On Fear and Courage

April 24, 2012 by Konstantin Komarov  

Recently we started talking about fear and courage. It got me thinking about my own childhood: for as long as I can remember, I was always striving to be brave.

To overcome my fear of darkness I would crawl into dark cellars or venture into the woods at night. To conquer my fear of heights, I’d jump down from roofs or dive from cliffs. Despite being afraid to fight, I’d pick fights with stronger opponents or go to boxing practice. The list goes on and on.

For some reason, even as a little kid, I instinctively knew that if you succumb to fear, it would grow into a huge monster that you cannot get rid of. I also knew that you can’t hide from fear. The problem is that it lives inside, and you can’t hide yourself under a blanket or on a pretend “home base”. So for me, there was only one way out: to meet fear full-on, face the scary situation, and overcome myself. It was always tough but it always worked. The second time around it was not as hard to overcome the fear, and the third time it felt almost easy.    

Now I understand that many of my crucial, far-reaching life choices were made subconsciously, while striving for courage. Yet during our early years, we tend to make important decisions without thinking too much why we make them… 

During the war it was different somehow. I don’t mean the training missions but in real combat, dealing with tough and dangerous situations. It was understood that an officer could not show his fears because his soldiers would always watch and imitate him, following the key principle: “Do as I do!” which applies to war and life in general. Well, all of us were kind of fearless, sometimes borderline reckless. Yet this fearlessness was based upon a few very specific things:
· Unshakable belief in our comrades
· Confidence in ourselves
· Confidence in our weapons

The ordinary, mundane fears sort of faded into the background. For whatever reason, we never thought of death. Everyone was prepared for possible injuries and pain. However, some new and previously unknown fears surfaced. It was not until now that I can verbalize them; back then they were held deep inside, sometimes breaking out and getting in the way of my decision-making. The fear of letting down our comrades was at the top: things like not making it in time, straggling or getting lost in a combat zone. The second was the fear of helplessness: being unarmed, captured, or losing control over a situation. These were not just my personal fears, but rather universal among my friends.   

Once in South Ossetia, while resting on the base, we got a garbled radio transmission from our convoy. The operator could only make out the words “…we’re pinned down in the city…” then the transmission ended. About 10 seconds later the emergency response unit was off while everyone else abandoned their dinner, jumped onto the vehicles and anxiously waited for the ‘go’ signal. That’s when I saw fear on everyone’s faces. No, it was not the fear of combat because everyone was eager to fight. We were not afraid of what might happen to us. It was the fear of what might happen to our comrades: what if we can’t find them? What if we’re late? Well, that time everything ended well: we found them and got there on time.

I will never forget the expression of fear on my friends’ faces. The best remedy from this kind of fear was our combat brotherhood and “Perish yourself but rescue your comrade!" as said by Suvorov (a great Russian general who has never lost a battle). It worked!

Speaking of other fears, one thing I remember distinctly is carrying a hand grenade in my pocket wherever I went. It was not just me. Almost everyone did. Was it inconvenient and dangerous? You bet, but somehow it was comforting. No one ever asked why. No one ever talked about it or had to explain it to anyone. This means there was a common reason, a silent understanding.      

For about ten years afterwards, I had the nightmares of not getting to the meeting point on time, or running out of ammo, or realizing my gun got jammed… I would wake up sweating, short of breath, my heart pounding like crazy… 

These feelings still come up once in a while. Thanks to Systema, now I quickly recognize these emotions as they appear and no longer allow them to control my actions.

Thank God, during my service I never let down my comrades even once. Yet, I experienced the full-blown fear of helplessness twice. First, being alone, practically unarmed, in the midst of a war-torn, enemy-controlled city. A few years ago, I already wrote about this experience in the story called “The Final Argument”. And the second episode was falling down in a helicopter jam-packed with people. Let’s talk about the helicopter incident. 

It happened in early spring of 1992 in mountains of Armenia.

The military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh area broke out and the fighting was very close. The 46 of us were flown in by helicopters to our base, which was surrounded by more than 500 Armenian guerrillas. A day before, the guerrillas had assaulted the base and taken its commander and 10 officers hostages. In exchange for their lives, the bandits had demanded that we relinquish all the heavy weapons located at the base, including artillery and ammo for ‘Grad’ and ‘Uragan’ rapid-fire systems.

We did our job. How we did it is a different story. It included repelling another attack and completing the mission in the surrounding territory. In a few days, all hostages were brought back unconditionally. However, there was still a very real threat of attacks.

The next shift was flown in to replace us. As we were leaving for the mainland in four MI-8 helicopters, we decided to take along the wives and children of the officers. The load in each helicopter was more than double the permitted weight. People were sitting tightly on the floor and on their packages. High elevation and rough weather conditions (wind, snow, and darkness) only added to the complexity of the mission.

Our pilots were top of the line. All crews went through Afghanistan. They knew very well that there would be no other chance and tried to pick up everybody. It was risky, but the risk was well calculated based on the capabilities of the pilots and the equipment.

My chopper was second in the first pair. There was only a small area for the take-off, so we could not gain speed by running like an airplane (a maneuver often used by helicopter pilots in high mountains). I stuck out the barrel of my gun in the window on the left side and watched how the leading helicopter, swinging heavily from side to side, took off after three attempts. It veered to the left, narrowly missing electric poles and trees, but regained its balance and started ascending.

Immediately, our chopper started shaking violently. There was the roar of the engine as we started taking off… Then I felt it diving down and bouncing heavily off the ground… Another take-off attempt and one more dive with a thud… Our chopper was bouncing like a ball. Then again, lift-off, going up and a sharp right – all I could see was the sky… There was someone falling off the bench, a piercing shriek of a woman, yelling, something crashing, sounds of metal scraping, another crash, then deafening roar of the engine, and jittery convulsions of the chopper… I don’t know how long it lasted – more than likely, it was only 3 or 4 seconds but it surely felt like eternity. Out there, in the twilight zone between life and something else, there is no sense of time. It felt like everything inside of me shrunk and froze, my limbs got weak, my breathing stopped. There was this sudden, acute awareness of how helpless, fragile, and useless everything was…

Somehow we took off. We made it. Our flying aces pulled it off. I can’t thank them enough. Unfortunately, we could not properly thank them – right after dropping us off on an impromptu landing spot they flew to their home base. That was the last time we saw them alive – in two months they crashed high in the mountains and we had to get their bodies from the snow slopes at an elevation of over 11,000 ft…

Later on, people from the second helicopter pair told us that during the take-off we were blown smack into a two-story headquarters building, a wheel and chassis support got stuck and tore off the water spout and a piece of the roof, the propeller blades chopped off the antennas… It was a miracle that the pilots pulled it off.

Anyway, as soon as we started steady ascend, my fear was gone and I dozed off. We flew through the night. I remember how a sharp sideways jolt woke me up; what I saw through the window looked like chains of lights streaming towards us from the darkness. My sleepy interpretation was peaceful: maybe those were fireworks or simply a faraway train down there… As we were getting off, I noticed bullet holes in the helicopter’s body.

It’s been many years since that night, but I still vividly remember the fear. I also remember making a promise to myself to try and avoid any situations where I had no control. Now I understand that often I could not keep this promise.

With the foundation of strength and security in Systema, it is easy to reflect on your life (both past and future) and discover many things about yourself. I believe this is the only healthy way: through calm training, unraveling your own memories, impressions and thoughts, gradually figuring out your fears, tracing their roots, and learning to live fear-free today! This is what recognizing your fears and mustering courage is all about. I hope that during the upcoming Systema Summer Camp, we’ll have enough time for both.

Konstantin Komarov

- Major in the Special Service Police Force
- Russian Military Reconnaissance
- PhD in combat Psychology
- Professional Bodyguard for Moscow's Elite
- One of the master instructors at Systema Camp