In awe at human potential: SERE psychologist tells her experience

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Elizabeth Baker
  • 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
“Humans are very resilient,” said the red-haired, uniformed woman. “People are a lot stronger than they think they are, and have the capacity to endure horrific circumstances through the sheer will to survive.”

Maj. Neysa Etienne has seen people endure the worst situations. She works with the 86th Medical Squadron as a flight commander and the primary Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape psychologist for U.S. Air Forces Europe and United States European Command. Etienne has been helping to repatriate victims of Isolation for four years.

“I’ve seen individuals who have been held captive five-and-a-half years, or 8 years, or children born in captivity,” Etienne said. “Since 2015, we’ve had 21 individuals come from these types of situations.” She paused and chose her words carefully. “They’ve been pretty severe situations.”

Examples of the kind of isolating situations Etienne’s patients endure include hostiles taking an individual captive, or a helicopter going down in a remote or hostile location.

Etienne joined the military as a licensed clinical professional. Before that, she worked in prisons settings where she treated patients with some of the same symptoms that she does now.

Now working at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Etienne treats U.S. and allied partner nation active duty members and civilians. She recently received the Department of Defense-wide Allied Health Leadership Excellence Award for senior clinician of the year. She has worked with Croatia and Hungary to help develop their repatriation programs for recovered personnel, and plans to do the same in Poland. Personnel recovery and medical communities invite her to speak and share her extensive experience.

Etienne’s passion for helping patients in the military community perform to the best of their ability began with an experience she had when she was younger.

“When I was about 10 years old I found a box in the attic,” Etienne said. ”I brought it to my bedroom. It was full of war paraphernalia, pictures, and an old uniform.”

Etienne’s father had been a combat vet in Vietnam, but he had never told her that. He only told her that he had been in the Army.

“When my dad came home from work and saw what I had found it looked like he’d seen a ghost,” Etienne said. “That started a dialogue between my father and I. It opened up a whole world for both of us because he’d never talked about his experiences in combat.”

Etienne listened to her father’s many stories as a whole new world of his history opened up to her.
“I think that that significantly impacted me at an early age,” Etienne said. “It helped me learn about my dad and understand his behavior a little bit better.”

In the months and years that followed, Etienne watched her father getting back in contact with his Army friends and begin attending reunions. She experienced a growing desire to understand human behavior.

“What I got to see in my house as a child was a transformation as a result of my dad telling his story,” Etienne said. “People coming out of captivity have a story to tell, and part of my role is to help them tell that story.”

Even after practicing psychology in the civilian sector for years, Etienne retained a desire to work in a military setting because of her connection to her father. She achieved her desires, and says she is now working with some of the world’s most experienced military medical professionals.

Her time at LRMC lead Etienne to one of the most impactful cases she has taken on. The victim was a coalition partner nation citizen who had been isolated for five-and-a-half years.

“He’d had very little human contact and was essentially catatonic at the point of reception,” Etienne said. “He couldn’t really tolerate much human interaction, was in complete shock, wasn’t speaking, and had a really hard time even formulating words. He had shut down significantly. This was one of the more challenging cases we worked.”

Etienne said that over the course of three weeks, the medical team essentially underwent the process of rebuilding a human. The victim started as someone who couldn’t walk on his own. He had spent so many years avoiding eye contact that he struggled to break out of a submissive posture with head and eyes down.

“For many days he sat in a ball on the carpet and was not able to communicate other than maybe a quick glance,” Etienne said. “He went through a transformation. When he returned home he was walking on his own, able to engage in conversation, and able to make short eye contact. At the beginning a lot of people didn’t think we were going to get very far because he was so severely impacted by his experience. He went from basically a heap on a floor, to my most recent update being that he just bought his own place and is starting an advanced degree program. That was at least two years of working with him.”

Etienne said that witnessing the man’s recovery was one of the most meaningful experiences she ever had. It developed her understanding of what humans are capable of.

Perhaps one of the reasons Etienne believes so strongly in resiliency is because she had to find her own while accomplishing the most intense level of SERE training. The training pushes participants to their limits as they endure austere environments and simulated captivity.

“Sometimes people in the class were surprised at themselves at how resilient and resourceful they became in those situations, and the different ways that they marked time,” Etienne recalled. “One of the things that comes out is that when an individual keeps faith in something, has something to hope for, finds some sense of meaning and purpose, those tend to be positive indicators of a more rapid recovery post-isolation.”

Etienne reflected further on her experiences.

“I think so many of us sell ourselves short,” Etienne said. “I often stand in awe at human potential: what people are capable of doing and creating and achieving.”