Dakota Meyer; or who carries the seeds of greatness?

Navy One brought my attention to the fact that America’s 1st Sergeant once served with Medal of Honor winner Dakota Meyer.  I quickly headed over to the link, anticipating some reminiscences about Meyer.  Am’s 1st Sgt didn’t include any.  Instead, he repeated Meyer’s own words, spoken after the fact:

I didn’t think I was going to die, I knew I was. I was just going to keep fighting until they got me. I wasn’t going to sit there and lay down and let them win. That was the only thing on my mind was how to get those guys out. I would’ve done it again.

I was a little disappointed not to learn more about Meyer himself from one who worked closely with him.  This silence on  Am’s 1st Sgt’s part got me wondering what I was expecting to read.

Did I want to hear that, from day one, Meyer was marked by greatness, so that those who served with him felt it was inevitable that he would be awarded the nation’s highest military honor?  Reading things like that helps one come to terms with being ordinary.  “Hey, it’s okay that I’ve never done, nor will ever do, something special.  The ones who do something special are already tagged by God.”

Or perhaps I wanted to hear that Meyer, up until his moment of bravery and self-sacrifice was an ordinary Joe, just another good ol’ boy in the Marines, and that, while everyone liked him, nobody ever expected those vast reserves of raw courage.  That’s also a good one, because it says that, until we are tested, we don’t know who or what we are.  Sure, I’m just a stealth suburban blogger, hiding my true identity from those around me but, if push comes to shove, I too am capable of stepping outside my own fears and limitations.

These aren’t just random thoughts.  They actually started a few days ago when I saw this video:

The video shows an accident scene in Logan, Utah.  A motorcyclist plowed into a car, his motorcycle burst into flames, and he slid under the car, unconscious.  The burning motorcycle made the entire scene dangerous.  The bystanders, instead of running away, investigated the scene, analyzed the risks to the motorcyclist (refrain from moving an injured man lest one causes worse injuries or run the risk that the car will explode) and then, having decided that immolation was the greatest risk, in one huge frenzy of energy, flipped the car over and dragged the motorcyclist out.  They saved the motorcyclist but, at the same time, each and every one of those bystanders risked death or injury.  None of them, I’m sure, went to work that day assuming that they’d be faced with that kind of decision-making.

In England a short while ago, it was a 22-year-old woman who showed physical and moral courage.  Two drunken thugs were brutally beating a man in public.  People drove by or watched.  Twenty-two year old Aimee Yule, a taxi dispatcher, chased the thugs away, administered help to the injured man and, when the thugs returned, actually used physical force against them.  Ms. Yule’s own thoughts on the subject bear noting:

She said outside court: ‘I couldn’t believe no one else was stopping to help him, there were loads of cars going past.

‘People were stopping and calling ambulances and the police, but no one came over. He got knocked out and there was blood coming out of his mouth.

‘When I approached they moved away, but they kept coming back to kick him.

‘One of them ran towards me and lifted his hand but I stood still and told him to leave. Luckily, he never hit me.

‘I was just sitting with him trying to stop them. I said “that’s enough, he’s had enough, please just leave it.”

I couldn’t believe more people had not stopped, cars had to swerve round them and some had stopped at the other side of the road to watch, but nobody came to help.’

Miss Yule said the incident left her badly shaken. She added: ‘I wouldn’t normally get involved with something like that, but I just thought, that’s somebody’s son being stamped on in the middle of that road.’

Bravery, then, seems to be an amalgam of moral courage and low brain function.  Think too much, and it’s all over — you can always talk yourself out of the risk.

The Logan scene notwithstanding, crowds also seem to inhibit courage.  I became aware of this several years ago when a crowd of people stood around and watched as a deranged man stomped his two-year old son to death on a public road.  The bystanders all seemed to be watching each other for cues.  Each was apparently wondering whether s/he was reading the situation correctly or was running the risk of public humiliation through overreaction.  And each person, by worrying about the others’ responses, stood paralyzed as a child died.

These stories are one of the reasons I love MMA.  I’d like to think that if, God forbid, I’m ever confronted with the need to act, I’ll have drilled sufficiently that I’ll be able to dive in without thinking.  It’s the analysis paralysis that worries me, since I’m an over-thinker at the best of times.   I work hard so that I’ll do the right thing, instead of berating myself later for failing to act at all.

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  • NavyOne

    Book’ster: I am (still) looking forward to some war stories from As 1st Sergeant. I think they will be forthcoming, it just takes time with Marines. They are not as slavishly devotional to sea stories as are Sailors. . .

  • http://bookwormroom.com Bookworm

    I get it. They’re more the strong, silent types, right?

  • jj

    Don’t worry about it.  Part of the analysis you do when the moment comes includes analyzing whether or not there’s time to screw around analyzing – if you follow that.  If you’re the type person who would – once they stopped analyzing – act, you will, right then.

  • NavyOne

    Hmmm, as for the silent type, I had wished (in the past) they were more silent. I spent 10 months in a Marine barracks because the Navy one was full. And they are noisy, fearsome killers. . .

  • Michael Adams

    A few years ago, I was driving home from a night shift east of Bastrop. On the Bastrop-Austin highway, I saw a pickup on the eastbound side of the road, on fire.  I stopped, of course. There were several people huddled several feet from the truck, which had no passengers.  Another guy and I were the only two who approached, to see whether we could put out the fire, when the onlookers yelled that we’d better get back, it was going to explode.  My new friend and I turned to them to shout, “That only happens on television!””Paramedic?” I asked.  “No, firefighter.” We had a good laugh, and then the fire engine showed up, so we left. If there were a fire in the trunk, or even the back seat, I’d be more worried, since the flames would be too near the gas tank. Otherwise, it makes for very dramatic video footage. The recent story reminded me that I needed to get some more contact paper to keep in the trunk.  Spread that on a windshield before you break it, and no one ever need be trapped in a motor vehicle as long as you are on the scene. Smash it with anything, and the shards will stick to the contact paper, and you can pull the trappee right out. Piece o’ cake.

  • Americas 1stSgt

    Truth be told, I unfortunately have no Dakota Meyer stories to tell. If I were asked to describe him, leaving the MOH aside, I would say I remember him as solid, reliable, tough, Marine, and a Kentucky wise ass. Even without the MOH he is one of those guys you would have gladly served with again. This really doesn’t make him different from most other Marines I know. 
    When it comes to bystander behaviors, Malcolm Gladwell talks in one of his books how large groups of people react to situations thinking “someone” will do something about it and take no action themselves. Fortunately in the Corps we teach concepts like initiative and decisiveness as traits we want all Marines to have.
    Bookworm, thanks for the link and have fun at MMA class!

  • http://khemenu.blogspot.com Ari Tai

    Wasn’t there a recent story about how a neighbor stopped  a man beating on his (girlfriend?) by brandishing a gun, only to have the man come back and (beat up / murder?) his young children?

    I’ve been looking for the details and haven’t been able to find them.  Last month or so. 

  • NavyOne

    Aha! The Marine Corps, being the responsive bunch that they are, has rogered up to your post: http://castrapraetoria1.blogspot.com/2011/09/medal-of-honor-addendum.html  America’s 1st Sergeant even lists a great military charity that Corporal Meyer is heading. . .

  • NavyOne

    Whoops, Corporal Meyer is actually Sergeant Meyer. My apologies. . .

  • DL Sly

    “Bravery, then, seems to be an amalgam of moral courage and low brain function. Think too much, and it’s all over — you can always talk yourself out of the risk.”

    I’m sorry, but I gotta disagree with this statement, and not just mildly either.  Bravery and courage are a defeat of higher brain function over lower.  They are an amalgam of knowing what the right thing to do is and then — even though every single, self-preserving cell in your body is screaming, “What the hell are you doing!?  Get the freak out of here!!!” — doing it anyway.

  • Danny Lemieux

    I agree wit DL Sly – the first body reaction to a situation is to adrenylate.

    For most people, this translates into “freeze or fight”. It takes courage and (usually) training to overcome the “freeze” part and turn it into “fight”.

  • http://bookwormroom.com Bookworm

    DL and Danny: maybe it’s high brain and low brain working in concert. There’s definitely a moral component, as both Dakota and Aimee show. But there’s also a complete frenzy of adrenalin that allows them to brush aside their high brain concerns and simply act.

    So many people, when questioned after the fact, offer some variation of “I just did it.” There’s no deep thinking or calculation involved. But their default setting is apparently moral and altruistic.

    Maybe it’s that default setting that makes these true heroes different from the rest of us. Whether functioning at high brain or low, they instinctively do the right thing.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    Since SSG Dave isn’t here to comment, and he would be quite well suited to this line of topic, I’ll have to say something instead.


    Read what I wrote there and that should explain things. Also read the website I recommended.

     People freeze for a number of reasons, but the most common one is that fear makes them desperate to find a solution they will be confident in using. Courage provides confidence in the form of being capable of taking higher risks. Training provides confidence in the form of a stronger belief that it will work. Stupidity provides confidence in the form of not putting a lot of resources into predicting the consequences, instead relying on immediate action to make the impossible, possible by denying common sense and group “wisdom”. Intelligence provides confidence by increasing the number of options available and perhaps shortcutting or modifying a plan to make it more viable.

    However, none of that works when a person has no options in his toolbox. Thus, people freeze when they look for a tool to solve the problem… and can’t find it. So they keep looking for it, and to outside observers, they look like they are frozen. Because they’re still thinking. And being smart simply means their brain works faster in an infinite loop and overheats sooner. The advantage of being dumb is that a dumb person relies far more on action and hands than on thinking and planning, so their natural instinct often discards “thinking”, which doesn’t work well for them, and favors “doing”. This is presented in the case of Forrest Gump, who really is mentally slow and not really thinking of anything complex to begin with. Most people aren’t like that, however.

     MMA training is not designed for life/death situations. Thus it violates both the KISS principle as well as “train the way you would fight”. It is far more important to obtain greater resources than it ever was to try to train one’s ability to take risks. Greater resources will solve problems. Taking risks is often a toss up between recklessness and wisdom depending on the outcome.

     My view is similar and compatible to the view of the interviewee in the site and in my own summation of his point.

    As for crowds, people are born followers. Thus in a group, they are waiting for a leader to take charge and tell them what to do. This is as true in the military as anywhere else. It’s why there is an Army way, a SF way, and a right way. The SF does things in a totally unorthodox or independent fashion, whereas the Army does things in a regimented, rote, orthodox fashion. Thus military discipline is designed to get the most efficiency out of the natural human hierarchy which tends to develop in large organizations, harnessing these relationships and hammering into something that can be put to work. Civilians without military training are like strange dogs meeting for the first time. They are still figuring out who is the alpha leader and who is near the bottom of the rung. That takes time. Time that emergencies do not provide. The advantage of unorthodox groups of insurgents or civilians is that they can think outside the box, and are thus like the SF: small, unregimented, and capable of moving fast and adapting to situations. Whereas the larger an organization gets, the longer the chain of command becomes and the less flexible that organization becomes at adapting to the situation on the ground.

     @12: Those people are describing a particular phase. Humans utilize the OODA loop when making decisions concerning problems or dangers. First they observe the problem, then they put those observations in the context of their world view and orientate around the issue. Then they decide what to do about it. Then they act on it. People freeze when they cannot make a decision. When they cannot make a decision, they go back and observe/orientate again because time passes and they need updated information. So basically, they wait for a commander in the absence of the ability to decide for themselves.

    All the thinking happened before someone arrived at the “Act” phase. What you hear is people describing the “Act” phase but not describing the OOD phase. That’s not uncommon in adrenalized situations. It takes people with special experiences or control of adrenaline, to be able to figure out what was going on in their heads at such times.

     Adrenaline and fear are only components in the OOD phases. In the act phase, fear is no longer needed and thus the body no longer feels its stress, and adrenaline is moderated and controlled, rather than let out of control by panic.

     Literally, people become free of fear when they decide on a plan and takes action. They look like they are unaffected by fear, because fear did it work long before they took action and people just didn’t notice it.

  • http://bookwormroom.com Bookworm

    That is a very interesting analysis, Ymarsakar, one that accounts for overthinkers and born followers.  I fall into both categories, which is why I spend way too much time worrying about what will happen if I ever face a crisis demanding immediate action.

  • jj

    People who don’t feel fear are by definition not brave.  They’re somewhat rare, too.  Oddities.  Maybe that’s good.  It’s been speculated that two we all know were Billy Bishop and Manfred von Richtofen, neither of whom ever struck anybody as excessively human.  By 1916, being a pilot on the western front inn the first war was among the most terrifying things a person could do.  The romance was long gone from it, and the average life-expectancy was measured in days.  Plenty of people broke, but these two outlasted just about everybody, and simply went out day after day after day and did it.  What they were was, the shrinks say, not ‘brave.’   Rather, they had no fear to overcome, they just didn’t have a place in their psyches for fear.  Brave is feeling and overcoming the fear and performing despite it.  (In the most recent of your examples, it also helps to know that the damn car’s highly unlikely to explode, no matter what Hollywood thinks.)
    One of the best ways to deal with it and keep it in its place is to be busy.  This is the psychological part – as opposed to the pure ‘address the problem’ part – of why the military, fire departments, etc., etc. drill, drill, drill endlessly.  When you have something to do, a routine to fall into, a series of steps to follow, it will not only address the problem, but will help you overcome the fear that might otherwise paralyze you.  You practice, endlessly.  When the USS Truxtun got herself run over by the carrier in whose BG she was (I think it was Enterprise), the remarks of one of the leading  seamen on board were right to the point.  He basically said that after the first couple of minutes of chaos, they got everybody organized into the usual drill teams, and once they started just doing the drills, they saved the ship.  Same with Enterprise herself when she was very badly on fire off Vietnam.  Once the crew began performing the drills, they got on top of the disaster, and controlled it.  Plenty of guys died and got hurt in both cases – but in both cases they saved the ships.  You analyze and practice ahead of time, so when the situation arises, you have a set of rails down which to go.
    Though volunteer firefighters – and 80% of all the firefighters in this country are volunteer, let us remember – we drilled all the time.  When you pull up to a house that’s blazing away, you know what you’re going to do, despite your instincts.  You’ve been trained, you’ve practiced, you’ve been inside burning buildings many times before at the county training center – it’s certainly not a kindly environment, but it is, through practice, a familiar one – so if there’s a reason to, like somebody trapped or down inside – in you go. 
    So it helps to be busy.  When you’re busy you’re not being scared.  A big part of Chard’s and Bromhead’s reaction to the news that their little garrison of fewer than 125 effectives at Rorke’s Drift was the target of 4,000 pissed-off warriors was that they immediately put everybody to work.  They got them carving firing loopholes in the walls of the buildings, building ramparts of mealie bags, cutting brush back away from the perimeter around the mission station – all stuff it was good to do, but it also kept the men busy.  Chard and Bromhead  knew the Zulus wouldn’t arrive for a few hours, and they also knew that standing around thinking about it for those hours would be very bad – so they got the men working.  The upshot was that nobody ran away, and the 125 held off the 4,000.  England considered that pretty good, and ten percent of them were awarded the Victoria Cross (equivalent to our MOH) – an insanely high percentage of those left alive.

  • Charles Martel

    There is a strong moral component to bravery. In the late 1980s, Samuel Oliner, a professior at Humboldt State University in California’s redwood country published a book, “The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe.” In it, he told stories of gentiles from all walks of life who protected Jews at the risk of their own lives.

    One story that stood out for me was about an illiterate woman who owned an apartment building in Paris. She built secret partitions in her own apartment to hide and house several Jewish tenants who had not been able to leave town in time to avoid the Gestapo-collaboratonist sweeps. Although she was unable to read, she was an incredibly clever woman. When the police came one day to follow up on a rumor that she was hiding Jews, she sat them down for a spot of tea and then launched into a spittle-flecked anti-Semitic diatribe, overwhelming her unwanted guests with her Jew-hating fervor. Her guests, separated from the scene by only the flimsy thickness a fake wooden wall, heard it all, listening in quiet agony because they could not be absolutely sure that she wasn’t on the verge of betraying them.

    The Nazis left her apartment, glowing with reassurance that they had a prime Jew hater on their side who would never, never think of sheltering the Reich’s enemies. The woman, exhausted from pretending to be something loathesome that she was not, immediately contacted friends in the countryside and made arrangements to move her Jewish guests to a safer place.

    Oliner told me that the one characteristic common to these righteous gentiles—rich, poor, old, young, German, French, Catholic, Protestant, city dweller, farmer—was that they could not conceive of themselves not helping. There was a decency so deep and ingrained in them that they said it would be like betraying themselves and commiting a grotesque form of suicide to not honor their empathy for people in trouble. I think that there was a big element of that in Meyer’s thinking. He simply could not conceive of living without doing the honorable and, for him, necessary thing.

  • Mike Devx

    In addition to fear and “toolbox selection freeze”, when you find your toolbox empty, I’d like to add the concept of “diffusion of responsibility”.  Aka “the bystander effect”.  This is where a person feels that someone else will intervene, or they believe someone else surely must have already done something, such as call the police, so they do nothing.

    This concept has been around a while.  It’s been offered as the explanation for why people do nothing when in a “crowd” situation, yet if they’d been alone, they’d be almost certain to act in some manner.  I first heard of it as an explanation for the Kitty Genovese murder: She was stabbed to death near or on the grounds of an apartment complex, in a brutal attack that took time, and many residents knew it was happening yet did nothing; I think some eventually admitted to watching the extended attack and murder, and still did nothing.

    How horrifying would it be to be assaulted and to see bystanders nearby doing nothing but watch…
    I think the only way to counter the diffusion of responsibility effect, is to train yourself to always take the initiative when encountering a problem.  Always.  To never allow yourself to become “part of a crowd” even when in a crowd.


  • http://bookwormroom.com Bookworm

    Here’s food for thought about the Kitty Genovese attack:  the study was probably founded on . . . wait for it . . . a false New York Times report.  I’ve read this in another forum that I can’t currently find, but this link is useful for the point too.  This seems entirely reasonable, since we know that the New York Times is still lying about crime stories.

  • Mike Devx

    The link to the Kitty Genovese murder info is very interesting, Book.  Thanks!  Sensationalistic (and wrong) reporting, or simply shoddy reporting…   What happened to her now looks to me like the tragic confluence of a FEW terrible coincidences.  Even ‘the bystander effect’ is in question here!  These people were used to loud, raucous noises and assaults (though not murder) and it’s clear that what happened to her didn’t look like murder until it was too late.

    But I bet this will live on as an urban myth of a terrible half-hour murder watched and listened to by forty people who knew it and did nothing, though that is not the truth.  I’m glad to know the truth.

    The bystander effect, when it truly happens, does appear to be real, though.  Some info from that link includes this on the bystander effect.  It is caused by two potential conflicts:

    Pluralistic Ignorance (i.e., Each bystander thinks, “If no one else is helping, does this person really need help?”), and

    Diffusion of Responsibility (i.e., Each bystander thinks, “Only one person needs to call the police and certainly someone else will.”)

     Writing in 1985, Psychology Professor R. Lance Shotland of Pennsylvania University concluded:

    “After close to 20 years of research, the evidence indicates that ‘the bystander effect,’ as it has come to be called, holds for all types of emergencies, medical or criminal.”


  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    There was an argument about whether the terrorists that used the suicide/mass murder attacks on 9/11 were brave or courageous. I was of the opinion that they were not. Courage requires a value decision that something is more important than one’s own life or safety. It is often the case that saving oneself is easy, but saving other people is hard, and thus courage steps in to make saving others more important than saving oneself, or equally as important. Instinctively, this is the common human compassion bond which ensures we cooperate in order to survive: some are genetically keyed to this Survival Strategy while others are more easily formed into raiders, parasites, etc.


    if you are concerned with mental preparation then try this.

    Look for places that teach these things

    1. How to spot ambushes and setup the tactical battlefield before a fight breaks out, including retreat options and contingencies.

    2. How to escape hand or arm grabs, as well as wrestling holds or bear hugs.

    3. How to re-direct or resist force coming from any direction on the compass, no matter where you are facing.

    4. How to focus, concentrate, and generate force to use in offensive operations.

    5. Key drills to increase accuracy, timing, and rhythm. Aka kinesthetics.

    If you analyze your training repertoire and it doesn’t have these elements, then it is insufficient.
    I treat fear as my ally. It warns me when I’m in danger, allowing me to increase my focus to extreme levels and stop playing around. Fear allows me to get serious. As a consequence, it also bypasses a lot of the “social” considerations a lot of people seem to find popular when they are not trained to recognize the seriousness of a violent context. When people are in danger but they are too stupid or ignorant to realize it, they start “thinking” about social consequences like appearances or legal ramifications. When humans are in real danger and they are aware of this, there is no such thing as social consequences going through their heads: their lizard brain is in control and the lizard has no knowledge at all of legal whatevers: since it is totally irrelevant to the issue at hand. Thus one doesn’t even need to think the thought “I need to stop thinking about laws and social consequences if I want to live”. It is more akin to “I want to live, and any obstacles must be destroyed to achieve that”.

    What a lot of people think of as low mental content is actually a person shutting off a part of their brain and activating another part. Both have the same access to the same information, but uses it in different ways. The brain is humanity’s original weapon, yet people don’t really have a great understanding of how their own minds work. I find that ironic, as well as dangerous.

     In terms of motivations, hate and rage are the strongest, but fear is the fastest. Ethics and morality can translate self-survival into the same motivation required to save others, making saving others and saving oneself equal.

    The Japanese samurai concept back when they had samurai fighting, was that killing the enemy was equal to saving your own life. So the Japanese preferred to run towards an enemy, not away, and counted a dead enemy equal to their own life. Meaning, they counted a double kill, where both fighters died, as a win. There was a reason why this was prevalent in the cultural thinking, as it aided one’s combat prowess although it also made people very reckless with their lives.


  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    It’s not that once I feel fear, my brain functions shut down and go into low burn. Rather, the opposite happens. My brain cycles speed up and time perception slows down. All the while fear grows stronger the more I stand around doing nothing, while it decreases when I’m taking action designed to deal with the threat. Obviously if you try to deal with the threat, and it doesn’t work, and the threat becomes greater, your fear will RETURN in greater force to motivate you and make you do things. You see nature didn’t trust humans not to just sit down and die, so nature engineered something called the emotion of fear into us so that we humans would figure out, no matter how dumb or viceful we were, that it was time to save ourselves.

     However, even as my brain cycles increase in speed and precision, a lot of irrelevant little details are thrown away and no longer even considered. Like I mentioned before, most people normally disregard things by first thinking of them, and then saying “not important”. In an emergency they don’t have time to waste, so the brain hardwire does it for us. The brain literally throws away all manner and form of SOCIAL CONDITIONING, as well as issues dealing with emotion or society or law unless it would somehow benefit the situation to know. It’s either locked away or thrown away automatically, without the conscious mind ever even being aware of it. This is a mechanism of self-survival or family survival. It doesn’t necessarily apply to strangers saving strangers, of course. That’s something else. After all, you don’t need to outrun a raging bear or boar to save yourself. You just have to outrun your neighbors.

    So, this is very convenient. Instead of looking at a human and going through the OODA of “Is it okay to kill a human”, I instead go through the OODA of “how do I break this furniture down into component parts that aid me rather than threaten me”. The furniture being the body housing a human brain, that is. When it is time to throw out that table, it’s a lot easier to take a hammer and break apart the legs and then throw the entire assembly out piece by piece rather than try to haul it intact to the breakers.

    Women, because of their greater reliance on social rules for SURVIVAL tend to have a harder time in trusting their lizard survival brain and will often times continue to use social “rules” in the face of asocial violence. Considering the number of women that were killed by serial killers and not left alone due to their pleas, I don’t think this is something women want to rely upon. This is where nurture must be used to offset nature.


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