In Praise of Fear: from an American Warrior

by Gary O’Neal

“Listen to the wind, it talks. Listen to the silence, it speaks. Listen to your heart, it knows.”
Native American Proverb

I think it was Hamlet who said, “Fear makes cowards of us all.” Now, I don’t want to be disrespectful of Mr. Hamlet, but I’m afraid he didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. Believe me, I have experienced fear countless times in my life, the first time I was in combat I literally peed my pants, and there are few emotions that are more valuable or can be more productive than fear.

Throughout most of my life I’ve found myself in situations that generally caused me to wonder how I’d gotten myself in those situations. Good planning certainly wasn’t one of the answers. I’ve been in combat in several wars, I’ve jumped out of perfectly good airplanes more than 17,000 times from as high as 30,000 feet and as low as being able to read the street names, I’ve been captured and tortured, I’ve fought and trained with just about every weapon you can imagine (especially my mind) and I’ve been married and have kids. I have lived a good long life, losing pieces of my person along the way, so believe me when I explain that I have experienced fear in all its many varieties.

Fear don’t scare me. No more.

Fear didn’t make me a coward. Me and all the people I’ve gone to war with. Just the opposite, in fact, it played an important role in me becoming the man I am. Fear is a powerful thing; if you don’t have the self-discipline to control it, then it will control you. I’ve always believed that fear is the most rational and potentially useful of all of our emotions. If you’re not afraid when someone is shooting at you or when you’re stepping out of an airplane at 30,000 feet there is something definitely wrong with you. Hell, if I met someone who truly had no fear I’d probably be afraid of him, because I’d know he wasn’t human.

The important thing about fear is what you make of it. Fear causes metabolic changes in our bodies. It unleashes adrenaline which is a powerful substance. The only question is how you use it. Fear can be channeled in two different directions. In my life I’ve seen this over and over, and truthfully you really never know which way it’s going to go. People can be brave for one day or ten years and then that one time the fear takes over. If you allow fear to control you, then you’ll go to the cowardness side; you’ll panic, you’ll freeze, you won’t know where you are or what to do, but if you control your feel and you have been properly trained you can use it to accomplish far more than you’re normally capable of doing. When that adrenaline kicks in your training takes over and you can go balls to the walls and get done what needs to be done.

I’ve jumped out of pretty much anything that flies. I’ve landed in combat zones, the back parking lot of a restaurant and in the middle of Stonehenge. I’ve jumped in the warmth of summer sunshine and the cold winds of a November night. When you jump, every single time you step out of an airplane you’re dead until you save your life by pulling the ripcord. The thing is, I’m scared of heights. I always have been. I don’t even like standing up on a tall ladder. So every time I jump out of an airplane I’m scared. Generally you can freefall for about two minutes, then you’re under a canopy for four minutes. If you are in control, it seems like a lifetime. You can do all kinds of stuff. Time slows down because you’re moving so fast. When everything goes right it’s a perfect experience.

But you don’t train for everything going right. You train for that time when something goes wrong and you only have a few seconds to take the right steps to save your life. In a life or death situation, whether you’re in combat or falling from an aircraft, you don’t have a lot of time to waste thinking, you have to act. You have to allow your training to take control. If you let the fear get to you, if you panic, then you move slowly and erratically, you start scrambling, grabbing at stuff, forgetting what you know and as a result you get injured or dead. But when you control your fear you can stay calm and focused, you go through the emergency procedures you’ve been taught one by one until you save your life.

I always used my jumping as a training aid to learn how to control my fear. I’d wait to see how long I dared wait before I popped my chute, letting the fear grow inside of me till I could taste it, but I knew I was in control. I literally taught myself how to use my fear to my advantage. It meant that in those life or death situations I had all of my power, training and skills magnified by the adrenaline to allow me to function at levels that otherwise would have been impossible for me.

I learned how to make my fear work for me.


CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER GARY LEE O’NEAL (Ret.) trained from childhood in the warrior traditions of the Oglala Sioux and devoted nearly forty years with the U.S. Army Rangers and Special Forces. He lives in Raeford, North Carolina. His latest book is American Warrior: The True Story of a Legendary Ranger. 

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Posted in Contemporary History, Military History

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