CHEWELAH, Washington – Cougar tracks pressed into the snow-covered logging road were fresh. And a few hundred feet away in the evergreen forest was a winter camp for 30 airmen from Fairchild Air Force Base .
A parachute hung from trees, and small logs were stacked for a warming fire for the men who had slept on tree boughs when temperatures dipped below freezing.
The cougars, a mother and cub, weren’t the only concern according to the instructors and U.S. Forest Service liaison traveling in military track vehicles to the site from base camp for an inspection.
The cougars are among the numerous animals and humans including loggers, ranchers, hunters and snowmobilers that share this part of the Colville National Forest.
And like all users, the Air Force has had to learn to work with the Forest Service and its decade-old forest restoration mission.
“We have no exclusive rights in the forest,” said Todd Foster, 336th Training Group training area manager, while explaining their collaboration.
Since 1964, Colville has provided the rough wilderness training stage for thousands of service members who might be forced to survive in a wilderness setting behind enemy lines through the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) School.
This year, for the first time, they have moved to a different location near Chewelah because of logging around their base camp near Cusick in Pend Oreille County. This new training area is near the North Fork of Chewelah Creek on the Three River Ranger District.
Other forest users should be aware that the base camp and training areas will continue to be moved around the forest until 2026 when, under current plans, they move back to Tacoma and Ruby creek drainages and base camp.
The airmen train near a campground used by snowmobilers and in a forest where ranchers have permits to graze cattle. The area is even home to a wolf pack.
And now the training area is in the middle of another new concept in forest restoration that is encompassing thousands of acres in the Colville National Forest. The nationally recognized A to Z Mill Creek stewardship project includes thinning and reforestation done from beginning to end in collaboration with private companies. Basically, timber is traded for forest restoration work.
Project markers were visible near the training camps and on the roads where next summer work will begin, said Rick Hall, Forest Service liaison to the Air Force. He inspects their training sites every week as part of his full-time liaison duties under this agreement.
In Pend Oreille County, the Air Force constructed buildings for equipment and training staff. On this temporary site they have specially designed modular buildings and trailers for the base camp located on an old gravel pit.
Permit requiredThe military use of public lands for training isn’t without controversy. One environmental group filed a lawsuit in March to try to stop the Navy’s use of Washington state parks for training .
A special use permit that outlines what can be done in the forest was granted to the Air Force in 2010 and will expire in 2030. An environmental assessment followed, along with dozens of agreements with state and federal agencies responsible for the environment and wildlife.
Hall said this is the longest running special use agreement in the Colville National Forest.
“Part of my report is a detailed record of the land,” said Foster. “I know what happened before we were out there, so I have no question of whether or not we did it.”
As a former Marine, the 49-year-old Hall attended the Marine survival school and went through the Air Force’s class here to gain a better understanding of its activities. The Newport resident has worked for the Forest Service for 25 years.
“When you start taking resources, you start losing training land,” said Foster, who is a retired survival school specialist. “It wasn’t until Rick came along with his ideas and listened to my concerns that we started making changes.”
Along with reminders to instructors and students that they must limit the impact on the forest, the Air Force makes improvements each week.
Hall said the Air Force plants about 1,000 trees, thins about 20 acres of forest and maintains many miles of roads each year. The Air Force also helps clear danger trees from the campgrounds and forest while training by taking trees for firewood that needed to be removed.
“We can’t do it overnight but in five years we will accomplish what they (forest service) wanted,” Foster said.
“From the lowest guy to the top guy, they get the big picture of 10 or more years down the road,” said Hall, who ensures the school and its students are following forestry standards.
“It’s a constant battle of teaching, even when they screw up, and making sure it won’t happen again,” said Tech. Sgt. Keith Schmidt.
Foster manages other Washington training sites at Forks and Vantage, and one site near Tillamook, Oregon. The Air Force stopped using sites near Priest Lake, Sullivan Lake and the Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge.
The survival school permit covers 419,000 acres in the Colville Forest, which is broken up by private, state and tribal lands. So the school must coordinate with all these other landowners as well.
Foster said they were asked to monitor wildlife and report their findings to the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Their agreement allows the classes to harvest some small game and fish during training.
Foster said they do far less damage than campers. They dig latrines for their camps and pick up trash. They grade the roads they use after they are done.
We can move from site to site in the forest to minimize our impact, he said. For example, they had trained near Sullivan Lake until it became part of a protected area for grizzly bears.
The instructors call the six-day basic course a “global training” classroom; it isn’t climate or geographically centered but focuses on basic survival techniques used anywhere.
“To move this to a theater of war like Afghanistan would be hard,” Foster said.
“People drift into camp or training areas all the time,” Foster said. “I tell them to offer a cup of coffee and explain what they’re doing.”
Foster, 50, also draws on his lifelong connection to the community and personal use of the forest for recreation. He has two grown boys and operates a farm near Deer Park.
Field training necessary
Use of the forest for training isn’t always popular, but the need is real, Foster said.
A bomber or fighter pilot in the Air Force understands that ejecting from their aircraft isn’t the worst thing that can happen. They are left with nothing but a knife and their training to survive until help can arrive.
“Definitely interesting,” said Staff Sgt. Jesse Gass, when asked about his job as instructor. Gass was from Mississippi and hadn’t experienced the snow and cold weather before coming to northeast Washington for training.
The students come from all over the country, he said. They hear rumors about the area and training. This helps create a healthy anxiety that is good for successful training.
“The bigger scenario is that they are out in the middle of the forest but with lots of support and concern for safety around them,” said Gass.
Some get their first taste of real-life leadership experience, he said.
Students spend six days in the forest learning skills for what to do in potentially dangerous survival situations. This includes signaling, and building shelters and fires.
“We call it a crawl, walk, run scenario. We start by teaching them what they need to know,” said Master Sgt. Brian Youngberg. “Then, little by little, we interject an enemy situation with a gradually rising threat level. You still have to meet your basic needs while escaping.”
Youngberg, 33, traveled from Chicago for the basic survival course and went on to instructor training. He has been in the Air Force for 11 years.
Each day, the training progresses toward students being alone with an enemy in pursuit. Their mission is to avoid the enemy, survive and make it back safely. There are multiple techniques that are taught to help with evasion, including basics like camouflage, what it means to be hidden and how to move without being found by the enemy. It is a step-by-step process and gradually teaches students all of the needed skills .
“Planning out how the day is going to go is important to meet needs, starting with getting warm in the morning, setting up shelters and preparing to build a fire. If it gets cold, you have to get warm first and then start meeting other needs,” said Youngberg.
Signaling helicopters and learning how to find the right open rescue area is another important part of the training.
There are usually two types of training going on in the forest. One is the basic course for those that will be airborne, and the second is to train future instructors. There is a mix of officers and enlisted personnel in the classes working in groups, but eventually they will be tested alone.
This year they also modified who was required to receive the entire training. Some with less chance of ending up in a forest behind enemy lines are now not required to take the field portion of SERE training.
COVID-19 hasn’t stopped the training, but it has changed some parts like using remote learning for orientation instead of large auditoriums.
The Air Force received vaccine in a similar priority order as civilians. Medical staff and those with essential jobs were first, but everyone hasn’t been vaccinated yet, said Youngberg.
There are two medics on site with helicopters on call for emergency evacuation. Although not their primary responsibility, if there is a civilian emergency medical situation they will assist, he said.
Once they feel the student has the basic skills to survive they send them off into the forest to navigate to a pickup point while being chased by instructors.
“Best-case scenario with electronic navigation all the way down to map and compass and none at all,” he said of the cross-country training.
They use sound systems mounted on vehicles and a boom cannon during their simulated pursuit, he said. It’s mostly to drive the students into the training area.
They do not carry guns or use live ammo, he said.
“Lots of people are shocked when they hear we just have pocket knives” he said. They ask: “What about bears and mountain lions?”
As with the cougar and cub walking on the road the past month, they have found that predators will stay away, he said. Nobody has even seen the cougars.
Foster said the classes are in low valleys in winters, which is also where the game lives that the predators are hunting.
“The classes are in prime predator habitat all year and not one incident has occurred,” Foster said. “We are a success story.”
In the winter the classes have a smaller footprint, said Youngberg. This doesn’t apply to the more macho instructor class. They will take off across country and up cliffs during their training. The classes at the base and in the field last for almost six months.
Long historyIn response to the many downed aircraft in the Vietnam War, the government began to look for new ways to prepare its airmen for that possibility.
“The idea was that the Air Force needed to do a better job of saving people,” said Bob Moran.
The 86-year-old ended his 58-year career in the Air Force as chief master sergeant in charge of SERE instructors. He and his wife retired to a ranch just a few miles from the survival school base in Pend Oreille County.
Moran, like those after him, had active duty experience with rescues behind enemy lines. Some, he said, are still top secret. Like all instructors he used his experiences to develop the survival school training.
“I got to work with some fantastic people,” Moran said.
“Fifty years ago it was the same,” Moran said. “Overcoming fear of the unknown even in the middle of Pend Oreille County.”
Lower numbersToday the SERE school can support 2,024 students per year for field survival and 4,048 per year for resistance training. Up to 44 students a week, 46 weeks a year are in the Colville National Forest training. During the Vietnam War years, there could be more than 200 a week in the classes.
Each of the military services is responsible for providing SERE training for their personnel.
When the Air Force modernized SERE training, it recognized that not all previous jobs requiring the field portion still existed, said Capt. Kaitlin Holmes, chief of public affairs at Fairchild. “In this modernization effort, it was identified that a lot of airmen still needed resistance training, but allowed for a reduction in the number of individuals they put through the field portion.”
The 336th Training Group consists of three squadrons with the two others in Texas and Alaska. The survival school teaches 19 different courses to approximately 20,000 students at the three locations annually.
Other squadrons with different specialties support the classes in the Colville National Forest.
The 22nd Training Squadron basic course lasts 19 days and occurs 48 weeks out of each year. The majority of the course is taught at Fairchild AFB with six days in the forest. Students receive the code of conduct training in evasion and conduct after capture at Fairchild.
They also conduct ejection and nonejection water survival courses, which train aircrew members of all different aircraft at the base. This training includes lessons such as techniques in signaling rescue aircraft, hazardous aquatic life, food and water procurement, medical aspects of water survival and life raft procedures.
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The Air Force Is Making Changes to Its Enemy Capture Survival School
The U.S. Air Force's survival school is putting a new training model to the test during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
As its first step, the 336th Training Group at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington, is now incorporating distance learning, shortening the training, according to Col. Carlos Brown, commander of the 336th.
"Because of the COVID situation, we've streamlined the training and so, from 26 days, we now have it as a 19-day course," he said in an interview Tuesday.
Related: Air Force Shortens Recruit Training, Shifts to New Base Amid Pandemic
The group has whittled down its incoming class size from 88 students to just 40 as the service attempts to stave off the spread of COVID-19, Brown said. Incoming Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school students must also spend 14 days in quarantine.
To make better use of their time, the school has decided to offer them study guides, workbooks and DVD lecture videos to get ahead of the 25 hours' worth of classroom instruction. The distance learning also includes two or three dial-in conferences for students to interact with their instructors, Brown said.
Unlike SERE training conducted at operational units, aircrew members and special operations forces identified as being at high risk of capture come through this training, he said.
For the 26-day training curriculum, "it's been a one-size-fits-all training pipeline for quite some time," he explained.
In the full program, students typically begin the first four days in a classroom before heading out to the field to conduct a week of survival and evasion training, including "how to procure food, how to signal rescue forces, how to take care of yourself," he said.
Brown said some "urban training" is mixed in, followed by classes in which students act as captives in a roleplay scenario in the "resistance lab." Then, depending on their job description, airmen go on to their respective water training: emergency parachute, non-parachute or underwater egress.
Because the base wants to limit travel between locations to help prevent the spread of the virus, students in the 19-day model visit the resistance lab training before heading into the wilderness, Brown explained.
"What we found there is ... when the students get to the field portion, they're paying a lot more attention to the field craft because, in a real-world situation, they know they don't want to have to experience being held captive," he said.
Brown emphasized that the new program is still coming together. The hope is to eventually put the distance learning onto an online website or management system, such as Blackboard.
"The curriculum absolutely will not change; they'll still get the same quality of training. I don't know physically what it's gonna look like, because we haven't hung it on a specific website yet, but we're gonna get there," he said.
But the group, under the 19th Air Force, is planning ahead. Brown said officials are looking to categorize students efficiently based on their career fields into separate courses, of different lengths.
"Fighter pilots, bomber pilots, combat search-and-rescue forces, special operations forces, those are the folks ... that are going to be outside the wire in a combat environment and have a greater propensity to ... be captured and will need a higher level of training," he said, describing a higher-tier course.
One course variant may apply to tactical airlift pilots and aircrew; another, for those who support opening up an airfield, for example.
"Instead of everybody going through a 19-day course, based on the assessment of their probability of capture, they may need a shorter course. Again, nothing's being reduced as far as quality, they just may not need, you know, field training, for example," Brown said.
Over the next 120 days, officials are working with Air Force headquarters to bring the idea to fruition with the right approvals, he said. The school trains roughly 4,100 troops each year.
Despite the virus-related slowdown at Air Force training centers across the country, Brown said he has not seen any immediate readiness impacts with respect to SERE. At least not yet.
"If this was to go for an extended period of time, then you're just having a larger backlog," he said. "There is no readiness issue right now."
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.
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Air Force Formalizes New Approach to SERE Training
Aug. 5, 2020 | By John A. Tirpak
Air Education and Training Command is officially moving forward with changes to its survival, evasion, resistance, and escape course, after testing out new approaches in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Air Force wants to sharply cut how long all students spend in the program, known as SERE, but especially for those least likely to need the skills it teaches. Officials have been discussing updates to SERE for more than a year.
Air Force Magazine reported in May the service was moving toward splitting SERE training, now 26 days long for all students, into three distinct courses lasting five, 12, or 19 training days. The complexity of each will be tailored to how much knowledge of survival and interrogation resistance a student is likely to need in their line of work.
19th Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Craig D. Wills said in a July 30 interview he expects the changes will free up about 46,000 training days and around $35 million each year. Putting a student through the program costs about $750 per day.
When Wills was a young F-15E backseater in the 1990s, the SERE program for combat aircrews lasted 14 days. It has gradually grown longer and is now required for aircrews in all platforms, meaning everybody from a B-2 bomber pilot to a flight attendant on a VIP aircraft.
“That just doesn’t make sense,” Wills said. “It’s probably not the best use of training resources or Airmen’s time.”
The 336th Training Group at Fairchild AFB, Wash., conducts SERE training. It began experimenting with changes in the spring in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which compelled the school to quarantine arriving students for two weeks before beginning the course. Academic classes throughout the course were consolidated and front-loaded into those weeks to avoid wasting time, and as a result, students completed the program in 19 days instead of 26. That led to more refinements, including starting up distance learning.
While officials initially saw the benefits of freeing up stretched-thin SERE instructors, the changes could help boost new pilot production as well.
The burden of unnecessary SERE training days is especially tough on pilots. Attending SERE can require multiple temporary duty assignments that take a pilot away from flying for months at a time.
“People graduate from pilot training, they go to their formal training unit … they go back to [their undergraduate flying training base] to wait for their SERE date, which is a month or two down the road, they go to SERE, go back [to the flight training base], pack up to move, and then move,” Wills noted. After all that, they haven’t flown their aircraft in two or three months, and that results in additional training that the ops unit has to do because you’re a little rusty.” That’s not an efficient use of resources, he said.
The shorter courses will “keep the pipeline moving” and take Airmen away from crew assignments for less time, Wills said. The desire is to get service members, especially pilots, fully qualified in their weapon system in less than two years. “We think SERE transformation is an important part of that,” he added.
Ultimately, Wills said, the major commands will decide how much SERE class they think their aircrews need. Fighter and bomber pilots will likely get the 19-day course, flight attendants the five-day track, and mobility crews “more than likely in the middle track, about 12 days.” Each MAJCOM will decide which aircrews have a high risk of capture, isolation or exploitation, he said.
SERE involves basic survival techniques in various environments—woodland, desert, Arctic, ocean, and others—as well as evasion in an urban setting, mock capture, and interrogation. Students learn how to stay alive after a crash or being shot down, and what to expect under harsh treatment.
The capture and interrogation portion, described as highly realistic, had been toward the end of the course, but recently was moved forward because students worried about what it would entail instead of focusing on learning important survival skills.
Revamping SERE can be a “win-win across the board,” Wills said, to offer “good initial training, and on top of that, provide more resources to our operational units, so they can stay more ready where it matters, which is at the front line and leading edge.”
USAF Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE)
Combat Survival Training is established to provide aircrews and other designated personnel procedures and techniques in the use of equipment and employment of survival principles. Graduates of the U.S. Air Force Survival School at Fairchild Air Force base in Washington internalize the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) motto of “Return with Honor.” They spend weeks learning how to survive outdoors under any circumstances and to come home honorably. About 6,500 students go through the seven SERE courses each year. Five courses are held at Fairchild, and the other two are taught in Pensacola, Florida at the Naval Air Station and at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska.
he majority of trainees at the USAF SERE School are Air Force aircrew members – pilots, navigators, flight engineers, loadmasters, boom operators, gunners, and other crew positions. Additionally, some intelligence officers and life support technicians may also attend. This school was created during the Vietnam War to prepare Air Force crews that were flying combat missions over Vietnam. As captured American aircrews became Prisoners of War (POWs), the school was created to provide crews the skills needed to survive and potentially escape enemy capture in North Vietnam.
The 336th Training Group oversees instruction at the U.S. Air Force SERE. All Air Force aircrew members must attend combat Survival Training, taught by the 22nd Training Squadron. Each course takes 19 days to complete, and 49 classes are taught each year. Students rise early in the morning, and spend many hours without sleep. They endure extremely hot and extremely cold temperatures to become SERE specialists.
Students spend six days in the Colville and Kaniksku National Forests mountains, while the rest of the course is conducted at Fairchild. Students first learn how to handle the psychological and physical stress of survival, after which they learn post-ejection procedures and how to handle parachute landings. They are also instructed in survival medicine. Shelter construction, gathering and cooking food, land navigation methods, evasion and camouflage, signaling and aircraft vectoring are all taught during students’ six-day stay in the mountains. After their stint outside, students return to Fairchild and learn about how to behave if they are captured.
Future instructors at SERE are taught by the 66th Training Squadron at Fairchild. This program lasts five and half months. It teaches students how to train aircrew members to survive no matter where they land. They learn several skills, including basic survival, navigation, arctic survival, how to teach, evasion, desert survival, rough land evacuation, tropics/river survival and coastal survival. Instruction in survival in different environments takes place in different areas of Washington, including the Calispell Mountain near Cusic; George, Washington; Tum-Tum; Oympic National Park; and Tillamook Bay, which is off the coast of Oregon.
Another course taught at Fairchild’s SERE is non-ejection water survival. This teaches aircrew members how to survive if they are in in aircraft without parachutes. This course takes two days to complete. Students learn how to signal rescue aircraft, about dangerous water animals, how to find food and drinkable water, the physical components of water survival and how to use a life raft properly.
How can you prepare for USAF Survival School?
You won’t find too much concrete information or gouge on what to expect at SERE. This is designed so that you (the trainee) can actually benefit from the training. The school is designed to be as realistic as possible and part of the realism is based on surprise and the unpredictable stress you will experience.
What you can do is make sure you are in shape. Make sure you are fit and healthy and able to do well on the AF PFT. You will be hiking many miles a day with a heavy pack on your back while trying to evade capture – so make sure you are ready to do that. Make sure your gear is fitted properly and your boots are broken in prior to the first day in the bush. Pack plenty of good quality wool socks.
For an example of combat gear we recommend, check out our Afghanistan Gear List, which includes examples of cold weather tactical gear.
The 66th Training Squadron teaches the five-day resistance training orientation course. Students include U.S. Air Force SERE instructors and some Department of Defense personnel. The course includes instruction on the principles and theories to conduct Level C Code of Conduct resistance training laboratory instruction. Level C refers to military personnel who have a high risk of capture due to their ranks or seniority. This course focuses on resistance in prisoner of war camps. To receive upgrade to the 5 survival skill level, students must complete this course.
The 19-day, skill level 7 upgrade course for SERE training instructors occurs each year. It includes advanced survival instruction in the open ocean, barren arctic, barren desert and jungle. Training occurs in Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, and Florida. Three to four days is spent in each location. Instructors learn to survive with little in the way of equipment, supplies and support.
The five-day Arctic Survival Training course is taught by Detachment 1 of the 66th Training Squadron at the Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. Training occurs October through March. It was created for aircrews that fly in northern areas. Students learn to procure food and water, build fires, to signal and to build thermal shelters. Cold weather survival is the focus of this course.
The 66th Training Squadron, Detachment 2 at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida teaches a water survival course. The course takes four days to complete. Students simulate an over-the-water emergency that occurs in-flight. Parachute equipment procedures, drag training, after exit procedures and recovery training. Recovery training involves a landing over deep water and learning to use a raft.
Other activities of the SERE program include training Air Force Academy cadets and Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets. About 2,200 Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps cadets and 1,200 Air Force Academy cadets are trained each summer. SERE instructors also teach civilian organizations, such as the Boy and Girl Scouts, schools and the Civil Air Patrol.
Air Force Tactical Gear
Condor Tactical Cap with Velcro Patch
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USAF SERE Survival School Video
US Air Force Special Ops
Finally a book on everything about PJ’s and CCT from their extensive training, the pipeline, to future mission profiles. Better, more in-depth info than I have ever found on the net. But this is just half of this book. If your looking for info about the planes, helos, jets and their capabilities this is the book you’re looking for
I have read every book on Air Force Special Ops, and by far this is the most current and illustrative. While the photos may be staged, considering the secret nature of Special Ops, real-time photos may not even exist, let alone be de-classified: they are very illustrative of many aspects of operations. There are so many books about SEALS, Special Forces, Rangers, etc. and AF SpecOps is so overlooked, it is about time they get some equal time. This book is the best I have seen, to date.
That Others May Live
That Others May Live is the story of one of America’s most elite military units. The PJs–pararescue jumpers–are to the air force what the Green Berets are to the army and the SEALs are to the navy, even though they are less well known. There are only about 300 of them, and their main function is to rescue downed pilots, often behind enemy lines. They also perform civilian rescues. “There are no more capable rescuers than the PJs,” writes Jack Brehm, a 20-year PJ veteran who penned this book with journalist Pete Nelson. “No one else knows how to fall five miles from the sky to rescue somebody. No one else trains to make rescues in such a wide variety of circumstances and conditions on a mountaintop, in the middle of the Sahara, or 1,000 miles out from shore in hurricane-tossed seas.” Some readers will recall the PJs’ minor role in Sebastian Junger’s harrowing bookThe Perfect Storm; Brehm actually coordinated that PJ operation, and he tells his side of the story on these pages.
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School airforce survival
ENSURE AIRMEN SURVIVAL
SURVIVAL, EVASION, RESISTANCE AND ESCAPE (SERE) SPECIALIST
Whether it’s in the desert, the arctic, at sea, in the jungle or as a prisoner of war, Airmen must be prepared to survive, evade, resist and escape any situation. And it’s the SERE specialists' mission to train them. These experts know how to survive in the most remote and hostile environments on the planet. It’s up to them to make sure that when a mission doesn’t go as planned, the Airmen involved are ready for anything and can return with honor.
- Prepare aircrew and high-risk-of-isolation personnel to return from any type of survival situation.
- Train and operate in remote and austere environments, day or night.
- Provide direct support to Personnel Recovery (PR) programs through preparation, planning, execution, and adaptation.
- Conduct developmental and operational testing of SERE and Aircrew equipment.
- Perform static line, military free fall, and emergency parachuting techniques in support of various operations and exercises.
Completion of high school
Minimum score of 55 in the General category of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test
Be a U.S. citizen and qualify for a “Secret” security clearance.
Be between the ages of 17 and 39.
Obtain an 11th-grade reading level on the Air Force Reading Abilities Test.
Must not have a speech impediment that interferes with clear enunciation.
Meet the minimums of the SERE Physical Abilities and Stamina Test (PAST).
SURVIVE ANY SITUATION
Swipe to see the training pipeline for SERE specialists.
BASIC MILITARY TRAINING (BMT)
Eight weeks | Lackland AFB, TX
The first step to becoming an Airman happens in BMT, where trainees learn military structure, the core values of the U.S. Air Force and how to prepare both mentally and physically for life as an Airman.Learn More
SERE SPECIALIST TRAINING ORIENTATION COURSE (SST-0C)
15 days | JBSA-Lackland/Chapman Annex
The SERE Specialist Training Orientation Course is designed to gauge your potential success in the SERE pipeline. You will be evaluated on your physical fitness, leadership/followership abilities, time management, speaking ability and commitment to becoming a SERE specialist.
SERE SPECIALIST TRAINING APPRENTICE COURSE (SST-AC)
5.5 months, 17 training phases | Fairchild AFB, WA
During this course, you’ll train to become a subject matter expert in SERE tactics by training in remote forest, desert, coastal, tropic and open-ocean environments. You’ll also train to become a personnel recovery expert, proficient in wilderness responder first aid, rough land evacuation and hand-to-hand combat.
BECOME SERE STRONG
Swipe to see what is required to become a SERE specialist so you can prepare before entering the pipeline.
Inside America’s Toughest Survival School
Frenchman Coulee, in central Washington, is one of those places you visit and think, “How the hell does anything survive out here?” Desert canyons and low mesas cut through the rocky landscape. Wind whips sand eddies up off the dunes. It hardly ever rains. And a series of sheer basalt cliffs, although popular with climbers, makes traveling overland a nightmare. Of course, if you’re looking to test someone’s ability to stay alive for six days in the wilderness with few resources—natural or otherwise—Frenchman is a pretty good place to do it. Which is exactly what the Air Force was doing there last summer with 31 trainees—all dressed in orange and white nylon togas.
“You have five minutes!” barks Matt Voss, the instructor in charge.
The airmen rush to put the finishing touches on their shelters—sand pits covered with parachute scraps and sagebrush—and line up shoulder to shoulder. The togas are parachute scraps, too. Nylon is the one resource Air Force pilots and aircrew members will have in relative abundance after surviving an ejection or a crash landing. Some of the trainees wear parachute headdresses. Others wear parachute belts. If it wasn’t for the seriousness of their faces, you could mistake the scene for a community-theater reenactment of Lawrence of Arabia.
This is the Air Force’s SERE specialist training—SERE being the acronym for survival, evasion, resistance, escape. The school began decades ago as way to develop an elite crew of survival specialists who could then train the Air Force at large how to “return with honor” from behind enemy lines, and it’s still required for anyone who holds a job that might take them into hostile territory. A pilot who goes down might have to survive days or weeks with nothing but a parachute and a few simple tools, like a Buck knife and an unlubricated condom. (In a pinch, rubbers can help gather water or administer first aid.) SERE specialists show them how to do it.
There are roughly 550 SERE instructors in the Air Force, and their center of operations is Washington’s Fairchild Air Force Base, 135 miles east of Frenchman Coulee. Last summer, the Air Force allowed me a rare look into the secretive program. I shadowed SERE trainees as they searched for water in the desert and foraged berries in the mountains. I worked out with them in the school’s Survival Gym, sat through lessons about improvised weapons, and watched as they struggled to free themselves from a helicopter fuselage plunged upside down into a pool.
At Fairchild, where SERE is separated from the rest of the base by 13,900 feet of runway, there’s a hangar for practicing parachute landings, a museum filled with dioramas of improvised snow caves and life rafts, and a full-scale Middle Eastern–style neighborhood where “hostages” learn to escape by crawling through drainage pipes and scaling walls with improvised grappling hooks.
This may sound fun, but in truth, it’s so arduous that roughly 85 percent of those who start SERE training flunk out before reaching graduation. The list of daily chores is so long that students forgo sleep. They also go long stretches with minimal water and as little as 500 calories of food a day. And even as their energy wanes, they have to stand in front of their peers and instructors to present lessons on information they only just learned.
That’s because SERE specialists’ primary mission is to practice and refine the techniques required for surviving and evading, so that they can teach what they’ve learned to the rest of the Air Force. Despite being some of the military’s toughest and most resourceful members, they almost never see combat.
“We’re never going to be kicking down doors and shooting up places,” says SERE specialist John Ware, from Texas. “That’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to help out with what to do when someone goes down.”
As SERE specialist Voss, 29, walks his line of toga-clad trainees, he examines each face for a clean shave. Then he inspects their sand shelters, watches each one gulp down a shot of brown-green water harvested from wild sage, and gathers the group so they can show off the bugs they’ve collected for snack time.
“The grasshoppers are delicious,” explains one trainee. “You just have to rip their legs off before you eat them.”
SERE DIDN’T EXIST back during the Korean War. If it had, perhaps it would have mitigated U.S. losses: Some 2,800 war prisoners died in captivity, and those who survived had been subjected to brainwashing techniques. Some offered up sensitive military information, while nearly two dozen elected to remain with their communist captors after the war ended.
“People were so indoctrinated that they stayed,” says SERE specialist Paul Daggett, 32. “Prisoners essentially became Koreans.”
In response, the Department of Defense issued the U.S. Fighting Man’s Code, a 94-page handbook that outlined a code of conduct for military personnel to follow in the event of capture. In 1961, with the code of conduct as its North Star, the Air Force created the world’s first SERE program. The Navy and Army followed suit, but unlike the Air Force, the other branches never established a dedicated fleet of specialists whose sole responsibility is the gathering and teaching of survival skills.
“We’re the only branch that has people who do SERE as a career,” says Daggett.
One half of the Air Force’s SERE specialists are scattered among military bases around the world, where they provide field and follow-up training to airmen on deployment. The other half is at Fairchild, where the goal is to constantly build numbers to replenish retiring survival specialists. But very few people have the grit and desire to survive the training.
“There was one week where I probably only slept eight hours total,” says SERE specialist Peter Ryan, remembering his course. “It was a mental kick in the dick.” During one training expedition in the Arctic, the temperature never broke single digits. Ryan teetered on tired legs for days, chopping wood in waist-high snow. He’d dig a new shelter every evening, use the wood to make a fire, and then set into a long list of tasks dictated by his instructor. If he completed everything to satisfaction, he’d bag a couple of hours of sleep before doing it all again.
“We’re the guinea pigs,” says Ryan. “I can’t teach you what to do as an isolated person if I don’t know what it’s like myself.”
After desert training, SERE trainees will do stints in tropical and arctic environments, along with a week on the coast where they eat whatever they can pull from the sea and spend hours at a time floating around inside a rescue raft, fighting winds or baking in the sun. Of all the challenges SERE trainees endure, though, it’s the “torture” training that stirs the most controversy. Much of what America knows about SERE stems from a 2012 report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence charged with investigating the CIA’s former detention and interrogation program. In the past, some SERE programs have reportedly instructed airmen on waterboarding resistance, and the Senate’s report revealed that in the wake of 9/11, two psychologists hired by SERE also oversaw a CIA program for “enhanced interrogation techniques” for use against U.S. enemies.
“There was a week where I probably only slept eight hours total. It was a mental kick in the dick.”
Once the connection with the CIA was laid bare, SERE came under fire as a torture school. Old stories resurfaced about waterboarding, but also other forms of abuse, like students being held in small spaces for long periods of time and being forced to listen to that 1970s meow-meow-meow-meow Purina cat-food commercial on loop.
But what the critics call torture training, SERE calls resistance training. Rather than create torturers, the goal is to prepare people to avoid or handle torture—insomuch as such a thing is possible. And the details of that training are mostly classified.
“It’s a sensitive area,” says Rich Van Winkle, a former SERE instructor who served. “In the survival world, we don’t like to talk about it because it can get people killed.” And while he won’t offer specifics on resistance training, Van Winkle will say this: “It’s intended to be arduous and stressful, and it is.”
IN 1986, Dale Storr, then a young pilot, went through the basic SERE survival course at Fairchild. Nearly five years later, during Operation Desert Storm, he was shot down in Iraq.
Storr ejected, and once captured, his first impulse was to refuse to talk. But when his interrogator cracked him over the brow with a Colt 45 and pressed the cocked pistol against his head, Storr found his words. “There’s a reason they tell you the John Wayne technique doesn’t work,” says Storr. “Because it doesn’t. You’re going to talk.”
To survive captivity, Storr mentally filed everything he knew about the military into three folders: those he’d give up easily, those he’d share only to save his life, and those that—if it came to it—he’d die for.
To keep his captors away from the third folder, Storr spoke at length about anything that came up in folder number one. The interrogator asked about the T-38 jet, and Storr listed every excruciating detail about the aircraft. “There’s nothing classified about the T-38,” he says. “So we probably talked for an hour on that.”
Over the 33 days Storr was in captivity, his captors broke his nose, dislocated his shoulder, and ruptured his eardrum. And all along, in keeping with his SERE training, Storr played the part of a good prisoner. When asked to sketch the layout of his base in Saudi Arabia, Storr drew Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma instead. “I knew Vance Air Force Base like the back of my hand,” says Storr.
He was five years out of the course at Fairchild, but his resistance strategies were fresh. At his base in Saudi Arabia, just months before his capture, a SERE specialist gathered the pilots for a refresher course. “Every swinging dick in that briefing room was paying attention to that SERE guy up there talking,” says Storr.
It’s that follow-up instruction that often makes SERE specialists so revered in the Air Force. They can point deployed pilots and aircrew members toward edible plants in the region and refresh their interrogation-resistance techniques.
By the time Storr returned to the U.S., he’d lost 50 pounds. But he was alive, and he hadn’t given away information that would compromise U.S. lives.
“If I didn’t have any survival training, I probably would have still survived,” says Storr, now 57 and a pilot for United Airlines. “But I’d be a mental wreck today. I would have blabbed all this information and not had any way to resist. I can’t imagine what that would feel like.”
BACK IN THE DESERT, after watching the trainees drink plant juice and eat bugs, Voss drops the whole cadre for pushups. They don’t know what they’ve done wrong, but nonetheless they count 38 reps in uni- son before standing. “Take a guess what you got dropped for,” says Voss.
“Our shelters?” guesses one guy.
“Nope,” says Voss. He waits a moment for another guess, and when it doesn’t come, he drops them again. After 38 more pushups, the trainees are back at attention, and Voss reveals why they’re in trouble. “Who here buried MRE trash?”
MREs are the “meals ready-to-eat” that the military uses in the field. Each student has three to ration for the six days they’re out here. In response to Voss’ question, a hand goes up.
“Aaron McClure,” says Voss. “Anybody with you?”
“No, sir,” says McClure.
Leaving trash in the desert is a bad look, says Voss, especially MRE trash, which immediately implicates Air Force trainees. Voss tells McClure to run back to their last camp, find the trash, and bring it back. “You have 10 minutes,” he says Voss. The sun is already setting, so McClure grabs a headlamp and sprints away.
With the curriculum what it is, the SERE instructors I spoke to agree that those who graduate possess a rare blend of integrity and humility. I’d add pain tolerance to that list.
“If you want to identify what sets SERE instructors apart from the rest of the world, it’s that they’ve been forced to subject themselves to suffering in the broad spectrum,” says Van Winkle. They camp with minimal gear in extreme heat and cold. They go without sleep, food, and water. They dip their toes in the pool of misery so they can offer assistance to those who might one day find themselves swimming in it.
“The thing the military can do that nobody else can is force you to endure the suffering,” says Van Winkle. “That can’t be duplicated anywhere else.”
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Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape
U.S. military survival training program
This article is about SERE training in the United States. For a similar course in the United Kingdom, see Defence Survive, Evade, Resist, Extract Training Organisation.
Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) is a training program, best known by its military acronym, that prepares U.S. military personnel, U.S. Department of Defensecivilians, and private military contractors to survive and "return with honor" in survival scenarios. The curriculum includes survival skills, evading capture, application of the military code of conduct, and techniques for escape from captivity. Formally established by the U.S. Air Force at the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War, it was extended to the Navy and United States Marine Corps and consolidated within the Air Force during the Korean War with greater focus on "resistance training".
During the Vietnam War (1959–1975) there was clear need for "Jungle" survival training and greater public focus on American POWs. As a result, the U.S. military expanded SERE programs and training sites. In the late 1980s the U.S. Army became more involved with SERE as Special Forces and "Spec Ops" grew. Today, SERE is taught to a variety of personnel based upon risk of capture and exploitation value with a high emphasis on aircrew, special operations, and foreign diplomatic and intelligence personnel.
The origins of SERE are rooted in the leadership of Britain's MI9 Evasion and Escape ("E&E") organization, formed at the onset of World War II (1939–1945). Led by World War I veteran Colonel (later Brigadier) Norman Crockatt, MI9 were formed to train air crew and Special Forces in evading enemy troops following bail out, forced landings, or being cut off behind enemy lines. A training school was established in London, and officers and instructors from MI9 also began visiting operational air bases, providing local training to air crews unable to be detached from their duties to attend formal courses. MI9 went on to devise a multitude of evasion and escape tools; These tools included overt items to aid immediate evasion after bailing out and covert items for use to aid escape following capture which were hidden within uniforms and personal items (concealed compasses, silk and tissue maps, etc.).
Once the United States entered the war in 1941, MI9 staff traveled to Washington D.C. to discuss their now mature E&E training, devices, and proven results with the United States Army Air Forces ("USAAF"). As a result, the United States initiated their own Evasion and Escape organization, known as MIS-X, based at Fort Hunt, Virginia.
There were also several unofficial private "clubs" created during World War II by British and American pilots who had escaped from German forces during the war and returned to friendly lines. One such club was the "Late Arrivals' Club". This strictly non-military club had a flying boot which was worn under the left collar of a uniform as its identifying symbol.
USAAF General Curtis LeMay realized that it was cheaper and more effective to train aircrews in Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape techniques than to have them lost in the arctic (or ocean) or languishing (or lost) in enemy hands. Thus, he supported the establishment of formal SERE training at several bases/locations (from July 1942 to May 1944) hosting the 336th Bombardment Group (now the 336th Training Group), including a small program for Cold Weather Survival at RCAF Station Namao in Edmonton, Alberta where American, British, and Canadian B29 aircrews received basic survival training. In 1945, a consolidated survival training center was initiated at Fort Carson, Colorado under the 3904th Training Squadron, and, in 1947 the Arctic Indoctrination Survival School (colloquially known as "the Cool School") opened at Marks Air Force Base in Nome, Alaska.
During WWII, the US Navy discovered that 75% of its pilots who had been shot or forced down came down alive, yet barely 5% of them survived because they could not swim or find sustenance in the water or on remote islands. Since the ability to swim was an essential survival skill for navy pilots, training programs were developed to ensure pilot trainees could swim (requiring cadets to swim one mile and dive 50 feet underwater so as to be able to escape bullets and suction from sinking aircraft). Soon, the training was expanded to include submerged aircraft escape.
During the Korean War (1950–1953) the Air Force moved their survival school to Stead AFB, Reno Stead Airport as the 3635th Combat Crew Training Wing. In 1952, the United States Department of Defense (DoD) designated the United States Air Force (USAF) as executive agent (EA, as below) for joint escape and evasion.
The Korean War showed that traditional notions about captives during wartime were no longer valid as North Koreans, with Chinese backing, ignored the Geneva Conventions regarding treatment of POWs. This mistreatment was especially true for American airmen because of North Korean hatred of bombardments and airmen's prestige among soldiers. North Koreans were interested in the propaganda value of American captives given their new methods for gaining compliance, extracting confessions, and gathering information, which proved successful against American soldiers.
A change in focus
Soon after the Korean War ended the DoD initiated the Defense Advisory Committee on Prisoners of War to study and report on the problems and possible solutions regarding the Korean War POW fiasco. The charter of the committee was to find a suitable approach for preparing the US armed forces to deal with the combat and captivity environment.
The committee's key recommendation was the implementation of a military "Code of Conduct" that embodied traditional American values as moral obligations of soldiers during combat and captivity. Underlying this code was the belief that captivity was to be thought of as an extension of the battlefield–i.e. as a place where soldiers were expected to accept death as a possible duty. President Eisenhower then issued Executive Order 10631 which stated: "Every member of the Armed Forces of the United States are expected to measure up to the standards embodied in the Code of Conduct while in combat or in captivity." The US military likewise began the process for training and implementing this directive.
While it was accepted that the Code of Conduct would be taught to all US soldiers at the earliest point of their military training, the Air Force believed more was needed. At the USAF "Survival School" (Stead AFB), the concepts of evasion, resistance, and escape were expanded and new curricula were developed as "Code of Conduct Training". Those curricula have remained the foundation of modern SERE training throughout the U.S. military.
The Navy also recognized the need for new training and by the late 1950s, formal SERE training was initiated at "Detachment SERE" Naval Air Station Brunswick in Maine with a 12-day Code of Conduct course designed to give Navy pilots and aircrew the skills necessary to survive and evade capture, and if captured, resist interrogation and escape. Later, the course was expanded so that other Navy and Marine Corps troops, such as SEALs, SWCC, EOD, RECON / MARSOC, and Navy Combat Medics would attend. Subsequently, a second school was opened at Naval Air Station North Island. The Marine Corps opened their Pickel Meadow camp (initially established by Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton) in 1951, where Marines would be trained in outdoor survival and, later, opened the Mountain Warfare Training Center (MCMWTC) in Bridgeport, California, where training could be done in Level A SERE (as below). "Survival training" for soldiers has ancient origins as survival is a goal of combat. Survival training was not distinct from "combat training" until navies realized the need to teach sailors to swim. Such training was not related to combat and was intended solely to help sailors survive. Similarly, fire-fighting training has long been a navy focus and remains so today (although survival of the ship may be the primary goal). Water survival training has been a distinct and formal part of Navy basic training since World War II, although its importance was greatly increased with the advent and expansion of naval aviation.
In 1953 the Army established the "Jungle Operations Training Center" at Fort Sherman in Panama (known as "Green Hell"). Operations there were ramped up during the 1960s to meet the demand for jungle-trained soldiers in Vietnam. In 1958, the Marine Corps opened Camp Gonsalves in northern Okinawa, Japan where jungle warfare and survival training was offered to soldiers headed for Vietnam. As the Vietnam War progressed, the Air Force also opened a "Jungle Survival School" at Clark Air Base in the Philippines.
When Stead AFB closed in 1966, the USAF "survival school" was moved to Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington State (where it is centered today). The Air Force also had other survival schools including the "Tropical Survival School" at Howard Air Force Base in the Panama Canal Zone, the "Arctic Survival School" at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska and the "Water Survival School" at Homestead Air Force Base, Florida which operated under separate commands. In April 1971, these schools were brought under the same Group and squadrons were organized to conduct training at Clark, Fairchild and Homestead, while detachments were used for other localized survival training (the acronym "SERE" was not used extensively in the Air Force until later in the 1970s).
In 1976, following accusations and reports of abuses during Navy SERE training, DoD established a committee (i.e., "Defense Review Committee") to examine the need for changes in Code of Conduct training and after hearing from experts and former POWs, they recommended the standardization of SERE training among all branches of the military and the expansion of SERE to include "lessons learned from previous US Prisoner of War experiences" (intending to make the training more "realistic and useful").
In late 1984, the Pentagon issued DoD Directive 1300.7 which established three levels of SERE training with the "resistance portion" incorporated at "Level C". That level of training was specified for soldiers whose "assignment has a high risk of capture and whose position, rank, or seniority make them vulnerable to greater than average exploitation efforts by a captor".
While initially only four military bases (Fairchild AFB, SERE), Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Naval Air Station North Island, and Camp Mackall (at Fort Bragg) were officially authorized to conduct Level C training, other bases have been added (such as Fort Rucker). Individual bases may conduct SERE courses which include C-level elements (see "Schools" below). The required (every 3 years) Level C refresher course is commonly taught by USAF "detachments" (often just one SERE specialist/instructor) stationed at a base or a traveling specialist.
As the designated executive agency for US military SERE training, the USAF's 336th Training Group continues to provide the only US military career SERE specialists and instructors who are part of Air Force Special Warfare Operations and are utilized in varied roles throughout the Air Force and DoD. See USAF "Survival Instructors".
Selecting an Executive Agency
The DoD defines Executive Agency as "the Head of a DOD Component to whom the Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) or the Deputy Secretary of Defense (DEPSECDEF) has assigned specific responsibilities, functions, and authorities to provide defined levels of support for operational missions, or administrative or other designated activities that involve two or more of the DOD Components." DoD chose the U.S. Air Force as its Executive Agency for joint escape and evasion in 1952 and it was therefore the candidate to be chosen as the EA for SERE and CoC training in 1979. The Air Force remained EA for most survival, evasion, escape and rescue related matters until 1995. But, with the growing importance of personnel recovery (PR), the United States Department of Defense established the Joint Services Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) Agency (JSSA) in 1991 and designated it the DoD EA for DoD Prisoner of War / Missing in Action (POW / MIA) matters. In 1994 the JSSA was designated as the central organizer and implementer for PR and the USAF as the EA for Joint Combat Search and Rescue (JCSAR) Combat search and rescue. In 1999, the JPRA Joint Personnel Recovery Agency was created as an agency under the Commander in Chief, US Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM) and was named the Office of Primary Responsibility (OPR) for DoD-wide PR matters. JPRA has been designated a Chairman's Controlled Activity since 2011.
JPRA has its headquarters at Fort Belvoir and as organizing agency (OA) for all DoD "resistance" training, it has close ties with the 336th Training Group (which was given the role of organizing and operating the Personnel Recovery Academy or PRA). JPRA and the PRA now coordinate PR activities and train PR/SERE globally with American allies making extensive use of USAF SERE experts.
USAF "Survival Instructors"/SERE Specialists
The first USAF "survival instructors" were experienced civilian wilderness volunteers and USAF personnel with prior instructor experience (and they included a small cadre of "USAF Rescuemen", i.e. United States Air Force Pararescue). When the Army Air Force formed the Air Rescue Service (ARS) in 1946, the 5th Rescue Squadron conducted the first Pararescue and Survival School at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida MacDill Air Force Base. With the move to Stead AFB and the opening of a full-time survival school, the USAF initiated the military's only full-time, career survival instructor program (with the Air Force Specialty Code 921). By the time the Air Force opened the survival school at Fairchild AFB in 1966, it also opened a separate "Instructor Training Branch" (ITB) under the 3636th Combat Crew Training Squadron where all Air Force Survival Instructors received their specialist training, composed of six months of classroom and field training, and initial qualification rating, which was "Global Survival Instructor". They then had to complete six months of On-the-Job Training (OJT) before they were qualified to teach SERE (aka "Combat Survival Training" or "CST"). Years of additional training for added specialties (such as arctic, jungle, tropics, and water survival, "resistance training", and "academic instruction") yield some of the most trained personnel in the U.S. military.
Currently, USAF SERE specialist/instructor training is conducted under the 66th Training Squadron at Fairchild AFB. After selection and qualification conducted at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas via a SERE specialist orientation course, potential SERE instructors are assigned to the 66th Training Squadron to learn how to instruct SERE in any environment: the "field" survival course at Fairchild, the non-ejection water survival course at Fairchild AFB (which trains aircrew members of non-parachute-equipped aircraft), and the resistance training orientation course (which covers the theories and principles needed to conduct Level C Code of Conduct resistance training laboratory instruction). USAF SERE specialists also earn their jump wings at the United States Army Airborne School. SERE Specialists who work in the "dunker" portion of the water survival course at Fairchild are certified through the Navy Salvage Dive Course. The SERE training instructor "7-level" upgrade course is a 19-day course that provides SERE instructors with advanced training in barren Arctic, barren desert, jungle, and open-ocean environments.
The Air Force's SERE instructors play key roles in DoD-wide training and in implementing other branches SERE training programs; both the Navy and Army send their SERE instructors to take the basic 9-day SERE course (SV-80-A) taught by the 22nd TS since these other branches have no career option for SERE. Because the Air Force has the largest and best trained SERE staff, it assumes diverse roles DoD wide, such as furnishing SERE training for Red Flag exercises.
SERE curriculum has evolved from being primarily focused on "outdoor survival training" to increasingly focus upon "evasion, resistance, and escape". Military survival training differs from typical civilian programs in several key areas:
- The anticipated military survival situation almost always begins with exiting a vehicle—an aircraft or ship. Thus, the scenario begins with exit strategies, practices, and means (ejecting, parachuting, underwater escape, etc.).
- Military survival training has greater focus on specialized military survival equipment, survival kits, signaling, rescue techniques, and recovery methods.
- Military personnel are almost always better prepared for survival situations because of obvious inherent risk in their activities (and their training and equipment). Conversely, military personnel are subject to a much wider variety of likely scenarios as any given mission may expose them to a wide variety of risks, environments, and injuries.
- In almost all military survival situations someone knows you're missing and will be looking for you with advanced equipment and pre-established protocols.
- Military survival often involves exposure to an enemy. The basic survival skills taught in SERE programs include common outdoor/wilderness survival skills such as firecraft, sheltercraft, first aid, water procurement and treatment, food procurement (traps, snares, and wild edibles), improvised equipment, self-defense (natural hazards), and navigation (map and compass, etc.). More advanced survival training focuses on mental elements such as will to survive, attitude, and "survival thinking" (situational awareness, assessment, prioritization).
Military survival schools also teach unique skills such as parachute landings, basic and specialized signalling, vectoring a helicopter, use of rescue devices (forest-tree penetrators, harnesses, etc.), rough terrain travel, and interaction with indigenous peoples.
The military "has an obligation to the American people to ensure its soldiers go into battle with the assurance of success and survival. This is an obligation that only rigorous and realistic training, conducted to standard, can fulfill". The U.S. Army has long taken survival training as an integral part of combat readiness (per FM 7-21.13 "The Soldier's Guide") and combat training is largely about an individual soldier's survival as opposed to the enemy's non-survival. "Survival", as a distinct part of modern military training, largely emerges in special environment operations (as shown in "Mountain Operations", FM 3-97.6, "Jungle School", the Marine Corps' mountain warfare training center, the Air Force's Desert and Arctic Survival Schools (as above), and the Navy's Naval Special Warfare Cold Weather Detachment Kodiak).
Certain skills have been identified that enhance every soldier's chance for survival (whether they are on the battlefield or not):
- Use weapons properly and effectively
- Move safely and efficiently through various terrains
- Navigate from one point to another given point on the ground
- Communicate as needed
- Perform first aid (evaluate, stabilize, and transport)
- Identify and react properly to hazards
- Select and utilize offensive and defensive positions
- Maintain personal health and readiness
- Evade, resist, and escape (aka "kidnapping and hostage survival")
- Know and utilize emergency procedures, survival equipment, and recovery systems
Military personnel are often subject to enhanced risks and unique situations and, therefore, beyond basic combat skills and specialty skills, many U.S. military personnel receive training in survival skills specific to their assignment. Such general survival training may include the basics listed above along with:
- Special survival equipment and procedures (specific vehicle exiting, first aid kits, etc.)
- Communication devices, practices, and procedures
- Navigation devices (e.g. GPS)
- Specialty rescue devices (e.g. forest penetrator, personal lowering and hoisting devices, etc.)
- Special survival practices and procedures (shipboard firefighting, abandon ship procedures, liferafts, etc.)
- Preparing for survival (mission briefings, personal survival gear/kits, special knowledge, etc.)
- Situational awareness and assessment / Understanding the mission environment: hazards and opportunities
- Prioritizing needs and planning actions for personal protection, survival, and recovery (survival decisions)
- If an enemy is involved—evasion (camouflage, travel techniques, et al.).
- Signaling (radios, mirrors, fire/smoke, flares, markers)
- Rescue contact and recovery procedures
Evasion, resistance, and escape
Evading an enemy consists of certain well-known basic skills, but the military has an interest in not openly discussing its practices since this may assist an enemy. Major militaries spend considerable time and energy preparing for evasion with extensive planning (routes, practices, pick-up points, methods, "friendlies", "chits", weapons, etc.). Some elements of hostile survival preparedness and teaching are classified. This is especially true for "resistance" training where one hopes to prepare those who might be captured for hardship, stress, abuse, torture, interrogation, indoctrination, and exploitation.
The foundation for capture preparedness lies in knowing one's duty and rights if taken prisoner. For American soldiers, this begins with the Code of the United States Fighting Force. It is:
- I am an American, fighting in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense.
- I will never surrender of my own free will. If in command, I will never surrender the members of my command while they still have the means to resist.
- If I am captured, I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and to aid others to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.
- If I become a prisoner of war, I will keep faith with my fellow prisoners. I will give no information nor take part in any action which might be harmful to my comrades. If I am senior I will take command. If not, I will obey the lawful orders of those appointed over me and will back them up in every way.
- When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am required to give name, rank, service number, and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability, I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause.
- I will never forget that I am an American, fighting for freedom, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which made my country free. I will trust in my God and in the United States of America.
Training on how to survive and resist an enemy in the event of capture is generally based on past experiences of captives and prisoners of war. Thus, it is important to know who one's captors are likely to be and what to expect from them. Intelligence regarding such things is sensitive, but in the modern era, captives are less likely to enjoy the status of "prisoner of war" and so to gain protections under the Geneva Conventions. American soldiers are still taught the standards of international law for humanitarian treatment in war, but they are less likely to receive those protections than to offer them. Because details cannot be offered, a few examples of well-known resistance methods provide clues as to the nature of resistance techniques:
- Use of a tap code to secretly communicate between captives.
- When U.S. Navy Commander Jeremiah Denton was forced to appear at a televised press conference, he repeatedly blinked the word "T-O-R-T-U-R-E" with Morse code.
- The "code" of prisoners at the "Hanoi Hilton" Hỏa Lò Prison: "Take physical torture until you are right at the edge of losing your ability to be rational. At that point, lie, do, or say whatever you must do to survive. But you first must take physical torture."
- A pilot POW who gave the name of comic book heroes when his captors demanded the name of his fellow pilots.
- Much from The Great Escape (book).
The teaching of "resistance" is typically done in a "simulation laboratory" setting where "resistance training" instructors act as hostile captors and soldier-students are treated as realistically as possible as captives/POWs with isolation, harsh conditions, close confinement, stress, mock interrogation, and torture "simulations". While it is impossible to simulate the reality of hostile captivity, such training has proven very effective in helping those who have endured captivity know what to expect of their captivity and themselves under such conditions.
Code of Conduct training levels
Under current DoD public policy, SERE Code of Conduct (aka "Resistance") training has three levels:
- Level A: Entry level training. These are the Code of Conduct classes (now commonly taken online) required for all military personnel—normally at recruit training, "basic" and "OCS" Officer Candidate School.
- Level B: For those operating or expected to operate forward of the division rear boundary and up to the forward line of own troops (FLOT). Normally limited to aircrew of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force. Level B focuses on survival and evasion, with resistance in terms of initial capture.
- Level C: For troops at a high risk of capture and whose position, rank, or seniority make them vulnerable to greater than average exploitation efforts by any captor. Level C training focuses on resistance to exploitation and interrogation, survival during isolation and captivity, and escape from hostiles (e.g., "prison camps").
"Escape Training" has elements similar to evasion and resistance training—if details are revealed, it potentially helps adversaries. Much of this training has to do with observation, planning, preparation, and contingencies. And much of this comes from historical experience so public sources are revealing (such as the movies The Great Escape (film) and Rescue Dawn).
Special survival situations
1. Water (ocean, river, littoral) Survival: Military personnel are much more likely to find themselves in a water survival situation than others. How to survive in water is taught at Navy Recruit Training, Navy SUBSCOL Submarine Escape Training, the Air Force Water Survival Course and at a separate SoF Special ForcesProfessional Military Education (PME) courses. Featured in such courses are topics and exercises such as:
- Underwater escape from vessel/vehicle (from submarines to aircraft)
- Water parachute landing
- Swimming out from under a parachute
- Dealing with rough water
- Boarding and getting out of a life raft
- Life in a raft
- Use of aquatic survival gear
- Aquatic environment hazards
- Aquatic environment first aid (seasickness, immersion injuries, animal injuries)
- Food and water procurement and preparation
- Drown-proofing, swimming, flotation
- Special Psychological Concerns
2. Arctic (sea ice, tundra) Survival: Air Force aircrews spend considerable time flying over arctic regions Polar Routes and while modern arctic survival situations are rare, the training remains useful and worthwhile because its content obviously relates to winter survival anywhere. All U.S. military branches have some type of cold/winter/mountain survival training originating from hard-learned lessons during the Korean War (see above and below). Dealing with cold conditions presents several unique content areas:
- Cold injuries: frostbite, hypothermia, chilblains, immersion foot
- Snow/Ice/Cold Issues: snow blindness, avalanches/ice fall, icebergs, wind chill
- Staying Warm
- Why an igloo or snow cave is far better than a tent
- Saving calories, burning calories, and finding calories.
- Arctic/Snow Travel
- Hazards of moisture/Keeping dry
3. Desert Survival: While desert survival training was part of U.S. military survival courses since their inception (see Air Forces Manual No. 21) the focus of survival training went that direction in 1990 with Operation Desert ShieldGulf War (1990-1991). Desert survival training is likely to remain a major focus in the foreseeable future. While there is a common mistake to think of deserts as hot, much of the Arctic (and Antarctic) is also polar desert. And under the definition of desert climate (a climate in which there is an excess of evaporation over precipitation), some deserts are deemed "cold weather deserts" such as the Gobi Desert. Because the unifying feature of all deserts is a lack of water, that is the focus for desert survival:
- Conserve water (but don't over-do it): If it's hot, avoid perspiration; if it's cold, avoid dehydrating respiration
- Understanding dehydration
- Water sources in arid regions
- Hot desert—shelter by day, move/act by night
- Cold desert—trap breath moisture
- Desert shelters (above or below surface)
- Desert garb
- Desert hazards and treatments
- Desert signaling
- Desert travel
4. Jungle/Tropics Survival: Staying alive in the jungle is relatively easy, but doing so comfortably can be very difficult. There are good reasons why soldiers deemed JWS (Jungle Warfare School) in Panama "Green Hell":
- The jungle environment: conditions (wet, wetter, wettest)heat index
- Jungle hazards
- Jungle ailments: trench foot, insect bites, bad food, bad water, parasites, snake bite
- Water preparation/treatment
- Jungle shelter(s)
- Jungle improvisation
- Jungle signalling and rescue
5. Isolation Survival: Isolation is not just "being alone", it's being away from the familiar and comforting. Isolation survival has long been part of SERE in the "resistance" portion of training, but has more recently been recognized as worthy of broader attention. The psychological impact of suddenly finding yourself alone, lost, or outside your "comfort zone" can be debilitating, seriously depressing, and even fatal (via panic). Isolation survival also focuses upon the broader view of captivity to include kidnapping and non-combatant captivity. Isolation survival training has more focus on psychological preparedness and less upon "skills".
- Understanding and avoiding panic
- The importance of "keeping your wits about you"
- Focus, Observe, Plan, and Envision ("FOPE")
- Stress "fight or flight" coping response, the "stress cycle", and things to help you stay calm.
- The psychology of captivity
U.S. military SERE/Survival Schools and courses
The vast majority of SERE/Survival Schools mentioned in "History" above are still operating. There has also been growth in private sector SERE Schools and training (which are not relevant herein). However, there has been a significant change in military use of private sector SERE training that is relevant here. That change has produced one odd outcome - the military has found it difficult to keep their well-trained and highly experienced SERE instructors because of lucrative private sector opportunities. (A 2020 Google search for "SERE Instructor Jobs" found over 1 million "hits"). The vast majority of those jobs require military SERE training.
Branch distinctions for SERE have become less clear or relevant since the creation of the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA, as above). Because the JPRA has "primary responsibility for DoD-wide personnel recovery matters," (which specifically includes Level C SERE training), it integrates, coordinates, mandates, and draws from all military branches as needed. It is also worthy to note that much of military SERE is viewed as "joint operations" and cross-branch training is common (or required). SERE training detachments (usually, USAF) often work with different branches, especially where bases have been combined as "Joint Bases" and for update/review training. In that regard, designating schools by branch may be less meaningful.
- SERE 100.2 (J3TA-US1329) is a joint services Level A SERE education and training course supporting the military-wide "Code of Conduct" training requirement. It is 4 hour course available on-line or as an on-base classroom course.
It is common practice for joint operation SERE training to be conducted at, through, or in conjunction with individual military bases.
The Army position statement on SERE training is clear: "The Army has an obligation to the American people to ensure its soldiers go into battle with the assurance of success and survival. This is an obligation that only rigorous and realistic training, conducted to standard, can fulfill." Like all military branches, the Army operates under DOD Directive 1300.7 which requires and specifies Code of Conduct training for military personnel. Because the Army views a large portion of its training as "survival" related and since the Army has more soldiers than the other branches, there are many modes and schools for survival and SERE training (as indicated above and below). Army Airborne School, for example is largely about surviving parachute jumps but is not deemed a "survival school". Army Rangers, Delta Force and other SoF soldiers receive extensive survival training as an inherent part of their overall combat training (as well as specific SERE training).
The mission of the United States Army SERE training is "to ensure each student gains the ability to effectively employ the SERE tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) necessary to return with honor regardless of the circumstances of separation, isolation or capture."
The major "specialized schools" and courses for Army SERE training include:
- John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (SWCS) at Camp Mackall where Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF) personnel complete their Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC - Phase III "SF Tactical Combat Skills") with a 19-day SERE course (including the Special Operations Forces' (ARSOF) Resistance Training Laboratory (RTL)) that includes Level C training.
- Army Aviation School at Fort Rucker where 21 days of SERE training is included in the Army aviators curriculum. The program has a Level C course with both academics and resistance training labs. The Basic Officer's Leadership Course (BOLC) includes introductory SERE training including Helicopter Over-water Survival Training (HOST). The SERE Level C course exposes students to various captor exploitation efforts including interrogation (eight methods), indoctrination, propaganda, video propaganda, concessions, forced labor, and reprisals. A simulated captivity environment provides experience which includes wartime, peacetime governmental detention, and hostage detention scenarios with content involving resistance postures, techniques and strategies, establishing overt and covert organizations, establishing overt and covert communications, and planning and executing escapes in captivity environments.
- Northern Warfare Training Center (NWTC) at Black Rapids, Alaska (administered from Fort Wainwright) where several courses are intended to maintain the U.S. Army's abilities in cold weather and mountain warfare. The Cold Weather Orientation Course (CWOC), Cold Weather Indoctrination Course (CWIC), and Basic Military Mountaineering Course (BMMC) each have specific "survival" sections.
- Desert Warrior Course outside of Fort Bliss, Texas where a 20-day course emphasizes the "individual strain on the body from the heat, sun, high winds and dryness." There is also special focus on desert hazards ("rattlesnakes, cobras, vipers, scorpions, tarantulas, camel spiders, coyotes, camels, big cats and antelope") and related medical skills.
The USN Center for Security Forces (CENSECFOR) of the Naval Education and Training Command (NETC) at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek–Fort Story promulgates the Navy's SERE training. The mission of the Command is "to educate and train those who serve, providing the tools and opportunities which enable life-long learning, professional and personal growth and development, ensuring fleet readiness and mission accomplishment; and to perform such other functions and tasks assigned by higher authority". This includes basic survival training for all Navy sailors and DOD Directive 1300.7 requiring "Code of Conduct" training (as above). The major Navy SERE schools and courses include:
- The Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) School (A-2D-4635 or E-2D-0039) at CENSECFOR Detachment SERE East, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, New Hampshire offers several SERE courses including the outdoor/field course at the Navy Remote Training Site, Kittery, Maine, a "Risk of Isolation Brief" course, and the SERE Instructor Under Training course. The school employs approximately 100 military and civilian personnel and trains an average of 1,200 students per year.
- Cold Weather Environmental Survival Training (CWEST) at Rangeley, Maine - the US Navy's only cold weather survival school.
- The Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) School (A-2D-4635 or E-2D-0039) at CENSECFOR Detachment SERE West, Naval Air Station North Island, California provides all levels of "Code of Conduct" training for Recon Marines, Marine Corps Scout Snipers, MARSOC Marines, Navy SEALs, enlisted Navy and Marine aircrew, Naval Aviators, Naval Flight Officers, Naval Flight Surgeons, Navy EOD, and Navy SWCC. The school operates the Navy Remote Training Site at Warner Springs where sailors and marines learn basic skills necessary for worldwide survival, facilitating search and rescue efforts, and evading capture by hostile forces. Additional Level C Code of Conduct training includes a five-day Peacetime Detention and Hostage Survival (PDAHS) course providing skills to survive captivity by a hostile government or terrorist cell during peacetime.
- Recruit Training Command's Water Survival Division at Naval Station Great Lakes (NAVSTA Great Lakes), Illinois offers introductory survival training including: basic sea survival training; lifeboat organization, survival kit contents and usage, abandon ship procedures, and swim qualification (3rd class).
- Naval Special Warfare (NSW) SERE (K-431-0400), Naval Special Warfare Center, Coronado, California (mostly classified personnel recovery TTPs).
- Naval Aviation Survival Training Centers: The Navy operates eight water survival training centers for its aviators (Miramar, Jacksonville, Norfolk, Cherry Point, Pensacola, Patuxent River, Lemorre, and Whidbey Island).
- Naval Special Warfare Advanced Training Command (NSWATC) courses (4) providing advanced training related to SERE and Personnel Recovery (PR) to Naval Special Warfare (NSW) trainees (SEAL/Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewman pipeline students and Combat Support/Combat Service Support (CS/CSS) personnel) and other select groups at Kodiak, Alaska and Virginia Beach, Virginia.
U.S. Air Force
The Air Education and Training Command (AETC) has over 60,000 personnel and is responsible for all Air Force training programs, including SERE training. In the AETC, the 336TH Training Group at Fairchild AFB, Washington has the mission to "provide high risk of isolation personnel with the skills and confidence to "RETURN WITH HONOR" regardless of the circumstances of isolation." It is also the largest U.S. Military SERE training provider training more than 6,000 SERE students a year."
As with the other branches, the Air Force offers a wide scope of survival training within other courses, but unique to the Air Force is the stationing of career SERE specialists at bases around the world as renewal and upgrade SERE instructors, advisors, and PR specialists. In the mid-80s, the USAF Combat "Desert" Survival Course was established by the 3636th Combat Crew Training Wing and USAF Survival Training Schools began emphasizing "Combat SERE Training" (CST) instead of "Global SERE Training". The primary Air Force survival schools/courses are:
- Arctic Survival School—the "Cool School" offered by the 66th TRS, Det. 1, at Eielson AFB, Alaska - a five-day course consisting of both classroom instruction and a 3-day field experience where students from all military branches along with "the Coast Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other organizations that find their members operating in arctic conditions" get to build snow shelters, trap rabbits, and deal with being COLD.
- SERE Specialist Selection Course (where over 50% of the hopefuls don't get to "first base") offered by the 66th TRS, Det. 3, at Lackland AFB, Texas—a rigorous pre-screening intended to save the Air Force time and money, and students needless pain and suffering.
- Evasion and Conduct After Capture (ECAC) Course, also by the 66th TRS, Det. 3 at Lackland. A Level B code of Conduct course that may act as partial/preparation course for Level C Code of Conduct (completed elsewhere).
- Non-ejection Water Survival offered by the 22nd TS at Fairchild - a 2-day course with an obvious focus.
- SV-80-A—the USAF aircrew SERE course is the largest in the military with 6,000+ attendees in an average year. This 19-day course mixes classroom, field, and "laboratory" (captive simulation) experiences to prepare students to "Return with Honor". The course is the "standard" for Level C Code of Conduct training and is offered broadly beyond the Air Force.
- JPRA courses: The Personnel Recovery Academy is located with the SERE school at Fairchild and there is significant overlap in instruction and facility. The west coast JPRA facility is just across the highway at White Bluffs where separate Level C(+) training is offered (mostly classified).
- SV-81-A—the U.S. military's only career SERE Specialist Course is offered by the 66th TS at the Air Force Survival School at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington and other regional locations. After a grueling selection process, successful students re-locate to Fairchild where they experience what they will teach by completing the SV-60-A course. Then they undertake a series of challenging field training exercises over a 5-month period to develop broad first-hand knowledge and experience in different terrains, weather, and situations (and differing gear). Those who graduate (less than 10%) are awarded the Sage Beret (with insignia pin), SERE Arch and SERE Flash - only to enter another 45 weeks of intensive on-the-job training. At some point, graduates must complete Airborne School. After completion of three-four years as a "Field Instructor", Specialists may be tasked to train students worldwide. USAF SERE Specialists are encouraged to complete an associate's degree in Survival and Rescue Sciences through the USAF Community College to continue to advance in the SERE career field. (SERE Specialists complete additional qualification training at specialized schools as required. Examples are Scuba Courses, Military Freefall Parachuting, Altitude chamber, etc. Assignment to each of the outlying schools requires additional training by the SERE Specialist. Upon reporting to the new assignment, each SERE Specialist must first complete that school's course (the same as an Aircrew member), and then be trained by the school's cadre in the specialized subject matter (and carry crews under supervision) before the newly assigned Specialist is "qualified" to teach without supervision. At Edwards AFB, USAF SERE Specialists are tasked as "Test Parachutists" and required to perform multiple jumps on newly introduced / modified rescue systems, aircraft, and parachuting and / or ejection systems. This includes test parachuting newly designed canopies, harnesses, etc. Currently, they are the only Test Parachutists in the Department of Defense. USAF SERE Specialists are considered DOD-wide subject matter experts in their field and are assigned to base level and command staff as advisers).
- Combat Survival Training (CST) taught by the 22nd TS at the Air Force Academy (AFA) in Colorado. Since 2011, this program has been significantly reduced (following problems and controversies detailed below). With most Academy graduates now required to attend the SV-80-A course at Fairchild, the AFA program is limited to some survival and Level B Code of Conduct training.
"Preserving the lives and well-being of U.S. military, Department of Defense (DoD) civilians, and DoD contractors authorized to accompany the force (CAAF) who are in danger of becoming, or already are beleaguered, besieged, captured, detained, interned, or, otherwise missing or evading capture (hereafter referred to as "isolated") while participating in U.S.-sponsored activities or missions, is one of the highest priorities of the DoD. The DoD has an obligation to train, equip, and protect its personnel, to prevent their capture and exploitation by adversaries, and to reduce the potential for the use of isolated personnel as leverage against U.S. security objectives. Personnel Recovery (PR) is the sum of military, diplomatic, and civil efforts to prepare for and execute the recovery and reintegration of isolated personnel." MSGID/GENADMIN/CG MCCDC QUANTICO VA REF/A/DODI O-3002.05//REF/B/CJCSM 3500.09//REF/C/MCO 3460.3| MARADMINS Number: 286/18 May 23, 2018 announcing that "Training and Education Command (TECOM) in a joint effort with U.S. Army Forces Command, and with the assistance of the Joint Personal Recovery Agency, has developed a SERE Level A Training Support Package (TSP) that enables deploying units to self-train SERE Level A in an instructor guided group setting."
The U.S. Marine Corps operates jointly with the Navy and cooperatively with the other branches in much of its SERE training, but operates its own Level C course at the Full Spectrum SERE Course, U.S. Marines Special Operations School (MSOS), Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Marine Spec Ops often train with Navy Spec Ops and utilize Navy training when it fits their needs and there is no equivalent USMC course. The Corps like to stand apart and have their own specifications for required "Code of Conduct" training:
Level A is taught to recruits and candidates in Officer Candidate School and the Recruit Depots, or under professional military education (but note the JPRA note above).
Level B is taught at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center, Bridgeport, California, and at the North Training Area, Camp Gonsalves, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan.
Level C is held at Camp Lejeune, as above, although some Marine personnel are trained at the Navy facilities listed above.
USMC courses or training with survival focus include:
- Full Spectrum SERE Training taught by the MARSOC Personnel Recovery (PR)/ SERE Branch at Camp Lejeune provides 19 days of full spectrum Level C SERE training to MARSOC personnel encompassing Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTP) to plan for evasion, effect personnel recovery, survive and evade capture in austere environments and resist exploitation appropriately, in accordance with the Code of Conduct, should they become captured or detained. The training consists of classroom academic instruction, vicarious learning evolutions consisting of Academic Role-Play Laboratories (ARL), field survival exercises, an evasion exercise, experiential resistance training laboratories (RTL), an urban movement phase and a course debrief.
- Mountain Warfare Training Center (MWTC) at Pickel Meadows in the Toiyabe National Forest (~20 miles northwest of Bridgeport, California) offers "specialized training in technical climbing, military mountaineering, snow mobility, field craft, survival, CASEVAC, navigation, use of pack animals and high angle marksmanship. Medical challenges include treatment of high altitude and cold weather illness and injuries, and casualty transport in a snow covered mountainous environment."
- Special Operations Training Course (SOTC) is taught at the Marine Raider Training Center (MRTC) at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina in four phases under the general title Individual Training Course (ITC). The entire course includes six months of unhindered, realistic, challenging basic and intermediate Special Operations Forces (SOF) war fighting skills training. In the ten-week Phase I portion, Marines learn basic Spec Ops skills including SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape), TCCC (Tactical Combat Casualty Care), fire support training and communications. Survivability is a focus in all phases of the ITC course.
- Jungle Warfare Training Center (JWTC) offers various courses taught by the 3d Marine Division at Camp Gonsalves, Okinawa, Japan. The skills, leaders, and endurance courses intend to teach Marines the skills they need should they become separated from their units in a combat zone and must survive off the land while evading the enemy. The Jungle Tracking, Trauma, and Medicine Courses have more specific goals. The rigorous eight-day Basic Skills Course teaches skills such as first aid, communication, booby traps, knot tying, rappelling, and land navigation. Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training (SERE) is conducted monthly and includes a 12-day course, 3 days of classroom learning of the basics of survival (how to identify and catch food, build tools, start fires and construct shelter), 5 days on a beach where the Marines survive on their own (with nothing but a knife, a canteen and the uniforms on their backs), and 4 days of "team" evasion through the muddy and tangled jungle (to avoid being captured by students from the man-tracking course). Captured student get placed into an improvised POW camp and the instructors interrogate them to test their "resistance" skills.
Marines often participate in "exercises" and some of them have a survival focus.
American Use of "SERE Techniques" in "Detainee" Interrogation/Torture
"The U.S. government torture program since 9/11 has been 'breathtaking' in its scope, according to the detailed report submitted to the United Nations Committee Against Torture by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School and other human rights activists." Torture and the United States—"Torture, interrogation and prisons in the War on Terror" (See Main articles: Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse, Bagram torture and prisoner abuse, Criticisms of the War on Terrorism, Enhanced interrogation techniques, and Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture). That Americans used "stress and duress" (and worse) techniques to humiliate and interrogate captives after 9/11 is now beyond question. While some may claim that such did not constitute "torture" and others may claim that torture was necessary to prevent deaths, those arguments are well refuted elsewhere. What cannot be overstated is the impact of President George W. Bush's declaration (February 5, 2002) that the Geneva Convention(s) regarding POWs did not apply to the conflict with al-Qaida or the Taliban as those prisoners were not entitled to POW status or those legal guarantees of humane treatment. To soldiers who are legally required to follow the directives of their Commander-in-Chief, this not only excused harsh techniques; it made them essentially mandatory. (A soldier's claim that this was an "unlawful order" would be a difficult defense because the legal definition of torture - "intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering" - is less than resolved. The intent is hard to prove and the meaning of "severe" in this application is debated).
The CIA acting general counsel, described in his book Company Man, that the enhanced techniques were "sadistic and terrifying." An online magazine article from June 2006 referenced a 2005 document obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through the Freedom of Information Act in which the former chief of the Interrogation Control Element at Guantánamo said "SERE instructors" taught their methods to interrogators of the prisoners in Cuba. The article also stated that physical and mental techniques used against some detainees at Abu Ghraib are similar to the ones SERE students are taught to resist.
According to Human Rights First, the interrogation that led to the death of Iraqi Major General Abed Hamed Mowhoush involved the use of techniques used in SERE training. According to the organization "Internal FBI memos and press reports have pointed to SERE training as the basis for some of the harshest techniques authorized for use on detainees by the Pentagon in 2002 and 2003."
On June 17, 2008, Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times reported that the senior Pentagon lawyer Mark Schiffrin requested information in 2002 from the leaders of the Air Force's captivity-resistance program, referring to one based in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The information was later used on prisoners in military custody. In written testimony to the Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing, Col. Steven Kleinman of the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency said a team of trainers whom he was leading in Iraq were asked to demonstrate SERE techniques on uncooperative prisoners. He refused, but his decision was overruled. He was quoted as saying "When presented with the choice of getting smarter or getting tougher, we chose the latter." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has acknowledged that the use of the SERE program techniques to conduct interrogations in Iraq was discussed by senior White House officials in 2002 and 2003.
It has been subsequently confirmed that in 2002 JPRA was asked by the CIA to provide advisors on topics such as "deprivation techniques... exploitation and questioning techniques, and developing countermeasures to resistance techniques". What has never been revealed is who the JPRA instructors actually were, but almost every source continues to deem them "SERE instructors". JPRA is not SERE and many of its resistance training instructors are not SERE instructors (they are from the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency). The techniques they taught the CIA are not SERE resistance training methods (although they are related) - they are the work product of Bruce Jessen and James Elmer Mitchell. For example, "waterboarding" (probably the most controversial of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" proposed by Jessen and Mitchell) has never been used in resistance training as part of Air Force SERE training and therefore, neither psychologist had any experience with it. (Simulated waterboarding had been used in SERE training in other branches until 2007).
While "Resistance" is clearly part of SERE training, not all resistance training is part of SERE. The SERE community is about TRAINING and, within SERE, "Resistance" is about teaching others methods and techniques to help them deal with captivity and avoid exploitation. SERE instructors use "role-playing" exercises to allow students to experience simulated abuse, stress, and exploitation as might be expected if captured. Interrogation is something captives should expect and SERE instructors role-play as interrogators. While this means that such instructors must know how real interrogations might be conducted, their RT training focuses on effective role-playing in a VERY tightly controlled environment. Col. Steven Kleinman, a top intelligence officer at Fairchild AFB who was named the director of intelligence for JPRA in 2004, calls the "mistaking of role-playing resistance training as a basis for actual interrogations" a "critical disconnect" in the misinformation Jessen and Mitchell were "selling" to the CIA. When Col. Kleinman was ordered by the commander of JPRA to teach non-SERE soldiers the techniques that were used by role-playing "interrogators" in resistance training at SERE schools, he refused. (Note: Col. Kleinman was NOT a SERE officer, he was an "ISR" Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency officer).
Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture
Main article: Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture
On December 9, 2014, the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a report ("SASC report", hereafter) which detailed how contractors who developed the "enhanced interrogation techniques" used by U.S. personnel received US$81 million for their services and identified the contractors, who were referred to in the report via pseudonyms, as principals in Mitchell, Jessen & Associates from Spokane, Washington. Two of them were psychologists, John "Bruce" Jessen and James Mitchell. Jessen was a senior psychologist at the Defense Department who had worked with Army special forces in resistance training. The report states that the contractor "developed the list of enhanced interrogation techniques and personally conducted interrogations of some of the CIA's most significant detainees using those techniques. The contractors also evaluated whether the detainees' psychological state allowed for continued use of the techniques, even for some detainees they themselves were interrogating or had interrogated." Mitchell, Jessen & Associates developed a "menu" of 20 potential enhanced techniques including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and stress positions.
Over the six years following their hiring by friends at the CIA (Kirk Hubbard), Mitchell, Jessen & Associates would hire over 100 staff, bill the CIA for over $80,000,000, and lead the American military (and other parts of the government) into perhaps their greatest PR (public relations) fiasco. When 60 Minutes aired pictures from Abu Ghraib in May 2004, the shock was "heard around the world". Americans (for the most part) began hearing of "SERE" for the first time and still hear it today as more and more information about American torture becomes known. While Mitchell, Jessen & Associates hired ex-"SERE instructors" we don't know how many, if any, were actually "SERE", how many were private contractors who used the title "SERE Instructor", how many were CIA that called themselves "SERE interrogators" merely because they used Mitchell's and Jessen's stolen (classified) library materials that have been repeatedly misrepresented as "SERE" training techniques". They came from classified training materials (historical and instructional) used for curriculum development in military and JPRA Level-C "resistance training".
SERE abuses and scandals
- USAFA "sex abuse" during resistance training: See 2003 United States Air Force Academy sexual assault scandal. The United States Air Force Academy has had several sex/sex abuse scandals, some involving SERE. In 1993 a female cadet alleged that she was particularly selected as a participant in a simulated rape and exploitation scenario where, while hooded and other cadets stood by, she had to lie on the ground with her shirt removed and her legs pried apart. The subsequent investigations failed to affirm the allegations and she filed a lawsuit that was confidentially settled out-of-court. In 1995, abuse allegations were made by one male cadet: "They dressed me up as a woman. They put me in a skirt, put makeup all over my face, and made me follow around one of the [instructors] like his little toy." The cadet also claimed that while he was tied to a bench, another cadet was forced to "get on top of me and act like he's having sex with me.". Following this allegation, cadet SERE training was suspended until 1998 when it resumed without the "Sexual Exploitation" element.
- USN waterboarding during resistance training (ordered stopped in 2007 by JPRA): "For years, the U.S. military used waterboarding, a centuries-old torture technique, to train American troops to resist interrogation if captured." JPRA (the controlling agency) compelled the Army and Navy to discontinue simulated waterboard training in 2007.
- Claims of psychological and/or physical harm from resistance training: It has been suggested that training exercises during SERE courses are harsh enough to cause students to become "psychologically defeated" and impaired in the ability to develop "psychological hardiness." I
- Claims of resistance training involving "torture": "The experience of torture at SERE [school] surely plays a role in the minds of the graduates who go on to be interrogators, and it must on some level help them rationalize their actions." The most credible claim of simulations escalating into torture come from an Internal JPRA memorandum regarding North Island SERE school waterboarding, which says, in part: "Out of the four water boards we observed, the instructor did not stop watering students when they started tapping their toes, but instead continued watering until stopped by the watch officer or until the totally defeated student gave an answer through the water. In one case two full canteen cups were poured after the student started tapping..." (The tapping of toes is an instructional signal given to students so they may temporarily stop the training simulation).
- ^Knighton, Andrew (June 22, 2018). "Escape Master of WWII - Brigadier Norman Crockatt".
- ^"Teaching America's WWII Navy Fighter Pilots to Swim". SwimSwam. September 19, 2018.
- ^ ab"Commentary - The military Code of Conduct: a brief history". March 16, 2013. Archived from the original on March 16, 2013.
- ^Carlson, L.,"Remembered prisoners of a forgotten war: An oral history of the Korean War POWs",New York: St. Martin’s (2002)
- ^It wasn't until 1977 that the code was modified with the intent to make it more practical by removing or changing wording that implied death was often the most suitable course of action.
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- ^ abService, Marine Corps News. "What It's Like to Go Through Marine Corps SERE Training". The Balance Careers.
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- ^The release of a previously classified "PREAL" training guide provides detailed information-https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/338917-pre-academic-laboratory-preal-operating.html
- ^See "Evasion", pp. K-1 et seq. in JP 3-50 at https://fas.org/irp/doddir/dod/jp3_50.pdf
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- ^See "Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton: Six Characteristics of High Performance Teams" by Peter Fretwell, Taylor B. Kiland, Naval Institute Press (2013)
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- ^Personnel in United States Armed Forces major branches: U.S. Army 471,513, U.S. Navy 325,802, U.S. Air Force 323,222, U.S. Marine Corps 184,427
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