing any of it. He had trained with that pistol so often that he handled it properly without even knowing he was doing it, which is exactly the point of training. 

“What we intend to do when we train Soldiers is get them to a point where the training becomes their new instinct,” Bowling says. “When they were civilians and would see something happen, their instinct was to get away from the danger. What we’re doing is changing that with enough repetitions that they now instantly react. They don’t even think about it; they just act.”

Both Marchand and Black shouted at the man to drop his weapon—once, twice, three times. He didn’t. Standing to the man’s left, Marchand lined up a shot on his ear. He was waiting, as recent training on rules of engagement and rules of force had taught him, until he had no choice but to fire. 

Fearing the attacker would kill his victim, Marchand started to pull the trigger—slowly, calmly, like he had thousands of times before. He knows that pistol by feel, and he felt the telltale signs of the impending shot. Suddenly, the man put his hand up. Marchand removed his finger from the trigger, and the man dropped his weapon, saving his own life by fractions of a second. 

Black, too, experienced the benefits of training. When he was in firefights on deployment, he says, he got tunnel vision (a Condition Gray symptom, as mentioned earlier), focusing only on whoever was shooting at him and losing contact with the world around him. Not so that day at the gas station. 

Imagine a box around the encounter. Marchand and Black stood at opposite corners of it with the fight in the center. As if it was taking place on a compound in Iraq instead of a Shell station in Cabot, AR, Black scanned his entire 180-degree sector, making sure the only threat was directly in front of him. 

He was clearheaded enough to intentionally stand between the fight and the people pumping gas. “We knew those kids weren’t going to hurt us. We were more concerned with all the innocents around,” Black says.

Black picked up the weapon the assailant had dropped and cleared it—a simple enough task that many, if not most, civilians would not have performed due to either a lack of know-how or presence of mind. 

Black then pulled out his cellphone to call 911 … and found he couldn’t make his fingers do what his brain wanted them to do. He was experiencing vasoconstriction, and the lack of blood flow meant Black couldn’t coordinate his fingers enough to press the buttons on the phone.

Why could Marchand pull out his pistol, chamber a round and point it when Black couldn’t dial 911? Why could Black survey the “battlefield,” take up a strategic position and clear a weapon but not make a simple phone call? The answer to both questions is the same: training. Marchand had practiced pulling and aiming his pistol countless times under duress. And Black knew from experience how to handle a hostile enemy, but he had never trained to call 911 under any circumstances. 

After a few unsuccessful attempts, Black gave up; he shouted for someone else to make the call, and he looked around and saw five or six people do so. When police arrived a minute or so later, Marchand placed his pistol on a nearby ice machine and raised his hands to indicate he wasn’t a threat. 

“The police came over and talked to us,” Black says. “They wanted to know, ‘Where did you learn to take charge like that? Are you guys in the military or something?’ ”


PERFORMING UNDER PRESSURE

1. Threat verified. When facing danger, a Soldier’s heart rate skyrockets and his or her adrenaline spikes. The body experiences side effects that are  absent when the heart rate rises due to exercise: tunnel vision, diminished hand-eye coordination, cognitive difficulties and even loss of bladder control. But some physical abilities, such as strength and speed, are enhanced.

2. Training kicks in. The more often a Soldier has been exposed to psychological stress, the better he or she will handle it, especially if there is a  correlation between the Soldier’s training and the high-stress event. The body reacts without the Soldier thinking about it. This “muscle memory” advantage is the essence of training.

3. Overcoming fear. Under extreme stress, the brain releases neuropeptide Y, an amino acid that dulls some of the negative effects of a rapid heart rate. This “stress inoculation” appears to kick in even if the Soldier has never trained for the specific incident he or she is facing. It’s like muscle memory for stress.

4. Time for action. The best training allows Soldiers to perform effectively despite an onslaught of stress. A heart rate between 115 and 145 beats per minute is the sweet spot. The combination of physical, mental and psychological training converge, enabling a Soldier to operate at peak efficiency even during situations fraught with danger.


A PHENOMENON OF FEARLESSNESS
When Citizen-Soldiers take off their uniforms, they don’t shed the mantle of responsibility that comes with the job. Here are a handful of examples of heroic acts performed by off-duty Guard members:

Oct. 15, 2011: New York SGT Martin Gonzalez helps rescue two injured men trapped inside a collapsed building.

Oct. 13, 2013: Missouri Guard PVT Matthew Duncan stabilizes two victims of a serious wreck, one of whom had been ejected from her vehicle.

Jan. 12, 2014: Three Soldiers from the Kentucky Army Guard pull the unconscious driver of a burning SUV to safety following a horrific accident. 

February 2014: Louisiana CPT Andrew Gremillion (right) risks his life to save a woman trapped inside a car sinking in a canal.

March 15, 2014: Oklahoma SGT Kevin Painter stops a knife attack on a pregnant woman, then provides first aid that saves the lives of her and her unborn child. 

Aug. 10, 2014: After witnessing the crash of a single-engine plane, Utah SGT Adam Kelley rescues all three people on board from the burning wreckage. 

Oct. 2, 2014: Minnesota SGT David Baxley frees a young driver trapped in a burning minivan after a deadly head-on collision. 

Nov. 5, 2014: New York SSG Marlana Watson saves the lives of two teenage boys shot in the street outside her home. 

July 28, 2015: 1SG Micah Marchand and SFC Lance Black of the Arkansas Guard stop an armed assault outside a crowded gas station.

Aug. 21, 2015: Along with two of his friends, Oregon SPC Alek Skarlatos takes down a terrorist attacker on a Paris-bound train. 

Oct. 18, 2015: California SPC Jesse Hernandez rescues 42 people trapped aboard a burning charter bus. 

Dec. 6, 2015: New Hampshire SSG Mark Hickey saves a woman in a burning, overturned car, using a bottle of soda to put out the fire. 

Dec. 30, 2015: When a car plunges into a lake, California SFC Michael Long swims out to it and returns its driver safely to shore.

Jan. 8, 2016: Oregon SPC Jonathan Sweeney thwarts the attempted kidnapping of an 18-month-old girl, holding the suspect at bay until police arrive. 

July 25, 2016: Four Massachusetts Guard Soldiers save an 87-year-old New Jersey woman who had been stranded in the woods for two days without food or water after her car got stuck in sand.