At TATE our work does not begin at the classroom door. Extensive effort goes into building the curriculum for each course and great care is taken in ensuring that the lessons of real-world events are conveyed dynamically and accurately. We strive to ensure that the material presented in each course is timely, relevant and tailored to the student group. One way that TATE maintains its currency on real-world isolation events is through lessons learned case study analysis. By studying the causes and effects of specific captive/captor actions, TATE instructors go into each class session backed by the “data” of experience, endurance and survival. One such case study that TATE has developed is based on the captivity ordeal of Martin and Gracia Burnham.

On 27 May 2001, American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham were kidnapped from their beachside bungalow in the southern Philippines and taken into captivity by the Abu Sayaf, a Muslim terrorist organization. The Burnhams endured over a year of captivity, constantly forced to move through the jungles of the southern Philippines with elements of the Filipino Army (AFP) in pursuit. This lasted until 07 June 2002 when their group was caught up in a firefight with the AFP. During the gun battle, Martin was shot and killed in the crossfire. Gracia was shot in the leg, pretended to be dead as her captors fled back into the jungle and was finally rescued by the AFP.

Gracia Burnham is a woman of courage and determination. She has had nearly a decade to reflect upon her experience in captivity and to overcome the loss of her husband. Anxious to ensure that others are armed with information necessary to survive isolation, she recently shared some of her experiences with TATE analysts.

In her interview and published memoir, In the Presence of My Enemies, Ms. Burnham shared insight on what got her through her year of captivity, among other things, her husband Martin, hope, faith in God, humor and an understanding of Filipino culture. Understanding what she relied on and how she sustained herself, both mentally and physically, helps instructors and students of personnel recovery, captivity survival and travel safety get a sense of kinds of challenges faced by an American civilian caught in a terrible situation.

The Burnhams went into their captivity having only had the most basic survival training. Required by their missionary organization to attend a two-hour seminar on hostage survival, Ms. Burnham recounts that even this short session had a positive impact:

  • I think it is very important for somebody just to have a few things under their belt. You know I keep talking about the two hour little seminar thing that we went to that we didn’t even pay attention at, didn’t want to be there. But there were some key things in there that would just pop into our minds…Of course I hadn’t paid much attention because that was never going to happen to me. And Martin didn’t even want to be at the seminar, he wanted to be out working on his airplane…but they had said, if you are taken hostage, make your humanness known to others. Let them know that you are needy — that you have needs.

Understandably, there were times when the terror of their situation seemed to get the better of her and she fell into despair. And there were other times when hope flickered and, with help from Martin, she was able to make it another minute, another hour.

  • You have you have this battle in your mind all the time. This cannot end well. Every time we would think this cannot get any worse, it would get worse. And so you think, okay, we are worse off today than we were yesterday. Things are going downhill quickly and this cannot end in anything but death and destruction, so why try? That’s what you would think. So why try? And then you would give yourself a little talking to, you know … in your mind… And you would have this constant battle in your mind. Are you going to succumb to helplessness or are you going to look to God and find strength in yourself somewhere and lift yourself up and have the hope that tomorrow can be okay and keep going today. It was a mind game and that’s where you win it or you lose it, in your mind. Whether you get … whether you can go on or not, I think, happens up here (points to head). And I am so glad I had Martin to encourage me to keep your mind in good shape.

Ms. Burnham talks at length on the importance of understanding the culture and values of the people who held her. Having lived in the Philippines for over 15 years prior to her captivity, she had a deep sense of what motivated Filipinos. She understood their mannerisms and social values. This knowledge helped her repeatedly throughout her captivity and proved, for the Burnhams, to be an essential element of their day-to-day survival.

  • Learning a culture is very important. That’s the most important thing. What you are saying from your mouth isn’t the important thing, if you haven’t established a relationship with that person… If you offend them you’ve lost any connection you had with them. So learning what they are all about is utmost.

Another valuable skill that both Martin and Gracia Burnham used during their captivity was relationship building, however tenuous, with their Abu Sayaf captors. As is made clear in almost every published hostage memoir, establishing rapport with captors is a critical part of becoming human in their eyes. In this the Burnhams were at an advantage. Not only did they intimately know and understand Filipino culture, but as missionaries, they understood how to relate to people, how to put them at their ease and how to overcome language barriers. As the speedboat that bore them away from their resort bungalow left the shore and the Abu Sayaf began to sort through the booty taken along with the hostages, Martin began to immediately build those relationships that would become essential to them as their time in captivity progressed.

  • When they throttled back so we wouldn’t be pounded so much (by the waves), the guys started going through their booty of war, you know, the stuff they had just stolen. And one kid was looking at this one watch and you could tell he was puzzled over how it worked. And Martin said, “Oh, let me help you with that.” And he said, “Oh look, this has — you can have two time zones on this watch.” He said, “Why don’t you set one of them for Manila time, and one of them for Mecca time.” And right in that moment, Martin had made a connection with that kid talking about Mecca. So Martin started showing them how to use the stuff they had just stolen. One of them had just stolen a video camera and didn’t know how it worked and Martin was showing him the ins-and-out of the video camera…

Our analysts and course developers have interviewed a large number of former hostages, both civilian and military, and lessons learned from each captivity narrative are brought to the classroom to empower those who face a high-risk of isolation.