Nathaniel stirred restlessly anticipating the battle yet to begin outside the tiny landing craft. Looking back and forth to the other Marines, he felt no sense of ease. They were each lost to their own rituals. Some were lost in studying maps, some lost to prayer, while others were lost in slumber. He had yet to discover his own pre-battle ritual, his own mental cleansing process. He was losing himself to his thoughts. He was giving into looming fears born in the imagination that overtake a virgin warfighter on the eve of mortal confrontation.
The tiny cabin began to contract on him. He felt like the gear on top of him was growing heavier, and closer, and hotter. His breathing became sharper as his thoughts became less clear. His heart was pounding and cold sweat began forming in his helmet. He felt this before in training, during his Survival and Escape exercises, during the work ups for this deployment. He knew that if he didn’t get control of the sensation, his biometric alarms would start sounding and Williams would be on him to see what was wrong. He couldn’t let the team see him gripped in panic. He couldn’t allow himself to let it get that far.
He had to control himself.
“Take a breath.”
He heard a voice inside his head. It was like that time in the forest months ago. During SERE, he had what some might call a psychotic episode. Brought on by exhaustion and the stress of the escape training in the deep woods, he believed he had a conversation with his rifle. It was good that his comms were down in his helmet at the time, or the base docs might not have cleared him to be on this mission tonight. Hearing voices isn’t usually considered a good thing for Marines.
Was that it? Was he going crazy? Was the stress getting to him? Was he going to lose it right here on the boat?
“Breathe.” It was the voice of Gunny Yafante.
No, this wasn’t like before. This wasn’t some hallucination. He was remembering what their Gunny had said before.
“Take a breath,” he had told them all many times, “when you need to think, when everything is happening to you too fast, the best thing you can do for yourself is focus on your breathing.”
It was advice intended to calm the mind, the trigger finger in the heat of the moment. He taught it to them to prevent the onset of panic when surrounded by enemy fire, not so much while still safe in the fighting vehicles. It didn’t really matter though. Romero wouldn’t see that combat if he didn’t take the lesson now.
“Your body is made for combat,” the lesson continued. “When one’s ‘fight or flight’ response is triggered, the nervous system begins shutting down things it doesn’t need, like salivation and digestion, while at the same time increasing the production of adrenaline. You don’t want to hit this too early though. Once the action is over, your body experiences what is called a parasympathetic backlash, the body attempting to calm down. Depending on how long you held your adrenal high, this backlash can be severe. Marines fighting for hours find themselves exhausted and falling asleep when bad guys are still crawling all over. They do this because they have burned off all their adrenaline.”
Romero wasn’t worried about the parasympathetic backlash. Not that he was completely aware of it yet, but he was still overloaded with the adrenal high.
“Secondly, your heart will betray you. It gets to pumping faster and faster. There is a zone of cardiac excitement when a fighter is alert and energized, better than they could ever be in controlled conditions or at rest. You want that. That little bit of fear makes you a better warrior, not for some philosophical nonsense, but because your body is a machine, bred for billions of years to survive the fear. A little adrenaline makes the body better, embrace it.”
While he may not be embracing it just yet, he was definitely in the midst of that sensation right now.
“But a heart rate increase in response to fear comes with deteriorating motor skills and a reduction in senses like vision and hearing. You’re gonna’ need to keep your wits about you. Eventually, your brain’s cognitive capabilities degrade to a point combat psychologists call, ‘Condition Black.’ Condition Black is that point when your heart rate goes beyond 175 beats per minute, because of that overload of adrenaline and stress. You’ll experience vasoconstriction, the tightening of the blood vessels, and less air is able to get to the brain. The mid-brain, the animal brain, takes over. That’s where our understanding of complex battle maneuvers goes out the window. How to call in a 9-Line Evac, call for fire, how to operate our combat computers or take a well-aimed shot at the max effective range for the M-4, all rational thought just vanishes in a cloud of chemically induced perspiration.”
Recounting the lesson, sweat beaded on Romero’s brow and dripped off his nose. It landed on the hard Kevlar lining of his visor, where it danced from his exhale of short, choppy breaths.
“We don’t fight in Condition Black. You gotta’ remember to breathe.”
As the words began to sink in, Romero slowly inhaled through his nose, filling his lungs, and holding it in.
“You control your breathing to control where your heart rate stays. Too much heart rate and you panic, not enough and you have no situational awareness. You take a deep breath Marines, but you gotta’ do it slow. You start off by breathing in, through your nose, while counting to four. 1-2-3-4… Then you hold it in another four count. 1-2-3-4. Then release just as slow, through the mouth, 1-2-3-4. After that, you wait for another count of four and start the cycle over. A few cycles and your breathing will counteract the effects of vasoconstriction, so that you can think smooth again while holding on to all those other animal impulses conducive to combat survival.”
Romero continued breathing as he was trained.
In 1-2-3-4… Hold 1-2-3-4… Out 1-2-3-4… Hold 1-2-3-4.
He repeated the exercise again, and then a third time. On the third cycle, he could feel his heart pounding less. He could feel sensation again in his fingertips, which he hadn’t remembered losing. Then he started to feel warm. On his fourth cycle, his intake caught an aroma which triggered memories held deep within him, those that had brought him to this moment.
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