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Backpacker Magazine – October 2008
Survivors of the Bataan death march overcame one of history's most grueling walks. What kept them on their feet? and could you do the same? every year, more than 4,000 people hike through the New Mexico desert to find out.
Are survivors born, or made? Maybe both. Montana-bred Ben Steele was brawny and happy. He dropped out of high school to work on ranches. "I was a cowboy and I camped out half my life," he says. "I had a lot of optimism in my upbringing. A lot less bitterness and anger. It got me through the war." At age 16, Abie Abraham broke the world record for sitting in a tree (121 days). Talk about will.
The U.S. Air Force Survival Manual describes the will to survive as "the desire to live despite seemingly insurmountable mental and/or physical obstacles." Tools and training, manuals, schools, TV shows–they only go so far. After that, things become much more visceral and basic: Do you decide to keep going, or not? In the Korean War, prisoners called this give-up-itis, and the syndrome alone is thought to have caused 50 percent of POW deaths. The Dictionary of Psychology describes give-up-itis as "the condition in which a patient loses hope, relinquishes all interest in survival, and eventually dies." The term didn't exist in WWII, but Bataan survivors often evoke the same image: A man gazing into the distance, empty. A man refusing to take another step.
The men who kept walking went through classic stages of survival. First, there's the crisis period: You realize you're in deep shit. Then there's the coping period: You resolve to endure, rather than concede. You think constructively rather than panic. You tolerate pain and you handle fear. Sometimes, you hate or love something so much–enemy soldiers, your wife, your kid–that you persevere. And, a lot of the time, you pray.
Some men already had faith when they started walking, like Frazier: "I knew He walked along with me on the march. He gave me strength to resist the temptation of trying to get water." Some men lost faith as they walked: "When I prayed, there was no result," says Steele. "So I couldn't believe in God–where was He?" And some men found faith the more steps they took. Not God perhaps, but hope.
New research suggests that the Bataan survivors may have had more than faith or luck or happy childhoods. Charles A. Morgan, a professor of psychiatry at Yale University, has spent 15 years examining soldiers in SERE training–Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape–and his research has shown that a soldier's hormone levels affect how he performs under high stress. In a 2000 study in Biological Psychiatry, Morgan showed that highly trained Special Forces soldiers, immediately after military interrogation at the U.S. Army survival school, showed higher levels of a stress-buffering hormone called neuropeptide-Y (NPY) in their systems than non–Special Forces soldiers. NPY works on the prefrontal cortex of the brain to keep you focused on tasks under stress. It's also been associated with resilience, which, in psychology, is defined as an individual's capacity to handle stress–and not end up with mental dysfunction because of it. In another study in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Morgan determined that "stress-hardy" individuals experience less dissociation–or emotional numbing–during acute stress.
The upshot? The will to survive can actually be learned. "You can become more resilient at any point in your lifetime," says Salvatore Maddi, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of Resilience at Work. "What you increase is hardiness–a pattern of attitudes and skills that augment resilience." You learn to stay committed, no matter what. Stay under control. See stress as normal. Problem-solve. You can respond to difficult situations with less adrenaline–and keep your head about you. Later, when I asked Maddi whether the Bataan Memorial Death March made me tougher, he said, "It's a great example of hardiness. Not only did it help you complete the march successfully, but you're using the feedback you obtained to grow in hardiness. It will certainly enhance your resilience in the future." Translation: The next time I climb a fourteener, perhaps I'll find the physical effort less mentally taxing. Or at least be able to handle bigger blisters–for longer.