How the Science of Fear Makes Soldiers Stronger

The U.S. military turns to science as it seeks new ways to create more resilient fighters and prevent PTSD.

How the Science of Fear Makes Soldiers StrongerPhotograph by Jamie Chung
It’s 2 a.m. on the Navy destroyer USS Trayer, and the air is thick with the smell of fuel and 350 sweaty recruits who have been working too many hours. It’s another long, monotonous shift of routine maintenance when, suddenly, the night is ripped open by the piercing wail of an emergency alarm.

The Trayer is under attack. Explosions rock the ship as fires burn and the anguished cries of the injured fill the air. To escape the flames, the flooding, and the thick smoke, the men and women of the crew scramble through mangled compartments past gruesomely torn bodies. Lights flicker, turbines whine, metal rips, and the relentless scream of the alarm tells everyone what they already know: This is war.

Except it’s not.

As the recruits battle flame and rising waters and treat the wounded, Naval petty officers stand by, observing and evaluating the performance. The officers can remain almost eerily unflustered amid the chaos because the attack, and the ship itself, are simulated.

Dubbed the unluckiest ship in the Navy, the USS Trayer is under siege nearly every day at its mooring in a 90,000-gallon tank inside a cavernous building at the Recruit Training Command in Illinois. This long night of fire and flood—the exercise lasts 12 hours and runs through 17 different scenarios—is the elaborate and exhausting culmination of eight weeks of training. Every year, 37,000 recruits are subjected to the high-tech terror of the Trayer.

“This is supposed to feel real,” says Michael Belanger, PhD, a Navy senior psychologist, who headed the team that designed the $60 million landlocked ship. “This is supposed to scare the recruits.”

Mission accomplished. After his night in hell, Seaman Recruit Colt Bailey emerges from the Trayer weary and streaked with soot. “We were all scared and stressed out,” says Bailey, who boarded the Trayer for training last summer and panicked when he had to step into smoke so thick, he couldn’t see. But the 20-year-old from Eagle, Idaho, fought through his fear and kept going. Weeks of study—how to fight fire, how to move the wounded—had left him more prepared than he knew. “I learned I can trust my training,” he says. “I know there will be other times when it’s real, when it goes a step further, and I’ll be scared. In that moment, I hope I do what I did on the Trayer.”

The military counts on it. Each branch uses high-tech simulations: Battlemind (now called Resilience Training) is an Army and Marine Corps exercise in which troops inside a Humvee experience an IED attack and firefight. These exercises do more than train scared recruits to function amid the chaos and destruction of combat. They also serve as a kind of boot camp introduction to the potentially damaging effects of fear and anxiety. Among the worst of these, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—the crippling constellation of flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and other symptoms—today afflicts some 300,000 combat veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“PTSD is the signature wound of these wars,” says Paul Lester, PhD, an Army research psychologist. And the Department of Defense (DOD) has been waging an all-out offensive against it. Much of the multibranch, billion-dollar effort is focused on developing effective treatments for those already diagnosed. But the DOD also wants to prevent PTSD and has turned to brain science for answers. The ultimate goal: to create more mentally resilient soldiers and sailors, combatants armed with what one DOD-funded researcher calls warrior brains.

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