By Patrick J. Kiger

The Science of Survival

How do some people survive harrowing situations that would doom most others?

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 Toughness

Many 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 Situation

After being kidnapped and suffering multiple gunshot wounds, DEA Agent Charlie Martinez discusses the surprising strength of the human body in survival mode.


Psychological Resilience

In 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 Skills

All 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.

A Sense of Connection

People in difficult situations need a motivation to endure the often grueling hardships and perform the difficult feats required to survive, and one of the most powerful motivations is loyalty to others. U.S. Special Forces solder Mike Durant, sent in to rescue comrades during a raid that had gone wrong in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993, describes how he felt: “You can just sense that absolute increase in the sense of urgency. Guys are surrounded and there’s people coming their way to kill them. There’s a battle going on, and we are going right into the middle of it. Our mission is to take care of those folks and if that means putting my life on the line to do it, I’m gonna do it.”

Watch: Ranger Mentality

Former U.S. Army Rangers Randy Ramaglia and Keni Thomas talk about the Ranger Creed and how it guided their actions during the Battle of Mogadishu.

Strength in the Face of Fear

A survivor must be able to confront a scary situation without panic. Mental health experts say that with enough practice, a person can develop something called “stress inoculation,” which enables him not just to cope with fears though action, but even increase his self-confidence in the process. U.S. pilot Dale Zelko recalls that his prior combat experience—20 missions during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq—had him feeling “very capable, very confident” when he flew a mission over Serbia during the NATO intervention in the Kosovo conflict. That self-confidence enabled him to survive being shot down and evade capture by Serbian forces, until a search-and-rescue team could reach him.

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