Feature

On April 1, psychologist Lt. Cmdr. Gary Hoyt, PsyD, got a call from his commander about a now world-famous incident: A U.S. Navy EP-3 plane manned by 24 crew members had made an emergency landing on Hainan Island in southern China.

Hoyt was ordered to join the repatriation team that would meet the crew members upon their release. Within hours, he was on a plane bound for the Pacific. Eleven days later, the Americans were released and whisked to the U.S. territory of Guam before continuing on to Hawaii for debriefing.

Hoyt, the only psychologist on board for the crew's trip to Hawaii, was responsible for initially assessing the mental states of the 24 servicemen and women and determining what services they might need in Hawaii.

"These were individuals who had just gone through a sustained period where they had lost a significant amount of control," says Hoyt. "For example, what was the impact of getting hit by another plane and then suddenly dropping 8,000 feet? Or the stress of knowing they had to do their jobs, but that they were also going down? They faced interrogations--how did that affect them? What about physical threats? We've found that uncertainties are sometimes worse than the events that actually occur. So one of our goals was to give them back a sense of control."

Hoyt's work began well before the crew's return, preparing the other members of the repatriation team--intelligence, communications and medical officers--on the possible mental conditions of the crew members and discussing how they would question the crew about what had happened.

"We wanted to make sure they didn't feel like they were getting re-interrogated," he explains.

Hoyt also talked with the crews of the planes that carried the crew to Guam and Hawaii, explaining that they should act in a normal, professional manner.

Once the crew was aboard, he started by working through what he calls the group's "trauma membrane."

"This is a group that has encountered a tremendous amount of stress together, and there's a lot of cohesiveness as a result," he explains. "I had to assimilate into that cohesiveness without breaking it up. I attempted to help them let me know what they needed."

Once the crew reached Hawaii, the size of the repatriation team grew as Hoyt was joined by his supervisor, Bruce Jesson, PhD, as well as U.S. Navy psychologists Capt. Beverly Paige-Dobson, PhD, and Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Doran, PhD, U.S. Air Force Capt. Jerry O'Grisseg, PhD, and Gary Percival, PhD, of Joint Personnel Recovery Services, a Department of Defense­funded civilian group that provides assistance to the military in such situations.

While Hoyt can't talk about the specific issues they addressed in Hawaii, in general, he and his colleagues:

  • Put the physical, cognitive and emotional reactions to captivity into context.

  • Helped members address family issues and life changes that occurred while they were in China.

  • Conducted one-on-one and group interventions.

  • Participated in the two-day debriefings to moderate their intensity.

  • Prepared the crew to deal with the media.

The psychologists also conducted their own debriefings to assess if the crew found the psychological training received by all service members who face a high risk of capture. Hoyt had a special interest in the crew's insights; his daily job is training Navy and Marine Corps personnel to deal with the mental strains of captivity and interrogations at the Navy's Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school.

"Operational military psychologists must draw from their foundation of training and knowledge and then apply those principles to the settings before them, such as working with special forces, aircraft mishaps or, in this case, repatriating American detainees," says Hoyt. "It was a terrific experience, and I'm very privileged to have done it."