The temperature is a damp 38 degrees Fahrenheit in the mountains of Colville and Kaniksu National forests, 70 miles north of Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash. There’s snow on the ground and a muddy slush has formed where some of it has begun to melt. Sunlight filters through the forest’s misty treetop canopies. Off the proverbial beaten path, a group of Airmen is participating in an aircraft crash scenario, trudging through thick vegetation and a natural obstacle course of fallen tree trunks, branches and limbs to find materials to build a shelter as the group awaits “rescue.”
These “survivors” are Airmen participating in the U.S. Air Force Survival School’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training.
The training, primarily for officer and enlisted aircrew members, teaches Airmen how to “return with honor,” the SERE specialist motto, if they find themselves in a combat situation where they have to survive if their aircraft is downed.
“Obviously, we have lots of contingencies going on around the world, and as aircrew we need to know how to survive and what to do if we find ourselves [downed], said 2nd Lt. Joe Tomczak, a student and T1-Jayhawk instructor pilot at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas. “The Air Force does a great job of providing us with training in our everyday jobs, so it’s logical that they would provide us training for what to do in conditions like this.”
Lieutenant Tomczak said the training is especially relevant to instructors like himself, who previously weren’t required to complete the course, but as the Air Force mission evolves, instructor pilots are now teaching U.S. service members to fly and are filling adviser roles for foreign military aviators.
During the 19-day course of instruction, Airmen are psychologically and physically challenged as they’ve never been before.
Training begins in a classroom environment where the students learn about the physical and psychological stresses of survival. For the second half of training, Airmen travel to the mountains where they get hands-on training on building shelters, finding and preparing food, land navigation, evasion travel, camouflaging techniques and other lessons. The culmination of the course sees students returned to base for their final and perhaps most challenging lesson, conduct after capture.
“We’re seeing examples in Libya right now of guys who used their training, so we know it’s relevant. We know it’s applicable,” Lieutenant Tomczak said. “The instructors do a great job of giving us examples of guys who used their training to get out of a bad situation.”
During the hands-on portion of the course, the Airmen have to combat fatigue, hunger, wintery temperatures and their personal fears to complete the course successfully.
Before beginning their journey in the mountains, Airmen receive other practical instruction. Urban evasion techniques is a relatively new addition to the program. In that training, Airmen must make it through a simulated city, which is fashioned after cities in countries where service members are currently operating.
The city is complete with a marketplace and the associated sights and sounds, including religious buildings; physical obstacles, such as barbed wire and sewer systems; people in traditional local garb; the sounds of traffic, foreign languages, calls to prayer and music; and the possibility of the enemy lurking behind each corner, fence and doorway.
“My dad went through this program back in the 70s, so I grew up with stories about survival training,” Lieutenant Tomczak said. “He was in [during] the Cold War time in our country’s history, but they have [updated] the training to make it relevant now. When I swap stories with him, the differences will be that I learned about the contingencies that we’re currently dealing with overseas and the cultures we’ll encounter.”
Combatives training includes hands-on lessons. Students are schooled in the ways of stopping fights and permanently overcoming enemies.
In the mixed martial arts-style lesson, Airmen are supervised and paired up with partners of similar height and weight, regardless of rank, to practice what they’ve learned. The barefoot Airmen square off on the mats throughout the SERE gym and display newly acquired skills by taking down, grappling with, pinning, flipping, stomping and choking their opponents into submission.
For more hands-on training, students take a nearly two hour bus ride to the mountains surrounding Spokane, Wash. With 60 lbs. of equipment, the Airmen climb a mountain for nearly 30 minutes and set up camp in preparation for more training. Their home for the night is a crude shelter constructed of whatever resources they can find.
“We prepped at 12 p.m. [the day before] and left Fairchild AFB,” said Tech Sgt. John Medcalf, who is training to become an HH-60 Pave Hawk flight engineer. “We haven’t stopped since then except to sleep, and it was a cold night. We slept in a makeshift tent that we made out of two ponchos and our sleeping bags.”
“We learned about vectoring helicopters, about signals and evasion and how to stay concealed,” Lieutenant Tomczak said. “Basically what to do immediately when you hit the ground and from that point, how to hole up, how to get concealed and how to evade the enemy.”
As the lessons on the mountain continue, with scarce minutes here and there to take a quick bite of food or sip of water, one of the most anticipated and dreaded tasks is procuring and preparing food. The menu for the supper under the stars: fresh rabbit and chicken that the students will take part in killing, skinning, gutting and cooking for the group meal.
The students receive an impromptu anatomy lesson as they peel back the rabbit’s skin like a glove from a hand, and cut open his belly. Then, they’ll inspect the internal organs to see if the rabbit is healthy. They’ll also discard the digestive organs and keep the others for their stew.
“We’ve also worked on a fire and later we’re going to work on a rabbit,” Sergeant Medcalf said in anticipation of his first hot meal on the mountain.
The students also learn how to collect water and about wild vegetation that’s suitable for eating.
Once the SERE specialists have taught these Airmen the skills they need to ensure they will be able to survive on their own, the Airmen engage in a culminating exercise that will put all they have learned to the test. Only those who have endured the physical and mental challenges of combat survival school are privy to the exact details of this last lesson.
“I think anybody going through the program needs to keep in mind that they are U.S. Air Force [members],” Lieutenant Tomczak said. “That should be your motivation to make sure you’re honoring your buddies, by performing your duties in an honorable way. I think that you’re doing your duty if you’re staying true to the code of conduct. That provides motivation to not only get through the program, but to be in the mindset to actually go and push the mission downrange.”
Once the course is complete, these highly trained Airmen will return to their home stations armed with a new skill set, knowledge and confidence to execute their missions and return with honor.
“We all have, as Air Force aircrew [members], a job in the air, but once we find ourselves on the ground that job is to evade the enemy and get back home,” Lieutenant Tomczak said. “I think I’ve been given the tools to be able to evade and make it back home. They’re not just telling you that you have to evade and eventually make contact. They’re saying this is how you do it.
“I feel like if I ever encountered that situation in real life, I would at least have the competency, even though the adrenaline is going to be rushing, to fall back on this training.