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  • Rowan

You Are Never Helpless

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

This post isn't about guns or gear, but something that is just as important in keeping you safe, and that's your mindset. In studying many cases of people involved in brutal survival situations, the common factor for those who survive is often having an overwhelming will to live.

I'll give you two examples that I have always found incredible. First is the story of José Salvador Alvarenga. Alvarenga is a Salvadorian fisherman who set off from his fishing village on the coast of Chiapas, Mexico on November 17th, 2012. Alvarenga planned a 30-hour deep-sea fishing trip. His usual fishing buddy was not available so he brought an inexperienced 23-year-old named Ezequiel Cordoba, whom Alvarenga had never met before.

Fishing boat
Not exactly a cruise liner

Shortly after setting sail, their small boat, a 23ft fiberglass skiff with a single outboard motor, was blown off course by a storm that lasted five days. The two men had caught over a thousand pounds of fish but were forced to ditch it overboard to make the boat more maneuverable. Alvarenga and Cordoba were left adrift in a small boat with a radio with a dead battery, no sails, oars, anchors, or running lights. All they had left was a handful of basic supplies and a small quantity of food.

A search party attempted to locate the fisherman but as the days turned into weeks the search effort was cancelled. The two fishermen did what they could to survive. Alvarenga caught fish, turtles, jellyfish, and seabirds with his bare hands. They collected rainwater when they could but mostly drank turtle blood and their urine.

According to Alvarenga, Cordoba lost the will to live after approximately four months of being adrift in the middle of the ocean and eventually died from starvation by refusing to eat. Alvarenga later said that he considered suicide for days after Cordoba died, but his Christian faith prevented him from doing so.

Alvarenga later spotted a tiny island in the distance. He abandoned his boat and swam to shore where he was rescued and provided medical aid.

Stranded sailor survivor
Alvarenga after over a year at sea

Now imagine being stranded in the middle of the ocean on a small boat. Your only companion has already given up hope and died, you have no food, no water, only what you can catch or salvage with your bare hands. Your entire existence is a 23ft piece of floating fiberglass in the middle of the ocean. How long do you think you would last under those conditions? How long would your will to live continue? Days? Months?

Alvarenga made landfall on January 30th, 2014. 438 days after leaving his home. He had spent 13 months at sea and traveled over 6000 miles.

I don't know what kind of mental fortitude it takes to survive an ordeal like that and I hope I never have to find out, but I know Alvarenga had 438 days to give up hope, and he never did, and that is pretty amazing.

Next up is Master Sergeant Roy P. Benavidez, a true American hero. If you watched a movie about this man it would seem absolutely unbelievable. Benavidez was born in Texas in 1935, the son of a Mexican farmer and a Native American woman. When he was two years old his father died of tuberculosis. Five years later his mother also died of the disease. Benevidez dropped out of school at age 15 to help support his family and enlisted in the National Guard in 1952. In 1955 he switched from the National Guard to active duty and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division.

Roy P. Benavidez
Roy P. Benavidez, a true American hero

Benavidez went on to qualify and get accepted to the elite 5th Special Forces Group. In 1965 he deployed to South Vietnam as a Special Forces advisor. During his tour in Vietnam, he stepped on a landmine during a patrol. Benavidez was severely injured and doctors told him he would never walk again and began preparing his medical discharge papers.

Benavidez was not the kind of man who liked being told he couldn't do something. While still in the hospital Benavidez began an unsanctioned training ritual in the middle of the night. He would crawl out of his hospital bed using his elbows and chin and prop himself up against a nearby wall. He would then attempt to lift himself, unaided, starting from his toes and slowly working his way up his body. Benavidez admitted his sessions were excruciating and often left him in tears. After over a year in recovery, Benavidez walked out of the hospital with his wife at his side, determined to return to Vietnam. In 1968 he had his wish and was deployed again to South Vietnam.

On May 2, 1968, Benavidez was returning from Catholic Mass when he heard a radio call. One of his friends, Sgt. 1st Class LeRoy Wright was in trouble. Wright and Benavidez had served together and Wright had saved Benavidez's life when their patrol was ambushed. Benavidez learned that Wright's 12-man team was surrounded by a North Vietnamese Army battalion and was outnumbered nearly 100 to 1. Three helicopters had already failed to rescue the team. Without hesitation, Benavidez grabbed a combat knife and a first aid bag and jumped on the next helicopter.

Once Benavidez arrived, the enemy fire was too intense for the helicopter to land so he jumped out and began running the 75yds to the team's position. Before he could make it he was shot in the leg and a hand grenade explosion peppered his head and face with shrapnel. Benavidez continued on and reached his friends where he helped the wounded and armed himself with an AK47 while calling for a helicopter to evacuate the team.

Benavidez began leading the team to the evacuation point when he was shot in the stomach and was hit with shrapnel from another grenade. The helicopter that was supposed to rescue them was hit and crashed nearby.

Benavidez, who had already been shot twice, and shredded by grenade shrapnel, continued on to the crash site and began organizing the survivors and forming a perimeter. He began calling in airstrikes and coordinating further rescue efforts.

Eventually, another helicopter was dispatched so Benavidez began carrying his wounded men to the helicopter. On one trip he was clubbed in the jaw by an NVA soldier and stabbed with a bayonet. Benavidez, now with a broken jaw and a severe stab wound, killed the soldier with his combat knife and continued carrying injured soldiers to the helicopter while holding in his intestines from the bayonet wound. Benavidez killed two more NVA soldiers who were trying to kill the helicopter pilot and eventually allowed himself to be pulled into the helicopter.

Six hours later Benavidez felt himself being placed into a body bag. He had a broken jaw and 37 separate bullet and bayonet wounds. The medic treating him believed he was already dead. Benavidez couldn't move his arms or legs or even open his eyes so he did the only thing he could and spat in the medics face to show he was still alive.

Incredibly, Benavidez survived and was eventually awarded the nation's highest Military commendation, the Medal of Honor.

Roy P. Benavidez and President Reagan.
Benavidez' superior nominated him for a lesser award as he did not think Benavidez would live long enough to receive the Medal of Honor.

What do these two men have in common? It wasn't knowledge, training, or gear that saved them. It was pure perseverance and will to live. Both men were in what appeared to be absolutely hopeless situations, but they simply did not give themselves the option of quitting. If you are ever in a life or death scenario your will to fight and keep going will likely serve you more than anything else. Don't forget the story of what these two men survived and don't ever assume you are helpless.

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