In the U.S. Armed Forces, survival and POW training is referred to as Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training or SERE. SERE training enables U.S. military personnel from intelligence, special operations or aviation units to survive in the outdoors, to evade capture, to behave properly if taken prisoner and to resist and escape.
Every branch operates a SERE school, running from 12 to 19 days. SERE training classes are scheduled year round, in all climates and weather conditions: “Hot” for the desert survival training course, “Cold” for artic survival and “Wet” for the water survival training course. In the Air Force, the SERE School at Fairchild Air Force Base trains approximately 4460 students each year. The SERE course that all U.S. Air Force air crew take is 19 days long and is held 48 times a year.
SERE training is one big progression of demanding events that build in tension. The U.S. Navy gave SERE training the slogan, “We train the best for the worst.”
After classroom training and learning how to live off the land, SERE students learn how to navigate and travel over different types of terrain. This training leads them to participate in the evasion and resistance phase. Once SERE students are captured or turned over to the Resistance Instructors, the SERE Instructors (who handle other parts of training, and who students got used to having around) vanish, to contribute to the isolation and intimidating atmosphere that exists as the students are taken into custody by the Resistance Instructors who serve as the enemy.
While recruits in basic military training receive SERE Level A Training and learn the basic tenants of the Code of Conduct, personnel who receive Level B training have a moderate chance of being in combat or being exposed to high-risk situations including capture. Those who qualify for Level C training are in the highest risk category for being in combat and for functioning in high-risk locations and situations where the odds of being captured are the highest. In fact, due to the expanded use of Air Force personnel in the Global War on Terrorism and other high-risk situations, a decision has been recently made to have all airmen receive SERE training and the most in-depth level of instruction of the Code of Conduct.Even though SERE students who are more familiar with hunting, fishing and camping can have a slight edge over the students who are city dwellers, everyone who goes through SERE training is expected to learn survival skills that were common among cave men. As one U.S. Marine put it, being a Boy Scout who was raised in a rural environment enabled him to become comfortable in the outdoors, which helped him get through SERE training. In fact, the only problem (in a light hearted complaint) this particular Marine had with SERE training, was the lack of food. (Food deprivation is standard in all SERE Level C Schools.)
Military personnel should have some idea how they will react before they are confronted by an actual survival situation. SERE training puts the entire problem of surviving, evading, resisting and escaping into a much clearer perspective and makes it possible for military personnel to have some experience in such matters before they need it.
Resistance And The Code Of Conduct
An important portion of SERE training is designed to provide personnel with a more in-depth study of the Code of Conduct so they can survive captivity with dignity and honor. During the resistance phase of SERE training, military personnel are subjected to mock capture, mock interrogations, mock imprisonment and some degree of harassment. Even though this training is staged, military personnel who attend SERE training tend to get into their role quickly and find themselves reacting to events as if they were really surviving, really evading capture and really living as a prisoner.
Due to a variety of factors including the lack of sleep, the lack of decent food and the psychological reaction to being confined and interrogated, military personnel going through SERE training are subjected to enough hardships and psychological trauma to negatively affect their judgment and stability. It is better for a student to make a mistake in a mock prison camp interrogation session, than in a real POW scenario.
According to a U.S. Marine Corps captain who was interviewed for this article, it is also vital to have a strong faith or a strong belief system whenever you are forced to survive in any life-threatening situation. The Code of Conduct also states that military personnel should use religious and personal convictions to combat the stresses of captivity and maintain the moral/ethical high ground as a living example to the other captured personnel. This Marine officer also stated that he ended up using everything that he was taught in SERE training, especially the resistance training and the Code of Conduct instruction. He also found it helpful to behave like a SERE Resistance Instructor when he had to interrogate real detainees in the GWOT.
SERE Instructors who specialize in resistance training will do everything possible to show students how easily the enemy can and will turn situations around and use everything possible against them. As one retired airman told me, during a run-in with a prison camp guard he threw his uniform jacket down on the ground in an effort to show his pent up anger and disgust for the enemy. Rather than let this incident go, a Resistance Instructor serving as a POW Camp Prison Guard ordered this airman to extend his arms and jump up and down in place while holding a piece of wood. What this airman did not know at the time was that there was a sign painted on the opposite side of the wood. A photo of this airman later surfaced in the mock POW Camp that showed him jumping up and down on his uniform jacket while holding a piece of wood that had a sign attached that identified this airman as a war criminal.
Survival As A Mind Game
Even though this airman tried to resist and tried to show his contempt for the enemy, the mock prison camp resistance instructors turned his act of defiance around and made him look like a war criminal who had no respect for his uniform. Needless to say, the Code of Conduct prohibits U.S. Military personnel from signing confessions of guilt or accepting responsibility as a war criminal.
SERE Instructors work very hard to drive home the point that if you let your guard down for a split second, the enemy will find a way to use your actions to discredit you, to disgrace you and to maximize their ability to make the United States look like the aggressor and the guilty party on the world stage.
If you think surviving outdoors in the dead of winter is difficult you should try evading a group of armed individuals who are determined to capture you, or escaping from a well-run prison camp. In survival situations, as well as in evasion and escape situations, the terrain and the weather conditions can work for you or against you. The terrain can offer you some protection or none at all. The determination of the enemy and their feelings toward your nation can also influence how hard you will be pursued and how you will be treated if you are captured.
U.S. military personnel are trained to escape whenever the “opportunities to do so arise.” The longer you are in custody and the farther you travel with your captors, the more difficult it can be to escape. As long as you are not seriously injured or wounded, you will also be in the best medical condition immediately after you have been captured. Clearly, being in very good to excellent condition can make it easier to endure the hardships of mounting an escape.
In SERE training if you successfully evade capture you are sent to a collection point where you are basically taken prisoner (anyway) and turned over to Resistance Instructors. However, the consolation prize for evading longer is that you get to spend less time as a prisoner compared to those who get captured earlier in your class.
Surviving Until Rescue
According to a recent article in Navy Times, a 61-year-old American engineer was taken prisoner in Afghanistan and held for approximately two months in 2008 before he was rescued by a U.S. Special Operations unit. The kidnappers were reportedly members of a militant group known as Hezb-i-Islami (Party of Islam).
One particularly interesting part of this story is that this 61-year-old barefoot American lived on bread and water for some two months and tried to escape once but was re-captured by a younger guard. Fortunately, thanks to the human intelligence gathering capabilities of our allies in the Afghan government and the U.S. Armed Forces it was possible to locate the kidnapped American and launch a rescue effort. As reported by the Navy Times, during the actual assault phase of this rescue operation it became necessary for U.S. Navy SEALs to use their silenced firearms to eliminate several kidnappers/militants before escorting the American engineer to safety.
This operation is a prime example of a well-organized and executed Special Ops rescue mission that included a helicopter insertion into enemy influenced territory, the establishment of an Objective Rally Point to secure extra equipment, a stealthy advance into the target area and an assault phase that went down with tremendous precision. We salute our troops and allies, especially the ones who made this combat rescue mission a success.
One of the most important decisions a stranded or cornered soldier, sailor, airman, or marine will probably ever make will be whether or not to continue to offer resistance or submit to capture. Bear in mind that the Code of Conduct is explicit when it comes to describing the circumstances in which a member of the Armed Forces may surrender. This includes directing commanding officers about how they can lawfully allow personnel under their care and supervision to fall into enemy hands.
Common sense also dictates that you must pick your battles in a combat survival situation, especially when you are in the evasion or escape mode. When you are evading or escaping you should avoid any and all contact whenever possible with other human beings, unless you are being assisted by members of a resistance unit.
When it comes to deadly force in a survival situation one thing is certain—survival in the cockpit is all about trade offs. The aviator who gets to punch out (bail out) gets to carry less, while a helicopter crew can usually carry more gear, but they have to ride their battle-scarred ships down the hard way. Helicopter crews who are shot down or forced down while transporting combat troops can also count on their surviving passengers to use their weapons and equipment to defend their position until help arrives. Even though special operations warriors and other high-risk personnel will likely be fairly well armed when they start the process of surviving, they will have to use what they have wisely.
Regardless of the firearms that you carry you should always have access to a cleaning kit. Properly maintaining your firearms is especially critical in a survival situation when you are constantly exposed to the elements.
In addition to a firearm, some of the most important items to posses when you travel in a remote area or into harm’s way are a good knife, a supply of water, a way to boil water and a compact survival kit that includes a compass, a signaling mirror, a fire starter, water purification tablets and fishing gear.
The incident involving the U.S. Army Black Hawk Helicopter that was shot down in Somalia in 1993 is a prime of example of the worst-case scenario. In the famous Black Hawk down situation in Mogadishu it took 11 days before Chief Warrant Officer Michael Durant was freed from being held as a prisoner of a local Somali warlord. This tragic affair is additional proof that even the most determined efforts by a rescue force may not be enough to prevent you from being captured, mistreated, dragged through the streets, taken prisoner or killed in a savage fashion.
The incident involving U.S. Air Force Pilot Captain Scott O’Grady in Serbia proves that you can survive in a combat zone and be rescued if you follow your SERE training and manage to evade capture. When Captain O’Grady was shot down he managed to survive behind enemy lines for some five days before he was rescued by a U.S. Marine Corps TRAP (Tactical Recovery of Aircraft Personnel) Team. Today the after-action report for the Captain O’Grady rescue is used as a survival training guide.
When the F117 Stealth fighter pilot was shot down near Belgrade on March 27, 1999 he was on the ground for approximately six hours before he was rescued by U.S. Air Force personnel. Under the circumstances, this was a harrowing six hours.
While fighting in Afghanistan and in Iraq there have also been instances when U.S. helicopters have been shot down or forced down near enemy positions. In some incidents passengers and crews had to defend their LZ in some hellacious gun battles, while in other situations all that was required was non-combat assistance.
Regardless of the circumstances, being able to survive involves maintaining a level of determination that equals or exceeds the challenges that you confront. You will never complete any rigorous or demanding training or survive any hard core real life survival situations unless you are willing to “embrace the suck.” In U.S. Navy SEAL lingo “embracing the suck” means that you must be able to function to an effective level when you are hot, cold, exhausted, hungry, thirsty, sleep-deprived, sick, injured, afraid and unsure of yourself. Failure to do so is not an option if you intend to Survive, Evade, Resist and Escape.
In the U.S. Armed Forces, survival and POW training is referred to as Survival, Evasion,…
by Lawrence Heiskell, M.D. / Sep 16, 2009