Pain is Temporary, Death is Forever: Cultivating Mental Resilience in Violent Encounters


Tony was a former British Royal Marine who had served on South Georgia Island during the 1982 Falkland Islands War. He was one of the outnumbered Royal Marines who shot down a Puma helicopter loaded with Argentine Marines and damaged the Argentine Corvette ARA Guerrico before being forced to surrender by a superior force.

In September 2004, he was a private security contractor and a member of one of our PSD teams operating in central Iraq. While on a mission north of Baghdad, Tony’s team took fire from Iraqi insurgents hiding along the highway. A round entered through Tony’s window and literally took his nose off in a spray of blood.

Although the rest of the team was returning fire, and the driver was yelling at Tony to put pressure on his wound, he refused until after he’d emptied the magazine of his AKM at the ambushers. Tony was taken to an Army medical center for treatment and returned to our compound a few days later. He was in terrific pain and had suffered a permanently disfiguring wound but had fought through the pain to stay in the fight and return fire.

It’s All in Your Head

Mike Tyson gave us a great quote about fighting. He said, “Everybody has a plan until they get hit. Then, like a rat, they stop in fear and freeze.” Therein lies the secret of winning the fight. Anyone who has ever won a gunfight, knife fight, or fist fight, went into that fight knowing they might be hurt and determined to keep fighting even if they were.

This is the same mindset we all need if we are going to survive a violent encounter on the street or in our homes. There are several factors to consider when developing the ability to fight through pain.

Pain – It Just Plain Hurts!

First and foremost, pain hurts! We can all appreciate that. But pain isn’t the same as debilitating injury. The vast majority of wounds from handgun rounds are survivable, as are knife cuts (as long as the bleeding is controlled and infection is prevented). The human machine can function long after suffering a painful wound as long as the mind takes control and tells the body to ignore it and keep going.

I once broke an ankle in a skydiving accident and didn’t realize it was broken. I walked around on it for a week, even going rappelling the following Saturday. When it didn’t improve, I went in for an X-ray and found it was broken. The point is I was able to continue to function because I told myself it was nothing serious . . . although I suppose not being very bright helped too.

Train Hard, Fight Easy.

There’s not a lot I can tell you to help you prepare to keep fighting after you are wounded except to say that you need to train hard. Be aggressive and be determined that at the end of the fight, you’re the one who will be around to tell the story. Not the other guy. Mental toughness is the secret, plain and simple. But it also helps to be prepared for any situation that might arise.

Wounds To the Strong Arm/Hand

Too many shooters focus exclusively on normal shooting stances using a two-handed grip or a single-hand grip with their strong hand. This is fine as long as nothing is wrong and no one is shooting back at you. But it’s a formula for disaster if you take a wound in your strong arm or hand.

You should practice drawing, picking your gun up from the ground, and shooting with your weak hand. And keep in mind that the wound that is causing you to have to use your weak hand is probably going to hurt.

Practice by holding your strong hand behind your back and doing everything with your weak hand. Start at home with a safely unloaded gun and learn to draw, aim, and dry fire with your weak hand. Work out strategies for clearing a malfunction or reloading with your weak hand. Then go practice it to whatever extent you can on whatever range you have access to.

Legs Can’t Support You

Bat Masterson was a famous gunfighter from the Old West. His first known gunfight took place with a cavalry trooper over a woman in a bar. The trooper, Sergeant Melvin King, surprised Masterson and fired first. His bullet passed through the woman and shattered Masterson’s pelvis. On the floor, and no doubt in a lot of pain, Bat drew his gun and shot King ending the fight.

One of the primary training points of surviving a gunfight is to “get off the X.” In other words, move! If you’ve taken a leg wound, you might not be able to stand, let alone run, dodge, and weave. But you can still move, even if only rolling on the ground to put yourself in a position to shoot back.

You are going to be in pain, but you have to exercise mind over matter and learn to fight through it. As for the mechanics of moving when you can’t stand, there are drills you can do that simulate having a leg wound. The simplest of these is to simply tape your ankles together and practice moving around in your house, then try it at a training range.

Can’t See Out of Your Dominant Eye

There are a lot of aiming techniques being taught these days. Traditional close your weak eye, shoot with both eyes open, point shooting, etc. Most civilian shooters close their weak eye and aim with their dominant eye. This is fine on the range, but what if your dominant eye is injured or filled with blood flowing from a scalp wound?

Not being able to see can be a major psychological factor and one you should mentally prepare for and train to overcome. Practice shooting with both eyes open, using your weak eye, and point shooting.

Psychological Factors

Let’s face the facts, except for vets who have been to war and a few LEOs, most people reading this article have never been in a gunfight. I’ve been in a couple, and I can tell you they are chaotic, noisy, confusing, and downright scary. By the grace of God, I’ve never been wounded, but I can tell you the pucker factor is there nevertheless.

Add to that the possibility that you could be in pain, might see blood soaking your clothes, or the handgrip on your gun may be slippery with blood. While these are all physical factors, they are also psychological factors that must be overcome if you are to stay in the fight and survive a determined attempt on your life or a loved one’s.

Think back to the first time you were in a fight and got punched in the face. If you got angry and kept fighting, you’re on the right track. If you quit, that might be fine for 9th grade, but it will get you killed in an armed confrontation.

Plan to Succeed

The US Army has a saying; ‘Train hard, fight easy.’ Make your training as comprehensive and challenging as possible. Always put safety first but go over the top in training, and you will find that the actual doing will be much easier.

Don’t stay home if the weather is bad. Learn to shoot in all kinds of weather. Shoot when your fingers are freezing. Shoot when it’s so hot, your grip is slick with sweat. Shoot in the rain and on rough ground.

Practice covering one lens of your shooting glasses with tape so you can only use one eye. Coat the grip of your gun with a harmless lubricant like baby oil to simulate blood. Put one hand behind your back, and stuff it under your belt so you can’t cheat.

If you don’t have access to a range where you can practice ground techniques, invest in an airsoft gun and do it at home or in your backyard. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Survival is a comprehensive mixture of physical skill and psychological toughness. Training under all kinds of challenging conditions will give you confidence, which will, in turn, help you build a positive mindset. But the toughness part has to be dredged up from deep within you. Be a survivor, not a snowflake.

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