Inside America’s Toughest Survival School

Air Force SERE Training
Courtesy of USAF/Airman 1st Class Nicolo Daniello


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.

As part of training, SERE specialists practice freeing themselves from a downed aircraft in water.
As part of training, SERE specialists practice freeing themselves from a downed aircraft in water. Courtesy Image

 

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.

SERE specialists practice surviving in "hostile" territory.
SERE specialists practice surviving in “hostile” territory. Courtesy of USA/Airman Ryan Lackey

 

“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.”

SERE trainees look down at their improvised camp during six days surviving in the desert.
SERE trainees look down at their improvised camp during six days surviving in the desert. Courtesy of USA/Airman Ryan Lackey

 

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.

Practicing extraction from the wilderness.
Practicing extractions from the wilderness. Courtesy of USA/Airman Ryan Lackey

 

“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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