No Man Left Behind tells the stories of men who found themselves in some of the scariest situations imaginable—from being kidnapped by a drug trafficker to crashing in an aircraft behind enemy lines, to walking 150 miles across a desert to flee pursuers. Yet all of them managed to survive their ordeal and make it back home. But how?
Why do some individuals manage to escape harrowing circumstances that would doom most people? By studying the characteristics of survivors and what scientists have learned about human physical and mental performance, it’s possible to identify factors that contribute to survival, and can mean the difference between life and death when someone is confronted with an ordeal. Here are a few of those factors.
Physical ToughnessMany of the survivors in No Man Left Behind were seriously injured during their ordeals, and still managed to survive. When U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency agents Charlie Martinez and Kelley McCullough were abducted in 1982, for example, both men suffered gunshot wounds—McCullough was shot in the hip and neck, and Martinez took bullets in the shoulder and leg. Yet both men continued to fight with their captors and struggled to get away. One important component is the ability to tolerate pain, which researchers believe is at least partly a mind-over-body adaptation. Studies have shown that soldiers wounded in World War II combat actually needed less opioid pain medication compared to civilians with similar injuries.
Watch: Surviving a Hostage SituationAfter being kidnapped and suffering multiple gunshot wounds, DEA Agent Charlie Martinez discusses the surprising strength of the human body in survival mode.
Psychological ResilienceIn a 2014 survey of research about trauma survivors, psychiatrists Dr. Brian M. Iacoviello and Dr. Dennis S. Charney concluded that they possess a mental characteristic called resilience, which they define as “adaptive characteristics of an individual to cope with and recover from adversity.” They found that people who were able to adapt to and overcome difficult situations tended to be optimistic, flexible thinkers with a strong moral compass, and a belief that they can make it through an ordeal. That sort of mindset is exemplified by Navy aviator Charles Klusmann, who was shot down and captured by communist forces in Laos, yet refused to succumb to despair. “When I was in the prison, I sat just trying to think about pleasant things,” he later recalled. “What I would do if I was free. I thought about what it would be like to be home again.”
“When I was in the prison, I sat just trying to think about pleasant things... What I would do if I was free. I thought about what it would be like to be home again.” -Charles Klusmann
Problem-Solving SkillsAll of the mental and physical resolve in the world might not be enough if a person in a dangerous situation doesn’t know what he needs to do to stay alive and escape. It’s no accident that most of the survivors chronicled in No Man Left Behind were military personnel with extensive training that required them to learn how to analyze problems and make difficult decisions under pressure. Training played a major role in SAS soldier Chris Ryan's 200-mile on-foot escape from Iraq, which holds the record for longest escape and evasion in SAS history. In this clip, he reveals how the training he received in the UK's Special Air Service prepared him to survive combat engagements behind enemy lines:
Watch: Surviving a Firefight
In journalist Tom Wolfe’s book about the space program, “The Right Stuff,” he described the disciplined thinking process of test pilots—“I’ve tried A! I’ve tried B! I’ve tried C!” When planes malfunctioned in flight as a “psychological bulwark under stress.” Similarly, when a team of Green Berets found themselves pinned down by insurgents on a mountainside in Afghanistan, their commander devised an unorthodox escape route that involved climbing down a cliff, hanging on to branches and rocks along the way.