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Unusual physiological reactions to combat

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  • Unusual physiological reactions to combat

    Something Robert said on the thread devoted to his experiences sparked this thread.

    What kind of unusual physiological reactions to battle did you or others around you experience?

    Some of the more commonly noted reactions to sudden, extreme fear are freezing or soiling onself. Behavioural pyschologists speculate that these reactions are hard-wired into our psyches from primal times: If one was being stalked by a predator, one reaction was to freeze (the eye catches movement) or to soil oneself (the smell of which, will hopefully put off the would-be carnivore).

    Then we have more "useful" reactions such as events moving in slow-motion, ie the brain, at times of extreme stress, moves into overdrive. Others, anticipating death, see their life "flashing before their eyes" (or more accurately, their memory banks).

    I wonder what kind of reactions veterans here had to combat?

    I'd be interested in hearing details of anything, from magnified senses (vision, sense of smell, etc) though to out-of-body experiences. Also what your post-battle reaction was, once these unusual sensations faded.

    For the record, I would add that my reason for asking these questions is related to a publishing project on the Korean War (not Vietnam). However, some aspect of combat experience are universal, so any veterans willing to discuss such subjects would be of interest to me to help me organize my thoughts, and this forum is particularly well-populated by combat veterans.

    Many thanks in advance for any replies.
    A massive attack...a brigade against an army...three nights of unforgettable tragedy.
    Sixty years later, the full story is told at last:

  • #2
    There are about as many responses to combat as there are people then multiply that by the number of different types of instances where the same people may react differently and you got a whole bunch of stuff going on.

    Training takes care of a lot of those reactions in that people are taught how to react which overcomes their initial personal reaction (Throw away gun, run like hell and scream at the top of your lungs). But, until you have been in combat you cannot percieve what is the 'fog of war' and how it really is. Likewise until you endure it you can be pretty sure of what you'll do but not positive. The same hold trues for your buddies, I can't tell you how many times my opinion changed on people, both good & bad after I went through radical life & death measures with them.

    My personal reaction? First, duck & figure out what the heck is going on. Then react. It pays to think about what you're doing rather than to do what your adrenaline says to do. That's one thing combat veterans learn to do, control their adrenaline so it doesn't overflood their system and react foolishly.

    Then there's what we called the 'pucker factor' based on a scale of 1 to 10. 1 was stumbling and falling on your face, 10 was an artillery barrage coming in all pointed at you. The 'pucker factor' of course had to do with your spinchter.

    Myself? I never got a medal for heroism, nor did I ever deserve one. But, I did what needed to be done when it needed to be done so I can look at myself in the mirror.

    I had a friend of mine written up in LIFE about when he earned a Silver Star. I told him that I hadn't realized he was that heroic. His response was that he wasn't heroic, he just did what needed to be done to stay alive.
    "If you are right, then you are right even if everyone says you are wrong. If you are wrong then you are wrong even if everyone says you are right." William Penn.


    • #3
      This is where training comes into action. We all have the flight or fight response as part of our nervous system. The most natural reaction is to get the hell away from danger. Training helps one to overcome this. As a firefighter after my military service was completed, it was the same. It takes training to run into a burning building while everyone is running out. Combat is no different - your life is on the line.

      This being said, your first experience is a hairy one. My heart was beating so hard that it affected my hearing, seeing, and breathing. I was sure the enemy could hear my heart beating. Some mentioned that their vision narrowed. Never saw anyone sh!t their pants but saw one **** himself.

      The after effects was the shakes real bad and extreme exhaustion - no doubt from nervous energy expended.
      "War is hell, but actual combat is a motherf#cker"
      - Col. David Hackworth


      • #4

        Unlike so many here, I was barely in the Army long enough for a cup of coffee (28 months), and only in an actual combat zone for five months. I saw very little action, other than the two days when I got wounded. So I do not have a whole lot of experience with this.

        I already mentioned my imaginary out of body experience, which couldn’t possibly have happened. I often wondered if that was an implanted memory from hearing people talk while I was semi-comatose. But I did have one extraordinary experience prior to my head wounds, so I can’t blame it on that.

        A B-40 rocket, apparently with my name on it, landed perhaps 20 feet in front of me and failed to detonate. It then skipped up into the air, slowly twirling like a baton. After about a minute just hanging there, it returned to earth, even closer to me. Again it failed to detonate. Okay, maybe it wasn’t up there defying gravity spinning for a full minute, but it sure seemed like it to me. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

        Now to dispute a popular myth: “There are no atheists in foxholes.”

        The first time I got wounded was only a flesh wound, but the American with me took the “See ya, wouldn’t want to be ya” attitude and left me. I was able to deal with the situation so I did not think the end was at hand. But the second time I got wounded I “knew” that it was curtains because I was wounded so severely and no friendlies knew where I was. As I was awaiting my final breath, I never thought about God, faith, spirituality or anything along those lines. I did not think about my family, friends or anyone else but myself. My past did not flash before my eyes. I just accepted my death and simply thought to myself, “That sucked.”

        As for PTSD, I did indeed have serious issues with bad dreams. Every night, for which I remembered my dreams, from June 20, 1969 through June 19, 2003, I had the same recurring dream. I understand that even while I was unconscious I was making noises like I was reliving that experience.

        As I mentioned in another thread, I nearly ran out of ammunition once. It was the night that I was severely wounded. As the SFers on this forum will attest, we on A-teams had ammo propositioned at strategic locations throughout our defensive trench line. Because of that, I went out with only four magazines. I know, dumb mistake, but I already mentioned that I could be a bit of a dud at times. By the time that I was ready to resupply my ammo, I had been severely wounded in both legs, the knees in particular. I could not cover the few feet needed for a resupply. I felt like an idiot that was about to die from his own foolishness.

        My recurring nightmare was always the same. It would start with watching the people die that I was unable to save. I would then get severely wounded and run out of ammunition. Finally Sir Charles would come over to finish me off. Just as I was about to get killed, I would wake up, scared to death. Far more afraid than I was when I got wounded. I would often lay in bed for hours; too afraid to fall back to sleep because the bad guys were there waiting for me.

        I went to the Department of Veterans Affairs for treatment for this, but nothing helped. The dreams persisted.

        Fortunately for me I have a daughter that is a whole lot smarter than her old man. In the winter of 2002-2003 she called me up one day and asked me to take her to Viet Nam – take her to Bunard. I wanted nothing to do with Viet Nam and figured that it would be the last place on earth I would ever visit. But unfortunately, perhaps fortunately, the word “No” is not in my Daddy Dictionary. We started planning a trip.

        She was working on a Masters’ degree at the time, so the trip would have to wait until the end of the semester. It never occurred to me about the date. In fact, I never gave the date any consideration at all. So in early June my little girl and I headed to Thailand. In Bangkok we contacted the Vietnamese Embassy to arrange visas. Once that was out of the way, we caught the next thing smoking for Saigon.

        In Saigon I met a chick that was a bit of a local celebrity. Her name was Gang. She was the talking head on the Saigon TeeVee station’s 6 p.m. and 11p.m. news, plus hosted a Saturday morning kids’ show. She was a sweetheart and really interested in our quest. She offered up her personal car and driver to take us out to Bunard the very next day. Understand that my daughter was born solely because I was sent home from the war several months early and promptly knocked up her mother. That would not have happened had I not been wounded and completed my tour of duty.

        Once out at Bunard, as I stood there with my arms around my little girl, I finally noticed what a beautiful place it was. There were crops growing everywhere (I had been a farmer), children were running around playing (I have a bunch of children, plus was foster parent to a bunch more). Other than the runway, there was no sign of the war from so long ago. It was at that moment that I realized that it was only a few hours short of being exactly 34 years to the day from when I got wounded – that night was the anniversary. It was as though someone was pulling my strings. So there I stood facing the demons in my closet, only to discover that there really weren’t any demons left.

        Going to sleep that night, June 19, 2003, was perhaps my most frightening experience since that night in 1969. Again, after 34 years, I dreamt of Bunard. Only this time there were children running around, crops growing, and I was there with my daughter. Sure, I still dream of Viet Nam from time to time. But I look forward to those dreams. They are all positive experiences. Sometimes I even dream that I am there with my teammates, showing them what a wonderful place it is.

        I have been back to Viet Nam two more times since that trip with my daughter, just not back to Bunard. But I hope to get back to Bunard real soon. Nearly two years ago I got married, but my bride and I have not yet been able to take our honeymoon because we have an old dog requiring constant attention, so we have to stay close to home. But as soon as he passes, we are taking our long delayed honeymoon. We are going to that garden spot, Bunard, Viet Nam. Where else?

        The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated ~ Mark Twain


        • #5
          The key word in this thread being unusual responses, I had none myself. I think mine wre rather usual. But we did have a lieutenant in the MIKE Force whose reaction was unusual. He had been on an A Team out of Qui Nhon, and his reaction to his first contact was to 'freeze up'. After he did it a few more times, they transferred him out. He volunteered for the MIKE Force, and on his first contact there, did the same. He actively sought combat, but once the shooting started he couldn't function. So he was pulled back to be our S-4. One day, someone who had been in the Qui Nhon B team came through and stopped in our bar for drinks. When he learned that the lieutenant was with us, he began badmouthing him as a coward. That really pissed off one of our more aggressive NCOs, who knocked the visitor off his bar stool and ran him out of the compound. In our book, any man who couldn't function under fire was dangerous, but not a coward. A coward was someone who shunned combat and found ways to avoid it. We had a lieutenant on A-502 who fit that description exactly. And not everyone functions the same every single time. It doesn't always have to be the first contact. One of our most decorated sergeants failed for a few minutes when a medevac ship he was loading someone up on came under fairly close .51 cal ground fire that put a few rounds through the cabin. He's gone around carrying that burden for 41 years. Yet all his old Yank and Aussie comrades still judge him as one of the very best to be in a firefight with.
          dit: Lirelou

          Phong trần mài một lưỡi gươm, Những loài giá áo túi cơm sá gì!


          • #6
            Originally posted by lirelou View Post
            In our book, any man who couldn't function under fire was dangerous, but not a coward. A coward was someone who shunned combat and found ways to avoid it.
            Of course.
            Dirige domine cor meum in prelio et doce manus in bello


            • #7
              I've been trying to figure how to post within this thread. It's very difficult to determine what is UNUSUAL ("different strokes for different folks"). I've previously posted elsewhere, that each individual may or may not react the same why when "contact" is made. Each person is tested, each and every time one comes under fire. Some folks are consistent and some folks are a question mark?????? Troops within a unit quickly latch on to and depend upon the "consistent" folks.

              I've also previously discussed what I felt was the difference between being afraid and/or scared, and/or having FEAR overcome one's functional capabilities. FEAR (not overcame) gets one killed and/or gets others killed, and/or can affect (temporarily or permanently) one's psychic.

              Individual "temper" (if not controlled) results in "madness" (another psychic condition). Two times in Vietnam I lost my temper - got MAD and "manhandled" two different enlisted men in my Platoon (a NO-NO for an Officer). Once on patrol when a troop did something dumb/stupdid (can't remember what now); anyway in the middle of the jungle I picked that so-and-so up by his shirt and pinned him up about a foot off the ground against a tree and verbally chewed his arz out and threatend him (I never again had a problem with that troop). The other time (with a different, seasoned, excellent troop) we were caught in an ambush and this troop was curled up sideways in a protective ball on the ground (in a "fetus" position) cradling his rifle between his legs and crying like a baby. I needed him to help fight back in order to break through the ambush "kill zone". I got MAD - I just kicked and yelled at him repeatedly until he started functioning again (he apparently FEARED me more than the enemy). Literally this is the "boot of leadership and command" - it worked.

              I've always felt bad about the above two different incidents - I question if I could have handled the situations differently (NAAAAH! Not my nature - you see I have a "temper").

              More on FEAR...

              I, along with about 1500 other troops came over on a boat to Vietnam (22 days at sea mentally contemplating our future upon arrival). Here is an extract from a previous posting of mine (link to post within thread follows)...

              One officer that debarked couldn’t handle the thought of war and his eventual participation there off. He had the shakes and couldn’t continue. They immediately turned him around and placed him back onto the ship.

              Before going to OCS (Infantry Officer Candidate School) I was in Germany. Received my orders to OCS and boarded a Plane (with my family) to the states. Another individual (Mark) I met on the Plane with his family was also going to my same OCS class. We both had about 10yrs of enlisted service; he, I, and our family members became friends. He and I were in the same Platoon at OCS - we both received our 2nd Lt. Commissions on the same date. Anyway during OCS (at Ft. Benning, they had snakes) and I found out that Mark FEARED snakes. Advance in time about a year and my wife wrote me and told me that Mark had been relieved of duty as a Platoon Leader in Vietnam and was now back in the rear as a Supply Officer. My wife also wanted me to be relieved in order to get out of danger (LOL). I never knew the reason why Mark was relieved - I ASS-U-MED that he couldn't handle the snakes. He was, IMO, a good officer and leader of men - don't think he failed in his leadership role. Think he couldn't overcome his FEAR! Career ruined - last I heard he was a Sgt somewhere - lost track of him.

              Another major cause that affects "the psychic" is ADRENALIN! Man what a powerful thing. In Combat this is a life saver and/or a life taker. When your adrenalin is so high you feel like Superman - you can leap tall buildings, run faster than a speeding train, and stop bullets. Anyway, I felt like Superman when in firefights and/or under attack. Upon knowing/suspecting your under attack, the natural thing (for survival) is to "duck and hit the dirt". Once your bearings are established then you start thinking and reacting. During this very, very short period of time (a couple of seconds or so) your adrenalin builds (typically called "a rush") - then the decisions and actions guide you. Now when the chit is over, each person winds down a different way - most all shake, some cry, a lot just cuss. I did all except cry, which was replaced with attempting to lite a cig. that was shaking so much I had difficulty in lighting the sucker, followed with a lot more cussing and a few "thank you Lord".

              Had a Platoon Sgt. that couldn't shake the "shakes" after a few Bu Dop battles - he was sent back to the rear - never seen him again.

              My psychic was affected each time we came under contact; however when I was shot thru the chest and seen a big ass hole in it and blood coming out like crazy. I either said the following out loud and/or silently "f'k she's going to collect 80K!" My troops thought I was a goner (so did I) ROFLOL! Fooled everybody including me.

              Do I have dreams re: Vietnam - sure, nightmares NO. Do I think about Vietnam - sure. Does it make me ineffective - NOPE!

              As ussfa344 says "Life is Good".

              1st ID, 1/28th '67/'68 Phouc Vinh & Quan Loi
              Skirmishes Bu Dop Dec-67, An My, Thu Duc Feb-68
              Plt. Ldr - CIB, Purple Hearts, Silver Star
              What we write can be considered to be a reflection of our SOUL providing others to know our CHARACTER.


              • #8
                Unusual reactions: the most interesting ones I have seen were hysterical conversion reactions, in which fear or other strong emotions were converted into some sort of disability. Members who watched Band of Brothers saw one in the young trooper who went "blind" temporarily.

                I saw a couple of troops go temporarily "deaf" after hearing wounded men screaming, and one guy who couldn't walk after a firefight - his legs literally would not function.

                All of these cases regained full function at some point afterward.


                • #9

                  Many thanks indeed for some honest (and some very personal) responses, there is much for me to mull on here.

                  Did any of you come across incidents concerning premonitions of death/loss? My research throws these up time and again, but in the cases of those who survived, one can't help wondering if they were speaking with the benefit of hindsight.

                  I also wonder how (or, if..?) you tried to gauge, in advance, the likely reactions of men in combat?

                  One school of thought holds that men who are good at team sports - rugby, football (US or English), even cricket - will do well; another holds that men who are good at combat sports - wrestling, boxing, combatives, etc - Would be interested to hear your opinions on this. (Oddly, the latter theory is disputed by the ancient Greeks, one of whom opined that Pankrationists and boxers were poor soldiers; a 17th century Chinese general also made the point that village martial artists were poor material for the front line.)
                  A massive attack...a brigade against an army...three nights of unforgettable tragedy.
                  Sixty years later, the full story is told at last:


                  • #10
                    Originally posted by Andy_S View Post
                    Did any of you come across incidents concerning premonitions of death/loss?
                    Personally, no premonitions here, except that I was not going to get killed (I promised my wife that). I feel that anyone that had negative premonitions as you mentioned, really couldn't function properly. heeheehee The Military uses YOUNG foolish "roosters" that think they are the best, are not going to get killed, and are willing to charge a machine gun!

                    Most of the time one has no control on what may or may not happen to them at any given time (Combat or not). You are either going to get killed or not - you don't have much control as to when and where, unless you more or less plan it. Combat equates to being in the right place at the right time in order to live; and/or being in the wrong place at the wrong time to get killed.

                    I also wonder how (or, if..?) you tried to gauge, in advance, the likely reactions of men in combat?
                    Everyone's peers, subordinates, and superiors are constantly judging each others capabilities. As a Leader, your job is to determine the fitness and capabilities of your charges. One observes and hopes he determines the quality of the men around him correctly. If you think an individual is going to get someone killed (himself and/or someone else) you take appropriate action. As I stated before, each individual is tested each and every time contact is made.

                    I don't believe that being an athlete has anything to do with successful soldiering. Military Basic training "hopefully" weeds out uncoordinated folks along with unmotivated folks. This training also builds self-confidence and enough body strength to perform the needed task. The training also builds "espre-de-corps" (sp???), pride and SKILLS. Once in Combat, a soldier learns very quickly the words "team work" (i.e. the guys around you are the ones you depend on for your life - and they also depend on you to function).

                    Just my $0.02 worth.

                    1st ID, 1/28th '67/'68 Phouc Vinh & Quan Loi
                    Skirmishes Bu Dop Dec-67, An My, Thu Duc Feb-68
                    Plt. Ldr - CIB, Purple Hearts, Silver Star
                    What we write can be considered to be a reflection of our SOUL providing others to know our CHARACTER.


                    • #11
                      Only 1 day while in 'Nam did I think I was going to die. I don't know why, nothing ununual going on that day, I just knew I was going to die from the moment I woke up until I went to sleep. Guess what, I didn't die.

                      Maybe the better question which only the dead can answer is, "Which of you had a premonition that nothing bad was going to happen to you the day you died?"

                      I think that intelligence beats out athletic ability in survival points.

                      While under fire one guys says, "Hey look at that." One guy looks & gets his head blown off, one guy says, "Nah, I'll look later when they quit shooting."

                      A lot it has to do with 'when your number is up it's up'. I've seen good men die and bad men live. No rationale to a lot of it.
                      "If you are right, then you are right even if everyone says you are wrong. If you are wrong then you are wrong even if everyone says you are right." William Penn.


                      • #12
                        Andy - After reflecting on your question here I honestly can say that I never had dreams or premonitions of my impending death but I did often think of what would happen to my family. Would my wife remarry? How would my boys turn out? (one of which was unborn when I left for Vietnam). I often thought of my parents and how they would react at hearing the news. Besides wondering about the ones I loved and their reaction, I never had a 'vision in my mind' of how I would die. Fear - hell yes, I had a healthy dose of this and of dying but nothing specific. I am grateful for this because it wasn't paralyzing for me. On one occasion, and I won't share it the event here, I did freeze up while we were under attack and I sought cover from which I did not come out until the action was over and I never fired a shot in defense. It has bothered me since. I still feel guilty for that one occasion. Sorry to my friends.

                        "War is hell, but actual combat is a motherf#cker"
                        - Col. David Hackworth


                        • #13
                          No premonitions on my part. I always thought I would live until the very end. Then when I thought death was at hand, it did not seem like that big of a deal to me. I was ready.

                          The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated ~ Mark Twain


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