Welcome from the Jungle Psychological Perspectives on Reintegration


running up that hill
Jan 3, 2007
in Wonderland, with my Alice

On July 2, 2008, while many people in the United States were planning their holiday festivities, Keith Stansell, Mark Gonsalves and Tom Howes, three American contractors being held captive by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, were reluctantly boarding a Russian-made helicopter to meet with a so-called humanitarian agency in the Colombian jungle, as arranged by their captors.

The Americans, along with 11 Colombian hostages, including former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, were bound, exhausted and afraid. Employees of Northrup Grumman, they had been captured by the FARC in February 2003 after their plane crashed while they were conducting a counternarcotics mission for the U.S. government. Now, five and a half years later, they expected nothing positive to come from yet another move, another promise and another dangerous situation. What they did not know was that their escorts were in fact Colombian army operators and U.S. personnel who had tricked their captors. Moments later, they found themselves rescued and enjoying freedom for the first time in more than five years.

On that same day, I was given a few hours notice to report to Brooke Army Medical Center, or BAMC, at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, along with four other psychologists trained in Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, or SERE. Our job would be to assist the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, or JPRA, and U.S. Army South, or USARSO, in reintegrating the three American hostages.

As psychologists, we were charged with two goals: First, we were asked to be present with the returnees throughout their debriefing process and to be advocates for their health and welfare while allowing the Department of Defense and other agencies to gather necessary information about their captivity.

Second, we were to assist these men in slowly reintegrating into their families and American society while minimizing any physical or emotional complications. This was not an exercise or another annual hostage-update briefing at the JPRA SERE Psychology Conference — it was the real deal.

I was being given a rare opportunity to make a positive impact on the lives of these three men and to reinforce the strategies, tools and values that we teach as part of our SERE training at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School.

The reintegration process typically consists of three phases: initial recovery, transition location and home base. Phase I begins when captives are recovered and transported to a safe area. Returnees receive brief medical evaluations and psychological assessments, as well as operational and intelligence debriefings. A SERE psychologist, usually one of the first support personnel whom the returnee meets, assists in preparing the returnee for the coming hours and days of the repatriation process.

During this phase, it is critical to protect the returnee from feeling overwhelmed or cut off by the reintegration experience. One way the SERE psychologist can do that is by controlling the amount of information that immediately confronts the returnee. As with a medical procedure, it would be easy to simply perform the necessary tasks without informing the patient of the process, but not sharing enough information with the returnee can cause them distress, and they may become suspicious, hostile or withdrawn. It is critical that the recovery staff not inadvertently revictimize the returnee — if possible, they should grant them the pleasure of knowing simple things like time, destination and upcoming events. For example, it was amazing to watch the glee of a returnee playing with an iPod for the first time or proudly showing off a new wristwatch.

Similarly, the SERE psychologist can prevent the returnee’s overexposure to information by limiting the access of unauthorized personnel, ensuring that the returnee gets adequate rest and addressing the common desire of the staff and the returnees to speed up this phase. Understandably, many in the media wanted immediate and direct access to the returnees so that they could report on their experiences, health and families. Fortunately, the USARSO staff and support personnel were prepared and were able to postpone media events until the returnees were ready.

While the exact pace varies, reintegration is a proven process that gives returnees the best chance of success. During Phase I, the three returnees were already in good physical health and showed incredible patience with the series of tactical, logistical and administrative requirements. After a brief press conference early on July 3, Colonel Carl Dickens, the JPRA psychologist, summed it up by stating that the returnees were resilient and that the next few days would either set them up for success or just set them up. His comment would be important in guiding our interaction with staff and support personnel during the subsequent stages.

That press conference marked the beginning of Phase II, which began to get complicated early. The three returnees were kept together, but hospital personnel, media representatives and distant relatives began trying to visit or call them, drawn by the sensationalism of the event and hoping to connect with the three men. Although their intentions were good, many of them had to be turned away.

Typical events during Phase II, which normally lasts about 72 hours, include complete medical exams, formal debriefings and personal and group decompression time. Because the returnee begins to feel overloaded during Phase II, decompression is probably that phase’s most important aspect. After living in seclusion and information “darkness” during their captivity, it is understandable that returnees feel overwhelmed by the flood of information and the glare of media attention. Information about the world around them will come; it just doesn’t need to come all at once.

SERE psychologists refer to their role at this stage as a “dimmer switch.” They and other support-staff personnel try to help each of the returnees learn to turn up the switch slowly and stay in control. This dimmer-switch philosophy also allows for the building of the mental and emotional stamina required for coping with family reintegration.

At this point, the returnees were also vulnerable mentally, and as one of the SERE psychologists, I had the job of ensuring that each person who wanted access to the returnees had a legitimate need. For example, to quiet the clamor for photos and information about the returnees, the USARSO commander granted a staff photographer access to the returnees upon their arrival at BAMC. Unfortunately, in her haste, the photographer began photographing the men in fairly unflattering situations.

The lead psychologist, in consultation with the USARSO commander, suggested that photographs be taken at a time agreed-upon with the returnees. That allowed the returnees to regain some control by giving them a chance to prepare and to choose the photographs they wanted released. Involved personnel were acutely aware that the returnees were civilian-contract personnel who were not bound to participate in the repatriation process. It would have been a shame to sabotage the trust of a returnee, a family member or the command by releasing an inappropriate photograph simply to satisfy a media deadline.

Phase III is usually a move back to the U.S., with family members added to the circle of personnel available to the returnee. In this repatriation mission, Phase II blended quickly into Phase III, and amid continued medical care and debriefings, family integration became a priority. Not surprisingly, the returnees’ family dynamics had changed significantly during five and a half years. The returnees’ families now consisted of older children, teenagers, aging parents and independent spouses. Each family had experienced financial challenges, difficulties with the U.S. and Colombian governments and tests of their faith. Fortunately, Northrop Grumman had provided support personnel for each family. The USARSO staff also provided escort officers, a chaplain and logistical support while the reintegration process was taking place at BAMC.

While family members are an important part of the reintegration process, reunification itself can strain family relationships. Families tend to want to take care of the returnee after being denied contact with them for so long. Conversely, returnees tend to want to protect the family from the horrors of their experiences, and they may not want to connect with them right away, as they adjust mentally and emotionally to their freedom. The SERE psychologists consulted with the families, made it possible for the returnees and their relatives to carve out “alone time,” helped family members cope with the uncertainties of their relationships with the returnees, and guided their interactions with the media, each other and the support personnel.

Repatriation works — families have better outcomes, and debriefings allow interviewers to derive lessons learned and information that may assist in future rescue operations. Essential, though, is training for reintegration personnel and coordination between all organizations involved. Executive decision-makers must be able to resist the temptation to deviate from the reintegration process in an effort to “help” the returnees. Such deviations could cause long-term harm to returnees and jeopardize their healthy return to family, social and professional life.

Fortunately, I was prepared for most of the challenges, and I learned more than I expected about the reintegration process and about captivity. As a SERE psychologist, I have a goal to gain insight into the mental balancing act between stress, resilience and survival. During the coming year, I will have opportunities to contact the returnees again. The purpose of the calls and visits will be to facilitate their reintegration process and to gain insight into the pitfalls of their returning to everyday life after five and a half years of captivity.

Experiences such as intense memories of stressful events can occur as a result of predictable (anniversaries) and unpredictable events (a smell at a restaurant). Other stressors include the strains of marriage and parenting and the fear of working again. It will be my job, along with other support personnel, to help the returnees normalize these moments and avoid the all-too-familiar feeling for them of helplessness. The stressors of captivity and of freedom alike are painful, but they can be used to make returnees reflect on the positive aspects of life, appreciate their freedom to make choices and set new goals.

Last July, I shared in the celebration of Tom’s, Keith’s and Mark’s rescue and repatriation. They had survived years of captivity and been reunited with their families, and countless military and civilian personnel welcomed them home. Now they face the task of reintegration, and I am fortunate to be part of that process. I hope to be able to reinforce for them the lessons that we teach at SWCS as part of SERE training: Keep the faith, bounce back from mistakes and return with honor.

Lieutenant Colonel Kristin K. Woolley, Ph.D., is the command psychologist for the 1st Special Warfare Training Group, U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. Wooley received her bachelor’s from the University of Colorado, her master’s from Boston University and her doctorate from Texas A&M University. She has served in the Army since 1989 and has held numerous leadership positions including: chief of psychology services, United States Disciplinary Barracks, Fort Leavenworth, Kan.; and chief of psychology services, Ireland Army Community Hospital, Fort Knox, Ky.


Keith Stansell, fourth from right, one of three Americans held hostage in Colombia for five and a half years, exits the airplane that brought the captives from Colombia to the United States. U.S. Army photo.


Former hostage Marc Gonsalves hugs his daughter, Destiny, during a ceremony on July 7, 2008, at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. U.S. Army photo.
These guys did a good job and were very turned on (mentally).
I am going to read the article a couple more times to see if I get what she is trying to say, but we all were impressed at their ability to keep their heads in the game.
Great guys.
These guys deserve all the praise they get. But five and a half years is a long time. A reintegration program that lasts a few weeks or a few months is hugely beneficial, no doubt...but full decompression could take years. I'm convinced that experiences like this--and like warfare, for example-- "stamp" our character to such a degree that they become a part of us, inseparable for life.

I haven't read the book but I understand they were not too happy with Betancourt, who apparently got a pretty bad case of Stockholm Syndrome, or something akin to that.
I haven't read the book but I understand they were not too happy with Betancourt, who apparently got a pretty bad case of Stockholm Syndrome, or something akin to that.

Correct, well except for Mark who seemed to build a relationship with her at one point...but it sounds to me as if she aligned herself with whomever she perceived as a protector or something.