SERE — short for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape — training is one of the more psychologically challenging training courses the U.S. military has to offer. It is not really that physically challenging, other than having to overcome the short duration of enforced hunger and the occasional slaps and stress/discomfort techniques employed against the students in the course. But for a young man or woman who has never been a prisoner of some type, it is mentally jarring. Uncomfortable, even. That is where the real challenge is presented.
I won't go deep into SERE training here, just because it is a school that should remain cloaked in some mystery for it to be truly effective as a training program, other than to share a few of the memories that stand out for me, almost 20 years after I went through it.
To be clear, I went through a SERE program run by the U.S. Navy, in the American northeast, in January, with a handful of my fellow SEALs, some Navy pilots, and a few Marines. The other service branches ran their own programs at that time, I believe, and presently, I am not sure how the program is run across the services. I am sure, though, that the training continues in some form given its perpetual relevance to service members in danger of becoming prisoners of war.
(U.S. Air Force Photo/Airman 1st Class Peter Reft)
The goal of SERE training is to prepare U.S. service members to survive, on the run from enemy forces and while evading capture, and to resist your captors should you find yourself a prisoner. It also touches on escaping from captivity, and aims to provide guidance on how to behave and organize if you find yourself in a prisoner situation with other Americans. Enough on that for this venue.
SERE is mostly a hazy memory for me now, in terms of the particulars, but certain scenes, events, sights, and smells, continue to bubble up every once in a while. They are lingering yet occasionally vivid impressions of a long-ago tribulation, I suppose.
(Senior Airman Jonathan Snyder, U.S. Air Force)
The Snow and the Cold
My SERE training took place in the far northeast in January. It was damn cold, especially for a Florida boy who had spent the previous year-plus in sunny San Diego and Norfolk, Virginia.
In SERE, we spent a significant chunk of time in our survival and evasion phase stumbling around in the woods, in a couple of feet of snow, with nothing but the minimal amount of gear we were supplied to keep us warm. It was not ideal. It was an enforced "pack light, freeze at night" situation. Some shared sleeping bags to stay warm, while others built shelters in the snow. We all shivered a lot.
The memory of all that snow and the bleak, wintry landscape still pops into my head occasionally, in photograph form. While it was lovely, especially to look back on now, at the time it was frosted misery.
(USAF Photo by Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)
Okay, let's be honest: Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training is not hard on the stomach. At no point in the training do they try to starve you, like they do in Ranger School, for example. In fact, in BUD/S, you can eat as much food in the chow hall as you can stuff down your gullet in the allotted meal time. And boy did I stuff myself, and yet I still lost 15 pounds during BUD/S training.
In SERE training, however, there is no food offered after a certain point, and you have to eat whatever you can forage. Let me tell you, there is not much edible out there in the hell-scape of a January New England forest. So we just didn't eat for a few days, which made me very hungry. At the end, they advised us not to go out and stuff ourselves, since our stomachs would not handle it well. I failed to heed this advice, however, and paid the man for it. It was not pretty, but I doubt I will ever forget how good that (Italian) meal tasted my first night after SERE ended.
(U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Amy M. Lovgren/ Released)
So, there is some physical discomfort inflicted on SERE students, all of which is to make it as realistic as possible. Part of the physical discomfort comes by way of open-handed slaps to the face and head. These aren't too terrible, especially if you are ready and braced for them and they thus don't whip your head and neck around too violently. It is really no worse, and mostly less painful, than taking a punch while sparring in the ring. I was used to the slaps by a certain point in SERE training, and ready for the men who administered them each time they approached me.
Well, in a very effective curveball thrown at me by the instructors, the details of which I will not divulge here in case this little surprise is still employed, I found myself at one point face-to-face with a woman captor whom I did not expect to hit me in the face. Needless to say, when she did in fact smack my face, at lightning speed and with some real force behind it, my entire upper body, neck, and head swiveled nearly 180 degrees. It was the most effective slap I received in the entire course, in terms of the pain and shock it caused, and kudos to that woman for catching me unawares.
Well done, madame. To this day, I still remember the surprise and the pain of that slap.
Senior Airmen Jonathan Harvey, a Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) Specialists with the 106th Rescue Wing, demonstrates how to contact friendly forces during survival training. (US Air National Guard Photos by Staff Sgt. Christopher S. Muncy)
As noted above, by a certain day in the survival and evasion phase of SERE training, I was pretty damn hungry and would've eaten just about anything I could get my hands on. At just that point in time, we were told to link up with a notional "foreign contact" in the woods who would supply us with some sustenance.
This was to simulate resistance fighters in enemy territory who might help an evading American service member. The three or four of us in our small group were so damn excited to see what we'd get, and I had visions of bread and cheese and jerky and all the food. Well, it turned out to be just one thermos of "borscht" (soup) for all of us to share. Fine, whatever, anything at that point.
(U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Amy M. Lovgren/ Released)
What happened next is frozen in my mind forever: One of our guys walking back to us from the link-up with the foreign contact, the steaming thermos of borscht in his hand, his eyes full of victory, hunger, and satisfaction. He had that same look that Ben Stiller had in one of the "Meet the Parents" movies when he arrived in triumph with the formerly-lost (and fake) Jinx the cat. Total victory.
And yet, right at that moment, the clumsy bastard tripped in the snow, fell in slow motion to the ground, and spilled the steaming thermos of life-giving soup all over the snowy ground. He then looked up in total defeat, and seemed to say with his eyes, "murder me, I deserve it." To this day, I am not sure he was not a plant all along, in a highly effective and sick scheme to demoralize us. Oh well, we'll never know.
Through all of SERE school, I never really went to that mental place that some go to, in which they start to believe they really are a prisoner, and that they might never get out. Apparently that happens to some, and they kind of lose it. I just went back into BUD/S mental mode, where I tune everything else out, and focus on surviving to the end, telling myself that everything ends at some point.
Still, when the end was signalled — in an admittedly moving and patriotic display orchestrated by the instructor cadre — I experienced a flood of relief. Some made audible sighs and expressions of relief, and some even cried right there in front of everyone. I was mostly happy to have finished another required training course, and excited to get some sleep in a bed that night. Mostly, though, I remember being excited to stuff my belly with that ill-advised Italian meal.