The wind kicked up around twilight. Glancing toward the sky, they wondered whether the storm clouds would catch up to them. They wondered what else was in store and how they’d handle the challenges of the next 24 hours or however long this would last.
Rain began to fall as they marched some 10 kilometers to a rugged spot in the wilderness where they would set up a patrol base for the night. They’d spend the next several hours performing reconnaissance and getting into position while remaining quiet and watchful for insurgents. They wouldn’t get much rest.
“At night the mood turns very dark,” Command Sgt. Maj. Jon Sawyer explained.
“There was a definite change in tone. They were pretty withdrawn and subdued. It started getting real for them,” Lt. Col. Ravindra “Ravi” Wagh said.
Alone with strangers they’d just met that morning, the soldiers were cold, wet, tired, aching and demoralized. In this surreal, two-dimensional, night-vision world, their thoughts would turn inward. Some would beat themselves up about mistakes they made that day. They’d worry about how they’d perform the next day, or the next, or whenever they’d reach that point when they were thoroughly smoked. Would they find that new gear within themselves that Wagh had talked about?
This wasn’t really war, but it was hell. That was the point of the Mungadai leadership training exercise: to provide a gut check. To inflict mental, physical and emotional stress as a means of fostering introspection and personal growth. It also was intended to show these mid-level brigade leaders with the Michigan Army National Guard what it’s like for the men and women they command.
The exercise wasn’t supposed to throw people into crisis or get them hurt. Their weapons fired blanks. But it was definitely intended to get them out of their comfort zones. And there would be casualties—the earliest and most painful being badly bruised egos.
This Isn’t Powerpoint
Arriving at northern Michigan’s Camp Grayling on a mild summer day, these citizen soldiers came from all parts of the state and represented military police, signals, engineer and headquarters command units. Their ranks ranged from first sergeant up through lieutenant colonel.
“They probably think they’re going to spend the weekend in PowerPoint presentations,” said Col. Stephen Potter, commander of the 2,700-member 177th Military Police Brigade. “They don’t know they’re in for a suck-ex—a suck exercise. That’s a term we used in the Rangers.”
Potter, who joined the National Guard in 1999, previously served seven years in the active-duty Army, including stints in the elite 75th Ranger Regiment and the 82nd Airborne Division as well as a tour in South Korea. Outside the Army, the 44-year-old security company founder is a husband and father of three children ranging in age from 12 to 16.
The men and women attending the training also have families and civilian jobs—in law enforcement, education, emergency services and other types of work. Most had been deployed at least once to Afghanistan or Iraq, where about 20 of their fellow Guard members died of wounds suffered in combat.
But it might’ve been years since the majority spent a night outdoors and maybe longer since they navigated a course or slogged with heavy packs, weapons and ammunition over rugged, unfamiliar terrain. They’d probably never done the things they were about to do with complete strangers. If that wasn’t stressful enough, these type-A overachievers would not take failure easily.
And the Mungadai was designed for failure—from the start.
Don’t Ring the Bell
“Safety is No. 1,” Potter said as he opened what was vaguely billed as a leadership training weekend. “We will be active over the next couple of days. It’s not like we’re going to have a little breakout in the corner and fall backward and see if someone catches us. It’s going to be mentally and physically strenuous.”
Potter said he wanted to see members work together, communicate, test themselves, get to know each other, have fun… and one more thing: “Don’t ring the bell.” He was referring to Navy SEAL training. When SEAL candidates can’t take the training, they ring a bell to signal that they’ve quit. Adm. William McRaven used the phrase in a commencement speech at his alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin.
“His message was, ‘Don’t ring the bell in life.’ When things get tough, suck it up, move past it and grow,” Potter said. “My goal for all of you is that you don’t ring the bell this weekend and push through. Questions?”
A captain raised his hand: “So this is more or less a smokescreen?” He referred to reading material disseminated in advance.
“Faulty intelligence, captain,” Potter explained amid a few hushed chuckles.
Wagh continued: “Mungadai was created by some free-thinking senior leaders in the Army in the mid-’90s. The spelling has changed over the years, but the concept originated with a group of Mongol badasses during the time of Genghis Khan. The idea is that through discipline and privation, we become stronger. It’s a medium to train leaders.”
Wagh, who serves full time with the Active Guard Reserve, had participated in and led previous Mungadai exercises beginning in 1998, when he was invited as a junior Ranger captain to attend a commemoration of D-Day in Normandy. Part of the celebration included a surprise Mungadai led by then-Gen. David L. Grange for his brigade commanders in the 1st Infantry Division.
A few years later, Wagh’s regimental commander, then-Col. Stanley A. McChrystal, put all Ranger captains through a Mungadai, “and he just really smoked us for several days in the swamps of Florida.”
“I learned a lot about myself there,” Wagh said, “and this was after I’d been in the Ranger Regiment for a couple of years.”
First Sgt. Rebecca Witt was one of a few soldiers who had previously participated in one of Wagh’s Mungadai exercises. After the first day, her feet became so badly blistered that she couldn’t get her boots on, which really affected her morale. But this time she acted on a hunch, preparing her feet in advance and making a last-minute decision to wear newer boots. “I remember thinking how thankful I was for doing that.”
Not a lot bigger than her rucksack, Witt, 36, was one of the smallest participants in the recent Mungadai. But that didn’t slow her down.
“When I face challenges—not just in [military] exercises, but even while I’m out running—when I get to a point where I feel my motivation taking a turn for the worst, I remember that the aches, the burning lungs, the exhaustion all mean that I am able to do these things. I think about how there are wounded soldiers, soldiers who are no longer with us and people in general who would do these things every day for the rest of their lives if it meant being here and being able.”
Witt, who joined the National Guard in 1998, serves with a military police company and full time in the Active Guard Reserve. Her husband is also in the Guard, and she has two stepsons.
“I’ve learned that the biggest challenge is mental resiliency,” she said. “You don’t have to be the fastest or the strongest or even the best planner or decision-maker—although all of those are helpful. I feel that the people who do not successfully complete a Mungadai are those who give up on themselves as individuals. The team as a whole would never allow any of us to fail, and in the end it is our own mental tenacity that determines our individual outcome. I truly believe this is applicable in our everyday lives more often than not.”
The trait Witt seems to describe is grit, which, along with self-control, is the most important predictor of success, according to the research of Angela Lee Duckworth, Ph.D.
“Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals,” Duckworth said in a TED Talk. “Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living like a marathon, not a sprint.”
Duckworth, who heads The Duckworth Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, studied diverse groups of people and found that grit—rather than intelligence or talent—was the common denominator in their success. Her subjects included cadets at West Point who made it to graduation, kids who reached the National Spelling Bee finals, people in sales who kept their jobs and made the most money, and teachers in tough schools who lasted the longest and remained effective.
Whether it’s possible to develop grit is a question Duckworth continues to research. Soldiers who completed the Mungadai have their own opinions.
Strength through Stress
“When you looked at some of the people at the end, with their blisters and boils, a normal person would say, ‘I’m going to the hospital with this foot,’ but they were still marching,” Potter said. He believes the resilience gained through a Mungadai or similar stressful experience can translate into other areas of life, helping a person get through other hardships like a cancer diagnosis or divorce.
As Lt. Col. Ken Dilg put it, “We learn the most through our failures. We grow the most when we push ourselves through our toughest times. Go ask a group of people when the hardest times of their lives were, and then ask them at what times in their lives did they grow the most, and I will bet you those times will match up. No one grows in times of comfort. We learn and grow when we are tested, stressed and forced to perform to survive.”
Pushing past perceived limits builds confidence, and that’s huge, Wagh said. “Yesterday you thought you wouldn’t have been able to do this or continue this, but now you know that you can. You found another gear. It’s going to be OK. I saw that with a lot of people.”
Research actually shows that stress can help build resilience, writes Stanford University lecturer and health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., in the book The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It
McGonigal began looking at the benefits of stress after learning of a 2011 study that showed that the way people think about stress actually influences the effect it has on them. Researchers found that people who had experienced a very stressful year were more likely to die within eight years if they believed the stress was harmful to their health, while those who thought stress had no effect on their health actually experienced protective benefits, she said.
“When people think about their own physiological symptoms of stress in a more positive way—for example, as energy—it changes everything, from the level of inflammation in the body to how much the blood vessels constrict, without necessarily calming them down,” she said. “You can have a healthy stress response that helps you rise to the challenge.”
In addition to the “fight or flight” responses to stress—the secretion of adrenaline and cortisol hormones—our bodies produce DHEA, a neurosteroid, that helps us recover from stress and makes the body and brain healthier and more resilient, McGonigal said in a recent interview. For example, it helps the brain grow new connections after a stressful experience so the next time we go through it, we find the experience more familiar and easier to handle, she said. Our pituitary gland also releases oxytocin, sometimes called the love hormone, which can make us want to connect with others—to help those who are struggling or to reach out for encouragement or support, she said.
Shock the System
One of the things that bonds people during any crisis is “that realization that you’re part of a team and everybody is going through the same challenges,” Potter said. “You look to your left and right, and everyone else is handling this, so you know you can handle it.”
The same was true for Mungadai participants. Assigned to work with strangers, they didn’t initially have camaraderie. They also had to get used to different leaders they didn’t necessarily know, including some of the least-experienced Guard members at the beginning of the exercise.
“We do that to shock the system,” Potter explained. “From the get-go, you really want to take them to the lowest point, which we did. The first mission took forever, and it was hot. There was just complete discombobulation. Everybody was frustrated.”
The first mission was to attack a cell of insurgents (Guard volunteers) holed up in a building. But they had to get there first. Planning and indecision slowed their progress during their march through the woods.
“This is taking too long. I want to force a decision,” Wagh said, ordering a couple of insurgents to find the group, engage in a firefight and draw the Guard platoon toward the building. Minutes later, the crackle of automatic gunfire echoed through the trees. A pair of insurgents emerged from hiding places near the forest, sprinted toward the building and were cut down by gunfire. Two more bad guys ran toward them. They died, too.
A handful of Guard members ran from the forest across an open area, took cover behind trees and resumed firing while others circled around and entered the building from the other side. There was gunfire inside and then silence. “Check the perimeter,” someone yelled.
The good guys prevailed, but you wouldn’t know that from their faces as they gathered for an after-action review. AARs are standard practice following any Army mission or exercise. The intent is to give pats on the back and constructive criticism.
On a positive note, Wagh commended a soldier who fired relentlessly at the building: “He destroyed people.”
In Search of Carmine Ragusa
But the negatives outweighed the positives. People didn’t do enough to help others who were struggling, they didn’t receive adequate information about the scenario and mission, and they didn’t follow fundamental procedures. “That’s the theme: getting back to basics. Those little things will kick our ass,” Wagh said.
He took a moment to read the Mungadai scenario details:
You are in a domestic operation which began as a natural disaster and has declined progressively into a semi-anarchist state…. The situation is grim…. Active insurgent groups [are] bent on complete destruction.
The local insurgent group is known as WETSU, Wagh said, referring to Army slang for “We eat this s_t up.” It’s usually used when things aren’t going so well. Out of his earshot, a soldier groaned at the reference. Continuing, Wagh read:
Analysis indicates that WETSU is led by a man known only as Rumblefish with several aliases which include Carmine Ragusa and El Guapo.
“Carmine Ragusa—anybody know who that is? From Laverne & Shirley?” He seemed disappointed that nobody remembered the sitcom from the ’70s and ’80s.
“Not old enough,” a soldier responded.
Continuing with the AAR, Sawyer said, “From a senior [noncommissioned officer’s] perspective, we’re in transition coming out of war right now with turnover of junior leaders. These are the most fundamental things our junior leaders have to know if they’re going to grow up to be successful. And this is the group that’s going to teach those junior leaders. So we have to know how to do the most basic things.”
Potter stressed communication throughout the ranks. “If everybody is dead except one private who can complete the mission, then the mission is a success, [but] he needs to know the mission and what success looks like and why you’re doing it.”
The Low Point
Participants applied the criticism throughout the day’s missions—as they survived an ambush by WETSU, found intelligence on a “dead” insurgent that led them to a mock village in search of Rumblefish, where they encountered a suicide bomber and came under enemy fire while managing to rescue a downed pilot hidden in an underground tunnel.
But the low point hadn’t happened yet.
The morning after that miserable night outdoors, soldiers were to march to a mock city where they would raid a building in search of a senior WETSU operative called Othello. But they got lost.
“Delays due to map reading and navigational issues caused us to travel a significantly farther distance than what was intended,” Witt said. “There were also a lot of halts during that particular march, which meant a lot of getting up and down with our gear. I believe that was a low point for a lot of us as you could sense a shift in morale; communication was lacking, everyone was tired and hot, our bodies were sore and feet were starting to blister and bleed.”
Finally they reached the building, and the tide turned. Amid smoke and fake screams broadcast from a public address system, the Guard soldiers attacked. Insurgents fired upon them from the roof and inside, but the good guys kept coming, storming the building, systematically checking room by room, taking out bad guys along the way and communicating with each other. Othello waited on the roof. But he would not survive.
At the end of the day—after 36 hours of Mungadai—members of the Michigan Army National Guard unfurled their units’ colors and marched proudly back to the base, where they received certificates, commemorative machetes and steak dinners.
“I still get notes from people: ‘Hey sir, I appreciate it. That was awesome. I’m going to do the same thing with my unit,’” Wagh said about the Mungadai in a recent phone call from Liberia. He’s serving a yearlong tour in the West African country along with Potter, who commands Operation Onward Liberty, which aims at rebuilding the Armed Forces of Liberia following the country’s civil wars. Wagh and Potter arrived in late 2014 as Ebola continued to rage, and immediately got to work with containment and prevention efforts. Even at their barracks, the disease took the lives of seven people—civilians and soldiers.
Wagh, 44, who is married with children ages 13, 15 and 20, admitted his family experienced a different kind of worry about this deployment. “When you get right down to it, Ebola is a pretty devastating disease,” he said.
Now with the crisis over, Wagh and Potter are helping Liberian soldiers take lessons from it. “We’re making sure we capture the good things we did and improve upon them before the next pandemic,” Wagh said. They’re also thinking about putting Liberians through a Mungadai.
“The further you get from [the exercise], you’ll have opportunities to reflect and say, Wow, I pushed myself pretty hard and I made it. You’ll be in an experience—I’ve done it here in Liberia—where you start getting frustrated and realize you’ve been through a lot worse. And then you can relax a little bit, take a breath and continue with the mission.”
This article appears in the August 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine.