We were the Thirteen. For those who thought we had a death wish, we sang, “There was blood upon the risers …”
We called ourselves the Lucky Thirteen, the 13th parachuting class to go through Fort Benning that year. None of us believed that anyone would ever again jump into enemy territory in large numbers.
Parachute wings on our uniforms bonded us as being superior to grunts or leg-soldiers, the names we used for ordinary infantrymen. If we were never going to use our training for mass invasions, it seemed fair to ask why the army spent money and risked injuries on some of its best troops.
The answer was no secret to us, the Lucky Thirteen. Men in uniform need strong bonds. We had to feel extraordinary to meet extraordinary expectations.
As a Green Beret, the connections tightened further. I had troops who didn’t want to see another doctor, because I was one of them. Within limits, some of my men, not all, were proficient at lying, stealing and cheating on their wives. Silence was one unwritten rule. Another rule decried bringing mission-acquired diseases back to Fort Bragg and trusting wives.
I write in hope of adding a scientific point of view to social and medical issues. I propose that there are commonalities between men who fight for their country and those who link together in gangs.
The purposes are different but in both cases men stand shoulder to shoulder, willing to die together. Behavior abandons self-preservation, links us to brothers in arms, sets others apart from us.
Brain connections are altered by indoctrination that includes abuse of trainees. Uncle Sam messed with my head to get me to sing that song. One of the mechanisms of restructuring involves epigenetics.
I’ve referred to hardwiring as the connections in our brain that come with our DNA. I’ve noted that trauma, infection, toxins and tumors are among the things that can change who we are, if that means the way that we interact with others.
Science is moving closer to understanding the way our genome and epigenome can be changed. Epigenetic reprogramming occurs from preconception to death. The effects on the growing brain are potent.
Social environments affect all of us through the medium of chemistry. Therefore, the love or trauma that we experience makes changes as real as a drug or a steel rod that is shot through our head.
Basic science reminder: A fertilized ovum contains the code, DNA, for every cell. It differentiates us into everything we need to survive. It forms the cells lining the intestine. DNA provides the template that is transferred through RNA to make enzymes that digest food.
In the brain, the neurons make chemicals that speed messages through centers in charge of specific functions. We may feel good or bad, lethargic or stimulated because of chemistry.
Epigenetics is the study of things that interact with DNA without changing the template. There are entire conferences and new books on the subject of specific chemical interactions, especially methyl groups and chromatin.
Within the limits of my competence and the space in a newspaper, I’ll ask that the reader think of these effects as chemical valves that may open or close neural pathways. What we know with absolute certainty is that what we do can change the way other people act, and it wouldn’t happen if brain chemistry was shut down.
Interpreting literature and making it relevant demands reasoned skepticism.
Psychology has been rocked by charges of fraud. Professors have reported on studies that weren’t done. The New York Times ran an article in November 2011 reporting on a Dutch professor who submitted dozens of fraudulent papers to major journals.
The Times also referred to unreliable papers on brain imaging, racial bias and ESP. The American Psychological Association is tackling problem. At the heart are two realities, psychological studies are hard to reproduce and academics are incentivized to publish.
It’s hard to admit that a major rule in applying science to the gang issue is to use caution.
There are some principles that we can draw on and relate to gang-think.
Teens are the majority of most gangs. Risk taking behavior is associated with a stage of brain development. Drug money, sex, and prestige keep some members involved to become OGs (Old Guys), but many adults opt out, sometimes painfully.
Gang activity gets serious around late grade school to early middle school, but the time for prevention comes earlier. Our police are supportive of prevention efforts, but they come in later and deal with what brain function predicted.
After the first few years of grade school, intervention becomes more important than prevention. In light of the present state of knowledge, some programs like King County’s Nurse-Family-Partnership, make sense to me.
It offers nursing support to first-time mothers. A well-trained, supportive nurse can be a nonthreatening authority. She works with a mother, starting with the pregnancy. I look cautiously at any program that has to produce results for the next funding cycle. This one makes sense and supporting data seem solid.
Science can help us to understand the underpinnings of social problems, including the growth of gangs. We can rely on the best studies, if we choose to act. Move forward carefully. Plan to reassess the results.
If you or your group wants to make a difference, study possibilities and consider collaborating. Web search “gang prevention.” The site, ojjdp.gov assesses program quality. A short questionnaire links you to options. Another option: communicate with the local Community Council.
Dr. Larry Mulkerin is a retired clinical professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.