Vindicating Pence was important to me on a personal level. The man was carrying the fight very, very valiantly and he did not give up. I don’t know about you, but I think about this guy who is struggling to complete a reload of a revolver while he is being shot multiple times. Trying to stick six individual cartridges into the chambers of his cylinder under intense stress would have been a difficult task even if he had not been wounded. It is amazing to me that he had the perseverance to complete that task and to try to stay in the fight while taking painful and debilitating hits. He never gave up! I think his very valiant effort was overshadowed by rumors about brass in his pocket. We need to remember Officer Pence for the things he did right and not the false rumors about what he may have done wrong.

I also thought it unfair that these officers were judged through the lens that didn’t take into account very important physiological changes that were happening to them that affected their performance. 40 years worth of increased learning and knowledge and wisdom has led us to a point where we can more fairly evaluate what really happened, than they could in 1970.

eJournal: What are the key effects of extreme stress that were not acknowledged in 1970?

Wood: We’re fortunate today that we have a better understanding of how the body and mind react when we’re under severe stress. When our Sympathetic Nervous System starts to run wild during high levels of arousal, we start to see a lot of strange effects on our mental and physical abilities. We experience memory loss, slowed processing and confusion. We have difficulty judging time accurately, and things can feel like they are “slowing down” or “speeding up.” We lose our visual acuity and our field of view shrinks down to the point that we’re looking at the world through a soda straw.

Our ears start playing tricks on us—we can’t hear the gun being fired at the end of our arm, but we can hear footsteps at the far edge of the parking lot, or the sound of our brass hitting the ground. Blood leaves the extremities and pools in the core and the major muscle groups for power and to reduce blood loss from wounds. All kinds of chemicals enter our bloodstream to give us increased strength and pain tolerance, but they also help to rob us of fine motor coordination and dexterity.

My friend Bruce Siddle, who has done tremendous work in helping us to understand the effect of these changes on our performance in combat, has a saying that I quoted in the book. Bruce says that “SNS activation makes you fast and strong, but also dumb.” To that, I would add, “. . . and deaf and blind.”

None of these effects are new—we’ve been experiencing them since we were cavemen. The difference is that we’re finally starting to get serious about trying to understand how they affect our performance. In 1970, we weren’t tuned in to that. We assumed that people made mistakes because they were being careless or inattentive or because their training was bad. The hidden assumption was that the brain and the body were working normally, but the people just weren’t “on the ball” for some reason. In some cases that was true, but in other cases it was more a matter of the normal mental and physical processes breaking down. We’re mindful of that now, but we weren’t so much in 1970.

I thought it was important to look at Newhall through this new lens of understanding. Doing this allows us to draw new conclusions about how and why things happened. We start to realize that Officer Alleyn probably ejected the live shotgun round from his gun because of stress-induced mental confusion or memory loss, not because he was just poorly trained on the gun.

[Continued...]