This week, SAS Who Dares Wins looks at aggression and how when controlled it can be empowering but left to spiral it can cause immeasurable damage.
SAS Who Dares Wins, a Channel 4 series based around the brutal SAS Selection process, never fails to put an emphasis on mental health. The series has been praised for encouraging men, in particular, to allow themselves to feel and be open about difficult emotions.
In this episode Chief Instructor Ant Middleton and his Directing Staff (DS) of Foxy, Billy and Ollie ask DS newcomer Jay to let them know which recruits he considers to be the strongest and look for recruits who can turn personal adversity into strength.
Recruits two and 23 are sisters, Bethany and Elouise. Jay tells the DS they are two of the strongest recruits, but that Bethany is physically stronger than her younger sister. He also singles out recruit 25, probation officer Chris, as being one of the strongest. However, there are concerns about how well Chris can manage his aggression.
Time To Ramp Up The Pressure
Viewers might be forgiven for thinking that phase one of this year's SAS selection process shown in episode one was as brutal as it gets. Episode two proves that not to be the case.
Scotland’s weather doesn’t hold back as a storm whips the recruits with rain from every angle. While on the parade square Ant talks to the incredibly wet recruits and asks them to use whatever aggression they have to get the job done. To camera Ant says:
“Aggression and violence are frowned upon but how are you expected to win wars if you take out those two components?”
“Used in the right manner, controlled aggression will help you win the fight.”
Over the next 48 hours the Directing Staff test the recruit's ability to control and use their aggression. In a first for SAS Who Dares Wins, the recruits are given a weapon and have to decide whether to shoot a target.
They receive training in the rules of armed conflict and are taught how to use a firearm. Crucially for the challenge, they were taught when they should and should not discharge a weapon.
Video: Channel 4
To simulate the chaos operators work in when in a real-life war zone, the DS disorientate and shock the recruits by blindfolding and handcuffing them in extreme weather and the unforgiving terrain of the Isle of Raasay in the Scottish Highlands while Foxy shoots into the air to simulate real gunfire. They’re told they’re moving through enemy territory and there are hostiles everywhere. The DS say, “you do exactly as I say, do you understand?”
First to take on the challenge is recruit 23, Elouise. After being dragged downhill while hooded, Billy suddenly hands her a firearm and whips off her blindfold. Each recruit must decide in a split second whether the gunman is an ally and whether they should return fire. Elouise immediately fires eight times as she does not notice the gunman is wearing a Canadian flag on his uniform and is, therefore, an ally.
Next to take on the challenge is Elouise’s sister Bethany, the stronger recruit according to Jay’s intel. She also doesn’t correctly identify the man running towards her as an ally and shoots.
The sisters grew up on a farm where their parents taught them to question everything, especially authority. They were raised in a gender-neutral environment and were quite strong. Bethany said:
“We were feral as children ... we were always covered in mud.”
“Most people were at home playing computer games and we were outside playing on hale bays and making dens.”
The sisters signed up for SAS Who Dares Wins for a variety of reasons which include their own struggles with mental health – Bethany has bipolar disorder but no longer lets it hold her back - and wanting to challenge themselves physically but there is also a family connection. The sister’s great grandad worked alongside the founder of the SAS, David Stirling. He was part of the Long Range Desert Group and received the military medal among other accolades.
At the end of the firearms challenge, recruit 15, Carla, is the first person not to shoot. Overall, only seven recruits passed the test. DS Ollie says:
“When I was in Iraq, I found myself surrounded, outnumbered, outgunned and there was two vehicles behind us, full of militia and I was cornered.
“I had to take action. I looked into the enemy's eyes and we both knew that one of us had to pull the trigger before the other and at that moment, I got the upper hand.
“It wasn’t something I take glory about doing but that’s why I’m here today.”
Finally, it’s the turn of recruit 25, Chris, who says he’s confident with his physical capabilities but he’s aware that he finds managing his emotions and anger challenging. He said:
“With me anger, it’s like a buildup and it’s got to come out somewhere and eventually it just explodes.”
When handed the weapon Chris decides to run towards the gunman instead of taking time to check if they are an ally. This infuriates DS Billy because he knows that if that had been a real-life situation, Chris would have died, and two men would have been sent in to retrieve his body. He said:
“I told you, stand still. Your f****** head just went like this, didn’t it? Couldn’t think under pressure, could you?
“Do you know what it means? One, you get killed. Two, that’s two more of my f****** men to come and rescue you.
Before coming on the show, each recruit underwent extensive psychological assessment. Concerned about recruit Chris' inability to control his aggression, Chief Instructor Ant asks to review his results.
Chief Medical Advisor Dr Sundeep Chohan, who specialises in mental health and has worked closely alongside the armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, reveals that out of all the recruits, Chris scores the highest in terms of aggression. He said:
“It asked, ‘do you think about acts of aggression or violence?’ and you put ‘yes’.
“Do you see yourself looking for a fight? ‘Yes’.”
Time To Push People To Their Limit
After the marksman task exposed the recruits' flaws, the DS device a plan to whittle out the weak. Ant said:
“Honestly, I wouldn’t pass any of them. I don’t think any of them have got any potential to pass this course.”
Next, the DS put the recruits through one of the most iconic elements of selection, ‘The Sickener’. It only stops after three people voluntarily withdraw. The point of ‘The Sickener’ is to push people to their limits and see how they react.
The recruits are submerged arm in arm in near-freezing water for 15 minutes. Next, they must scale a cliff face, simulate an evacuation by dragging their partners and finally take it in turns to carry their partner uphill using the fireman’s carry technique. Ant said:
“If a recruit can survive a sickener then we know there’s potential there.
“But if you’re not psychologically and emotionally resilient you will not pass.”
Video: Channel 4
After pushing Chris to his limit, the DS ask to speak to him, so he’s hooded and led away from the others. It doesn’t take long for Chris to open up about why he struggles with managing his aggression. Chris said:
“The reason I wanted to join this course is because I’ve never forgave myself for the way I was with my brother.
“I was around 16 years old and he tragically died in a motorbike accident.
The DS ask how that made him feel. Chris said:
“At the time I was a little bit confused. I didn’t really know how to feel. I didn’t really understand my own emotions.
“After his funeral me Father moved to New Zealand, that was his way of grieving.
“At that age, your Mother’s drinking herself silly every night and every time you pop in to see her, she’s saying she doesn’t want to be here anymore.
“Unfortunately, my daily method was to drink and take drugs and try and block it out.
“Be the hard man, be the tough guy. Getting into bother, getting into scraps because I was thriving off the adrenaline rush from it.”
Foxy asks what he thinks about this childhood aggression. He said:
“Not proud of it. I’ve got a respectable job now, helping support people. Try and help them change their lives as well, for the better obviously.
His job as a Probation Officer means he rehabilitates offenders whose wrong choices have led them to break the law. Ollie asks if Chris thinks people can change? Chris said:
“100%. I’ve seen it happen, but I haven’t seen it happen for myself yet.”
Chris explains that when he was 16 he was really starting to enjoy his brother's company. They shared the same sense of humour and understood each other. He said:
“I remember waking up, he’d been working on a night shift and I was on my way out of the door and he said, ‘why don’t you have a go on my motorbike?’”
Chris turned down the offer and that was the last time he saw his brother. He said:
“I wish he was still here. Just so that he knew I loved him and knew I cared about him.
“And I wish he didn’t get on that b***** motorbike.”
New Day, New Brutal Challenge
Ant calls Directing Staff mole ‘Jamie’, real name Jay, in to let him know what’s really going on in the recruit's heads. Jay says that even though sisters Bethany and Elouise are strong, they are too close. Speaking to the camera Ant said:
“Selection is all about uncovering weaknesses. We work in teams; we work in pairs but ultimately, we need to know that you can survive by yourself.
“If we identify an emotional connection, we need to put this to the test.”
In a remote location on the south of the island, the recruits are matched by weight in hand to hand combat. As the recruits prepare themselves to fight by putting on gloves and protective headgear, Ant reminds them to use their aggression in a productive way. He said:
“Whatever f****** aggression you’ve got pent up in there, use it against the enemy.
“Make it work for you because the moment it doesn’t work for you, it f****** works against you.
“That’s where our discipline separates us from the rest.”
To the camera, Ant explains that in the Special Forces you must be able to switch on and switch off. Letting emotion take over can cost a life. Ant says to the recruits:
“When you’re f***** this is where aggression counts.
“The reason why you must flick it on and off is because one minute you’re f****** shooting someone in the face and the f****** next door you go into there’s family and children.”
Because of her height and weight, Bethany is pitted against undercover DS ‘Jamie’ to test the sister's relationship. As the relentless punches start flying, and Bethany is knocked to the ground, all Elouise can do is watch in tears.
Video: Channel 4
It remains unclear until later why both sisters found the task so emotionally challenging.
After seeing Bethany break down in tears on return to base, Chief Medical Advisor Sundeep pulls her away from the other recruits to find out what about the fighting challenge she found most difficult.
When Sundeep tells Bethany she performed well in the hand to hand combat challenge she breaks into tears again. He asks whether fighting with a man is a trigger for her? She said:
“A huge one, yeah because it brought back a lot of things for me that I’ve not dealt with.
“I’ve had abusive relationships in the past, a few of them, not just the one and I never really fought back or tried to stand up for myself and [the hand to hand combat challenge] taught me that I could.”
Sundeep reassures Bethany that she has exactly what the DS were looking for. The ability to control her aggression and stand her ground. She said:
“If somebody physically or emotionally tries to pick on me I will stand up for myself now.
“Being treated like that in my previous relationships has made me more resilient and it’s made me who I am.”
Watch SAS: Who Dares Wins Sundays at 9pm on Channel 4 in the UK and via BFBS TV
Picture Credit: Channel 4 News