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During Army flight school at Fort Rucker in Alabama, Marc Acton, who flies Black Hawk helicopters out of Nashville International Airport, completed one of the most grueling military courses in the world. And he only had to go seven days without food to do it.
“I went one week without eating—and hiked 15 miles a day while doing it.”
We’d started the operation the day before with a bang, kicked out of a bus on the side of an Alabama road in a simulated downed-aircraft scenario. My four team members and I headed out into the woods toward our first assigned point on the map, but there was a stream in our way. Another seasoned soldier and I suggested we could find a way around, but our platoon leader, whose lack of experience was matched only by his unflinching confidence in his poor decision-making ability, vetoed us. That’s why only ten minutes into our mission I was wading through near-freezing water up to my neck, holding my M16 over my head and thinking not very nice thoughts. Fortunately, the 15 or so miles we hiked after that really warmed us up.
I was in the middle of Army flight school in a part of the course that taught us how to respond if we ever went down behind enemy lines. It made sense for me to be there—flying helicopters put us in harm’s way more often than most jobs, and the Army decided years ago that aircrews should know what we’re made of when it comes to survival before we have to know what we’re made of. That’s why a few of my closest Army friends and I were hiking hungry and why I would spend the next week trying not to die—of hunger, of frostbite, of drowning, of boredom, and of bad choices.
I’d gotten to flight school by luck—good or bad, it was hard to say at the time. My original plan when joining the Army was to get paid to build a portfolio of combat videography work. But the Army makes you jump through all the hoops of joining before you pick your job. By the time I sat down with the career counselor to choose one, I’d already committed—and, most importantly, I’d told my mom that I was joining.
Unfortunately, there weren’t any creative jobs in my local area. So the counselor spread his search net wider and found an opening for an Apache helicopter mechanic. I was in. Four years later, I decided that the pilots who were flying the aircraft I was working on weren’t any smarter (and certainly not better looking) than me, and I applied for flight school. Several months after that, I was in the forest feeling very cold and very in need of a cheeseburger.
I was 24 hours into not eating when I started seeing things, but that had as much to do with the miles we were hiking through briar patches and crawling through forests to evade potential captors as it did the lack of food. It was only shapes and colors I was seeing, but it was disconcerting, to say the least. I often still think of those lights in the woods that weren’t there.
Eventually, I learned that part of the need to eat is based on expectation. After a couple days of not eating, your brain gets the idea that there’s no cheeseburger coming and stops sending hunger signals to your body. Those signals are replaced by ones that just say “This sucks!” on an endless loop.
A week later, I emerged from the woods a changed man. A lighter man, by about 12 pounds, and considerably grumpier than when I’d been kicked off the bus. But I also had an entirely different idea of what I was capable of achieving and what I was capable of surviving. Because it turns out that surviving whatever is in front of you is as simple as deciding to ignore those things in the woods that are telling you to quit. They’re only in your head anyway.