It is absolutely incredible how much stress a human being can take and still continue to function. I think that must have been the main point of the week long class I just completed on Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE). The other point was to teach us, and have us apply, some very important practical survival skills.
The instructors for SERE are referred to as â€œCadre.â€? The Friday before school started the Cadre suggested everyone eat a very big breakfast before reporting at 0600 on Saturday. I had a large bowl of oatmeal and a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich. I would have eaten more had I truly known what was in store.
The first four days were spent in an outdoor classroom environment. This consisted of a covered concrete pad with metal bleachers surrounded by Alabama forest. We had classes and demonstrations in this area. We were divided into eight teams of five or six soldiers and slept with our teammates in improvised shelters that we constructed nearby. These were our â€œhole sites.â€?
The classes consisted of subjects such as shelter construction, fire building, edible plant procurement, signaling, tool and weapon making, wire-crossing, trapping game, and how to kill, clean, eat and preserve game. When we were not in classes we were applying the skills we had learned at our hole sites.
While the cadre were teaching classes they were also trying to simulate a Prisoner of War environment. They wanted to see how well our class bonded and how well we resisted efforts at exploitation. For example, they made the teams race against each other with an offer of extra food for the winning team. We recognized this as an attempt to cause fractures within the group and resisted by ensuring that every race ended as a tie. No one got any extra food but we retained group cohesion â€“ something critical for survival at a POW camp.
Food was always an issue. I don't want to compromise the integrity of the training program so I won't get into too much detail about how and when we ate. I will say, however, that I figure I ate a total of 3000 â€“ 3500 calories worth of food in seven days. Most of this consisted of the one full MRE (Meal, Ready to Eat) that we received about half-way though the training. The rest was meat from the game we killed at the kill class and food that we scavenged or found. There was period of about 3 days when my team did not anything at all except for some tea we made from wild plants and a few bites of prickly pear cactus. (which we quickly learned hurts a lot if it is not boiled before being eaten).
Sleep was also an issue. We all slept well during the classroom phase. We had our sleeping bags, shelters, and the time and freedom to build warming fires. The bags and fires were much appreciated because nighttime temperatures were in the high twenties and low thirties the entire week. During the evasion phase, however, sleep was almost non-existent. I think that I had about a total of 4 hours of disjointed sleep over a period of over eighty hours of evasion and hiding from the enemy.
The final big issue was the cold. As I have mentioned, it was a very cold week in Alabama. This was not a problem when we had our sleeping bags, shelters and fires. It was a big problem, however, when were evading. We often could not build fires due to the danger of being detected. We also frequently did not have our sleeping bags or the time to build a shelter. This meant relying on our thin poncho-liners and â€œspooningâ€?. A poncho liner is exactly what is sounds like. It is a light weight quilted blanket that measures about 6 feet by 4 feet. Soldiers usually call it a â€œwoobieâ€?. Three downed aviators can fit under one woobie if they get close. Believe me, when it is 25 degrees and all you are wearing is your flight clothing and long underwear, any inhibitions about getting close to another guy disappear. I spent many hours spooning or huddling close with my teammates under our woobies as waited for an enemy threat to pass by or for our final helicopter extraction.
The evasion phase started on day four and lasted until day seven. This phase of training simulated the actions a downed air-crew might have to take to reach safety after making an unanticipated landing in hostile territory. It was supposed to begin with a river crossing but, thankfully, the weather was so cold that that the crossing was cancelled due to safety concerns. We were all relieved. A common refrain heard throughout the rest of training, particularly when things got bad, was â€œat least we did not have to do the river crossing.â€? The phrase became something running joke.
Evasion began with a bus ride to a different part of the forest. This was our â€œcrash siteâ€?. We then had to make it to our first â€œdowned aviator recoveryâ€? (DAR) site before sun-rise. We had to make it there without being spotted by the opposition force (OPFOR). OPFOR consisted of cadre and other flight students.
We began evading at about 2000 and did not arrive at out DAR until 0700, a little after sun-rise. We were not caught. Upon arrival we had some chores to do but mostly hid out waiting to see if we would be extracted. I think I got an hour or two of sleep at that first site.
Sadly, our area was overrun by the enemy that evening so we spent another night working our way toward DAR 2. Again, we were not caught but the process took the entire night. We arrived at our next site and waited again for extraction.
The process of evading at night was interesting. We had a map, compass, and GPS so simply getting from point to point was not too much of a problem. The real problem was finding the energy to keep moving, keep warm, and evade detection. A group of six people can not travel very quietly in the dense Alabama forest. Every broken branch sounded as loud as a gunshot and the crunching leaves underfoot as loud as a stadium full of applauding sports fans.
Moreover, especially by the second night of evasion, we were all beginning to feel the effects of the temperature, exhaustion, and hunger. I began to hallucinate. I saw bright colors around me when I moved my head. More disturbing, I kept seeing two extra soldiers in our group. They were walking along with us, wearing world war II era equipment. I learned later that I was not the only one seeing things. My housemate, Maltby, was on another team. He kept on seeing Hamburgler, the character from McDonalds, walking with his group. We also found it harder and harder to get moving after each time we'd stop to make a radio call. People were falling asleep in the minute or two we stopped.
After spending the day at our second DAR we eventually met up with some sympathetic locals who transported us to an area under friendly control. These sympathetic locals, known as partisans, were understandably afraid of being identified. They knew that if we saw them and were later captured we would, sooner or later, tell the enemy who had helped us. The transport procedure, therefore, was very intimidating. Were made to lie face down in the road in front of the partisan van. The partisan leader than made us put pillow cases on our heads before lifting us you our feet and putting us in the back of the van. Were told to be silent during the ride. Sitting in the van, shoulder to shoulder with my teammates, silent, hooded, I had to remind myself several times that this was just a training exercise.
Were eventually dropped, as promised, at an area under US control. It was during this drop-off that our team leader made his only real mistake. I don't blame him, however. I would have done the same thing given the conditions. Just before the partisans drove away they asked him if he had any questions. â€œNoâ€?, he responded. â€œAre you sure?â€? the partisan asked again. â€œYesâ€?, our leader assured him, â€œI am sure.â€? It turned out that the other groups had asked for, and received, some much needed food at that point. We received nothing.
We spent about 18 hours at that area, again without food, shelter or sleeping bags, waiting to be extracted. The entire time was spent tending a small fire, spooning under our woobies, telling stories to pass the time, speculating on when our rescuers would finally arrive.
Daylight arrived and with it, the first foggy morning we had seen in a week. There would be no helicopter extraction in that weather. So we waited. And waited. Finally, thankfully, the sun appeared around 1100. By 1400 our team, and three others, were boarding two Blackhawks. It was a wonderful feeling to be heading home, especially in a Hawk.
I would not want to do SERE school again but I am certain that I will. This training did not include the â€œresistance labâ€? (torture phase) that is now being made a standard part of SERE. All of us will be required to return for that more complete course in the future. Though it was not fun, I learned a lot. I can do a lot more with a lot less than I thought possible. I also take the most basic needs for granted. It is great to live day-to-day without worrying about how I am going to stay warm, or eat, or whether I will be able to sleep. I need to remember these lessons, appreciate what I have, and hope that I will never have to apply the hard learned skills I have acquired.