Updated: Nov 4, 2020
SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape. Each branch of the military has a school that teaches the fundamentals of SERE, in the Air Force there is a small isolated compound on Fairchild AFB outside of Spokane, Washington devoted to teaching these skills.
The main SERE course is about a month long and is required training for any aspiring aircrew member, be it flight surgeons, pilots, load masters, even military flight attendants. The point of this training is to teach every thing you could potentially need to know, and hopefully never have to use if shit hits the fan and your plane goes down in either friendly or hostile territory in basically any terrain on the map.
The course is broken up into about a week of academics, while the rest is spent in the field. There were 86 people in my class, mostly pilots and navigators, I was one of only four flight docs for the current month. The first few days were more death by powerpoint, which is quickly becoming the Air Force mantra. The lectures basically all dealt with the “survival” aspect of SERE, which actually was far more engaging than being beaten down about how to fill out paper work for flight physicals.
Essentially it was a crash course in advanced boy scouting, with a more tactical flavor. Topics focused around a central theme of meeting basic survival needs, such as finding shelter, procuring food, maintaining health, etc. I enjoyed the lectures on what kind of bugs and plants are good to eat, but some of the first aid lectures were, well, I guess amusing. For the most part they hit the broad strokes fairly head on, but it became shaky when the instructors tried to reach outside their box and explain some of the physiology. For example, when your body is exposed to cold for long enough you can start to pee a lot, it’s a phenomenon called “cold diuresis”. It is a real thing, but the explanation they gave the group for why it happens was that the body needs to conserve heat, and basically it's costing the body heat to keep warming urine inside you, so you pee to not waste that energy/heat. The real reason why this happens is much more wrapped up in changes in blood pressure leading to hormonal changes.
Outside of a couple amusing medical snafus, the instructors for this course are incredible. I have no doubt that these guys are some of the best in the world when it comes to survival, and the training they go through to get this job, which is the subject of several online forums is just beyond me. So although they may not understand the intricacies of renal physiology (and who really does?), I still have a huge amount of respect for what they do, and what they know.
Thankfully the whole week wasn’t just large group lectures. We broke out into elements of 7 or 8 people. Each element had an assigned room for small group activities and two instructors were devoted to each element. The training in the break out rooms was more hands on including, advanced knot tying, how to use radios, etc. later in the week we started to get into the other letters in SERE, as it doesn’t stand for just survival. Most of the lectures and knowledge passed onto us about evasion, resistance, and escape are classified, and for good reason. If the bad guys knew all of our tricks about how we evade capture or resist interrogation many lives could potentially be in danger. So naturally I can’t go into too many details about it.
Evasion is basically just how to hike and camp, but be really sneaky about it. The main objective when evading the enemy is to be recovered, so a lot of what is taught is focused around how to get rescued, but still being stealth about it.
One part of evasion training worth mentioning is urban evasion. They have this walled off fake town on the base that has the feel of a war torn eastern European village meets the Taliban, meets a train depot. We basically go out there for a day and practice some urban evasion techniques, how to blend in, jump over fences, stuff like that. The only reason I bring it up is because of one of the rumors I heard about it before I left for SERE. As I mentioned before, a lot of the information they teach up there is kind of sensitive, so people don’t really talk about it. Whenever there is something that’s “secret”, it only gives way for a forest fire of rumors and legends to circulate about it. So, before I left one of the med techs at work told me the urban evasion training was actually done in downtown Spokane. He said they would drop me off in downtown and I would have to evade and get to a variety of check points without getting caught using whatever resources I could find. He said I could steal from the homeless, but that was the only law I was allowed to break. He also told me to go downtown early and create food and clothing drop points for myself. Of course this was complete rubbish, but the guy was pretty convinced that it really went down.
The week of academics was followed by a week in the field, basically applying everything we had just learned, and then some. The Air Force used a large chunk of land somewhere up by the Canadian border for field training. On my original flight into Spokane the local guy I sat next to described this region to me as being “as thick as it gets”. Before we headed out to the field we were issued all the gear they thought we would need. We were given a survival vest along with a fairly vintage and abused backpack, there was a long list of things to stuff inside this pack making it near impossible to bring any of our own stuff. We were also issued a couple of MREs and some power bars. The two hour long bus ride up to the site was a mixed bag of emotions, most of us were excited to get out of the classroom and do some camping, but as the rain started to kick it, the mood was quickly dampened.
The bus dropped us off somewhere in the cold rainy Washington state wilderness. We broke off into our elements and started the short ½ mile or so hike to our campground. Upon seeing our campsite I got excited as there was a parachute suspended above a small clearing. Naturally I thought this is where we were supposed to sleep and would be a welcome shelter from the rain.
This was of course not the case, the parachute was really only there so we could have a semi dry area to have lessons under. After throwing down the near 70lb pack, which even after a short hike I was glad to get rid of, we quickly barreled into the start of a feverishly paced evening that would extend with little rest for the next two days. The field portion of training as I mentioned previously is broken into two parts, the first being a crash course in Eagle Scout level survival, and the second part addressing the peculiars of Evasion.
The first 24 hours were Hell. Not because of the struggle of setting up shelters with ponchos, eating plants or starting fires in the rain, that stuff I actually enjoyed. What I hated was that every tree I looked behind, I couldn’t find a grande mocha latte anywhere! The caffeine withdrawal headache was killing me, and I wasn’t the only victim. Several of my comrades could be found bent over between latrine digging lectures and examples of how to snare squirrels with their head between their legs rubbing their temples. The truth was several of us hadn’t been without a cup of coffee for years, and like any junkie we thought we would have no problem at all kicking the monkey cold turkey.
The headache could be dealt with by itself, but it was the whole conglomeration that quickly wore me down: the bone chilling rain, dropping temperatures, and an instructor that liked to give us deadlines in only odd numbered minutes, seven minutes to chop wood, one minute to urinate, eleven minutes to build animal traps. It quickly became one of the more miserable things I had ever done.
Thankfully the next day my head was clear, and so was the weather. The sun decided to show itself as we set out learning how to navigate through the woods. Most of the time this involved picking a point on a map, gaining compass bearings and plodding straight ahead regardless of the terrain. The best part of this was when we perched down on a hilltop that opened to a view of the whole magnificent valley to practice triangulating map points. Sitting on that peak soaking the bright warm sun in the cool crisp mountain air would make even the most prolific urbanite become an outdoor enthusiast.
As the day wore on the random barrage of tasks continued, the learning curve was steep, and the pace relentless. As the sun dropped, so did the temperature again. We made a fire in the evening, mainly to dry off. Emphasis was placed on the point that a fire was a “nicety” and not a “necessity”. However I have a feeling someone higher up the chain said it was necessary for students not to get trench foot or hypothermia from wet gear.
The tasks continued well into the night. Shelters changed flavor every night, the first night it was just a poncho tied to a tree. The second night we made a more permanent shelter (only to take it down in the morning), it was basically a large branch lashed perpendicular to the ground between two trees with some supports and a tarp thrown over the top. Instead of sleeping on the ground we made a bed full of a variety of branches. It was actually quite comfortable, but after the last two days sleeping on a bed of nails would have seemed luxury. I think we called it a night somewhere around midnight. At 430am we arose as a group. The cold in the morning was pretty hard to shake at first. I think the most difficult part was the fact that we had so many things to accomplish in about an hour and a half before our instructors returned at 6am. There was really no time to allow joints to thaw or muscles to warm up before rushing into breaking down camp and restacking wood.
The whole point of this pace is to induce a state of “combat fatigue”. By pushing hard for 19-20 hour days with minimal rest and even less food they were trying to simulate what conditions would be like if God for bid we were stuck in bad guy country, and trying to get out.
The field training was five days and at the half way point the theme took a drastic turn. It was time to start learning the “E” in SERE. I probably shouldn’t go into too many details about the techniques we use in Evasion, but the general concept involves getting away from the bad guys and staying away. It’s basically hiking from one point to the next like we had been doing, just as stealthily as possible. This often involved being in some uncomfortable places and positions. If anyone in the group had an aversion to getting muddy or wet it didn’t matter for long. All and all, I did enjoy it, I felt like I was a little kid again with a nerf gun playing war in the woods.
The first night of evasion the scenario was that we were still being pursued by the enemy, so any shelter made was very minimal to not draw attention, and by very minimal I mean hardly anything at all. Unfortunately it was one of the coldest nights yet as the temp dipped into the mid 30’s. After a fire our instructor pointed blindly at the dark toward the edge of the dimming campfire and told us to sleep “out there” and spread out. I’m hoping it was an accident that he was pointing into a half filled marsh. The ground I tossed my sleeping bag on was a mix of soft wetness and hard roots. I also figured out over the last few nights that I was about two sizes too big for my sleeping bag, I was told they were one size fits all, but I’m sure this was a one size junior fits all. No matter how hard I tried I could only get the bag to come up to my mid chest. I thought this may had been normal until I saw my peers all tucked away in their mummy sacks with only their noses peeking through. I only lasted about 30 min before I started shivering uncontrollably, even with two layers of thermals and a jacket it was impossible not to. In the middle of the night I even got up and went to the fire pit and dug up one of the still smoldering logs from the evenings fire and brought it back to my sleeping bag so I could snuggle up with it. This really didn’t help as much as I was hoping. It was definitely the coldest I’ve ever been. I eventually feel asleep, but thinking more about that the next day I found the fact that I went from shaking to sleeping concerning as the body will stop shaking as deeper hypothermia sets in. Regardless my joints cracked back into warmth in the morning and it was off for another action packed day.
One of the many ways to get rescued that we learned is to direct helicopters in to a position. The best part about this was that we got to practice radio communication by calling in live helicopters to our position. We found a good open clearing and off in the distance could hear the faint sound of thumping helicopter blades. We had a couple of rescue radios, without going into too much detail we basically sent the helicopter a distress text message. What I didn’t know was that when I turned my radio on the last message saved was automatically sent, and the last time these radios were used was in the classroom when people must have been practicing how to enter text messages. I was made aware of this when the helicopter pilot came through on the radio and said, “please confirm last message… that’s what she said?”, and in a condescending tone “WHAT does that mean?”. My instructor quickly grabbed the radio and stuttered for words, “ah, ah, he didn’t mean that it was saved in the radio”. We all had a good laugh about it later.
If I went into any detail about the last days of field training it would spoil it for anyone potentially about to go through it. The school basically created a whole scenario filled with a variety of characters and personalities that we had to negotiate through. Half the time I felt like I was in a Call of Duty video game and I was really just looking at life through a TV screen. By the time I got back to my room it had been five days, I had eaten maybe 4,000 calories in total, I hadn’t changed clothes once, and I couldn’t feel either of my big toes. My room was a wonderland of modern science. There were funny levers on the wall that made a big flashlight attached to the ceiling go on and off turning the room from day to night. I got in bed and pulled the covers over my head, and put them back down, and pulled them back up amazed that they came above my chest. After what seemed like the largest cheeseburger I’ve ever eaten and the most intoxicating Bud Light ever made I feel into a deep coma for the next day or so.