What 'Embrace the Suck' Means to the Military

A future Ranger candidate low crawls.
Tech. Sgt. Alexander Morley, Ranger Assessment Course student, low-crawls during the obstacle course for a Ranger Assessment Course near Schofield Barracks, Oahu, Hawaii. (U.S. Air Force/Hailey Haux)

Taylor Baldwin Kiland and Peter Fretwell are the coauthors of "Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton: Six Characteristics of High-Performance Teams" (Naval Institute Press, 2017).

"I was on track to get into the astronaut program," recalls Everett Alvarez Jr. about his early career as a Navy fighter pilot in the 1960s. At that time, Hispanic fighter pilots were rare in the U.S. military; being an astronaut would have been unprecedented.

Then, fate dealt Alvarez a wild card. Sent on an early combat mission over North Vietnam, he was shot down on Aug. 5, 1964, and became the first American prisoner of war held in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton." He spent the next eight-and-a-half years there. For six months, he was alone in the old French prison in North Vietnam's capital city.

Confined to his cell, Alvarez learned to "Embrace the suck." This military term hadn't yet been coined, but Alvarez and the growing group of POWs practiced its essence: "This is really bad, so let's make the best of it we can."

In other words, lean into the pain.

As Dr. Nate Zinsser, director of the U.S. Military Academy's Performance Psychology Program, characterizes it, "It's the idea of being emotionally comfortable while being physically uncomfortable."

We cannot control everything that happens to us. But we can control how we react to it. We can choose to reframe it and actually learn something from the pain.

Alvarez tapped into his life experiences to endure. Raised in a household with an alcoholic and abusive father, he found, "I had learned to live with myself. When you grow up in a turbulent household, you have to learn to shut things out."

His maternal grandmother and both of his parents had modeled strength and tenacity in overcoming severe poverty, and Alvarez drew on those memories: "Family stories of the adversities they faced had shaped my character and gave me backbone."

Embracing the suck also meant unlearning the mantra of "men don't cry."

Combating boredom, frustration and uncertainty, Alvarez discovered that tearfully acknowledging his feelings allowed him to then focus his energy on what he could control. "You compartmentalize. You draw a mental frame around the things you cannot control. Those things you push outside yourself," he said.

Focusing on what you can control includes actively looking for ways to put the unexpected problem to work for you.

"What do you want to gain from this experience?" is a good question to ask yourself, says neuropsychologist Dr. Jeffrey Moore, the former executive director of the Robert E. Mitchell Center for POW Studies at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. Moore asserts the Vietnam War POWs are "poster children" for finding purpose in prolonged adversity.

Moore spent decades studying the Hanoi Hilton POWs, and their ability to compartmentalize the challenges of their daily existence was key to their resilience. "They became experts at not letting the experience frame them," he said.

Instead, they created productive goals for their experience. They found ways not just to survive, but to thrive.

One of them designed a house in his head, which he in fact built when he returned home. Several learned new languages, taught to them by their fellow POWs. One ran around his cell in circles for hours at a time, not out of frustration, but to return to health and fitness after ejection injuries.

Moore says that, in a crisis, there is value in pausing to ask, "What meaning can I find in this?"

Zinsser echoes that approach, teaching West Point cadets to ask, "How can this make me stronger?"

Research at the Mitchell Center also found optimism was a key to POW resilience. Optimists tend to display several mental responses when they encounter difficulty: "This is not personal against me, this is not forever, and this will not destroy my future."

Pessimists tend to think the opposite: "This may be my fault, this may never end, and this may destroy my life."

Still, Alvarez found that letting go of some dreams was part of embracing the suck. "Optimism is important, but you have to balance it with reality. I realized after a while that, whenever I got out of there, I was no longer on track for the astronaut program."

So he turned to the question of "What else am I going to do with my career, my life?" He began to think about what he was going to learn from his years as a POW.

He also began to focus on giving -- teaching younger aviators that they, too, could endure adversity for years, if necessary.

Zinsser recalled a passage from Victor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning": "We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread."

We can develop our own resilience when we reach out to others in need, especially our neighbors who have been sick, have lost a job or lost a family member.

Frankl identified this as "sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

When Alvarez returned home in 1973, he had spent a quarter of his life in prison. And although his wife had divorced him while he was held captive, he found love again, remarried and raised two sons -- a lawyer and a doctor. The grandson of poor Mexican immigrants, Alvarez went on to achieve the American dream. He remained in public service for every president from Reagan to Obama and became a serial entrepreneur, building several multimillion-dollar businesses.

What is unusual about Everett Alvarez's story is that his experience is not unique among his colleagues in captivity. Most of the POWs returned home physically and mentally intact, despite being the longest-held group of POWs in our nation's history. Most of them later pursued highly successful careers in leadership positions and public office, and few of them have exhibited long-term post-traumatic stress disorder. Indeed, their lifetime average of PTSD is 4%.

One final self-reminder helps in learning to embrace the suck. The next generation of Americans will learn from us, one way or another, in watching how we handle the cards that life deals us.

Alvarez recalls a moment in a grocery store a few years after he returned home from the Hanoi Hilton. His young son Bryan was about four years old, sitting in front of him in the shopping cart.

"He waited until I was in the middle of the checkout line, and then he loudly asked, 'Daddy, when you were in prison, what did you eat?' People started looking around at us. The more I tried to quiet him, the louder he got. 'Daddy, remember when you were in prison? What did you eat? Bugs, right?'"

Of course, Alvarez's important memories are not about what he ate. He took a life-disrupting experience and made the most of it. Instead of investing energy in his own bad feelings, he embraced the suck and turned his eight-and-a-half years as a POW into an opportunity to create a better, stronger version of himself.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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