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SERE specialists facilitate training for Army, Air Force

  • Published
  • By Jean Dubiel
  • Fort Polk Guardian editor
You're at work going about your usual business ---- as a military member, that may mean going on patrol with your squad or heading to a nearby depot for a resupply ---- when suddenly, you find yourself separated from your group. You are in an unfamiliar wilderness. You only have a few things in your pocket, and food and water is not among them. You are lost, alone, hungry and it's getting dark ... now what?

This is probably an unlikely scenario for most, but that depends on your job. For military pilots and flight crews, who fly all over the world and over different terrains, the possibility definitely exists. A pilot may be flying a routine mission ... planning to be back at the base in time for evening chow... when something goes wrong with the aircraft and it goes down. The pilot has no control over how or if he (or she) survives the landing, but once he is on the ground, he has to know how to stay alive until he is rescued or reaches help. The area may be tropical or icy, a forest or desert, or it may even be the middle of the ocean.

If he goes down behind enemy lines or in a hostile area, the situation becomes even more dangerous. Back at home station, the mission of personnel recovery ---- a plan to rescue those who are now facing an austere and dangerous environment ---- has to begin. That's when someone calls "the SERE guy."

SERE ---- survival, evasion, resistance, escape ---- is an Air Force military occupational specialty, and SERE Specialists are the subject matter experts for all aspects of SERE. Their job is threefold ---- 1) to train Department of Defense personnel how to stay alive and effect rescue in the environment they may be exposed to, including captivity situations, 2) to provide refresher and continuing education on those skills, and 3) when deployed as an embedded SERE specialist with a combat unit, advise and assist in personnel recovery in the event of lost, downed or captured individuals.

For example, if a squadron plans to fly missions over Central America, they could contact the base SERE Specialist for tropical environment training; or, if an air crew has a hard landing behind enemy lines, the SERE Specialist will help develop and execute a plan to not only get the crew back but also assist in reintegration following their return.

SERE Specialists are stationed at Air Force and joint bases globally ---- often as few as one per base. The Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk is fortunate to also have a SERE Specialist close at hand ---- Tech Sgt. John Conant.

"Due to the 2013 budget cuts and sequestration, our SERE craftsman course had to find an alternate location to meet the syllabus requirement (for training in a tropical environment)," said Conant, explaining that the traditional travel to Central America for training was among the expenses that were cut.

"Through networking here at Fort Polk ---- which has a very robust joint exercise environment ---- we got in touch with the Atchafalaya Boy Scouts of America Swamp Base, and after a quick site visit we realized that it met every bit of the syllabus requirement and then some."

Luckily, the swampy regions of Southern Louisiana offer a rather close facsimile to conditions in Honduras, Belize or Costa Rica ---- hot, humid, wet weather, dangerous snakes and alligators, assorted wildlife, wild edibles and water vines, mosquitoes, spiders and other creepy-crawlies, tropical foliage and brackish water.

"The environment in Louisiana meets our needs perfectly," said Conant.

Air Force Lt. Col. Russell Parramore, 34th Combat Training Squadron Detachment Operating Location Alpha commander, said Conant's work at Fort Polk has been invaluable.

"(Conant) has provided numerous exercise events and academics to the 162nd Infantry Brigade, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, JRTC and the Air Force,"said Parramore. "With the latest news of isolated personnel (Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, American journalists and civilians) held captive and the fact that we are back to operations in Iraq, the possibility of an isolating event is always present, therefore personnel recovery training must continue. Fort Polk has a one-of-a-kind environment and resources to train personnel in a controlled and crucible event ... I hope this synergy (persists) and the depth of the training audience continues to receive word of what there is here at the JRTC and the quality of people serving as observer/controller/trainers."

Conant is the first permanently assigned SERE specialist at Fort Polk. "Before me, SERE specialists had to fly in under temporary duty. Once I got boots on the ground here, the impact was greater as far as what (SERE) could do (to meet its own training requirements)," said Conant. "We are one of the few career fields left in the Air Force that still has an official course for a skill level upgrade, and I help facilitate that within this joint training environment, and act as a liaison to bring these (SERE) guys in for training."

While Conant's primary duties are focused on training Air Force personnel, his talents and expertise can also be an asset to both rotational and permanently assigned units at the JRTC and Fort Polk.

"I am in a unique position to help effect training for units that want to learn personnel recovery or other aspects of SERE. Those who are interested can contact me to set that up."

Welcome to the jungle

Given that SERE specialists are the experts in survival training, it's important they keep their own survival skills sharp. That's why 17 SERE specialists from as far away as Japan and Korea recently came to Fort Polk ---- for a 28-day experience that included tropical environment survival.

Over the Labor Day weekend Aug. 30-Sept. 1, the SERE group went into the Atchafalaya Basin for what they thought was a routine field exercise ---- just as a flight crew would fly a routine mission with no thought of anything going wrong. They were told by the instructor cadre (consisting of Conant and three additional SERE instructors: Master Sgt. Jerod Stephenson, Staff Sgt. Justin Pishner and Tech Sgt. Nick Braun) to bring their packs and any other gear they wanted. As the rain steadily fell from the dark gray sky, the men loaded their large, heavy packs into metal canoes at a boat launch in the Atchafalaya Basin. The rotting mud and aquatic vegetation made a slippery surface from which to launch.

As the canoes made their way toward an island in the swamp, Spanish moss hung limp in the trees over the water, concealing the small, biting bugs that hide within its tendrils. Driftwood and stumps loomed along the shoreline, undistinguishable from the alligators that often prowl these waters.

Once they reached the island, the Airmen hauled their canoes ashore and packed their gear inland to a small base camp that had been set up the day before. Spider webs were walked into, thorny vines tore across many legs and the rain just wouldn't stop. They were asked to stack up all that gear into one big pile under the only man-made shelter on the island. And then, surprise!

"You're not going to use any of your gear this weekend," said Braun to the assembled group, or "students" as they were referred to (each "student" is actually a trained SERE expert). "Everybody grab a hammock, a rainfly if you've got one, and a machete. That's all you get." The group was also under the impression that this was a five-day excursion.

Because of the heavy rain and canoe travel, everything was wet. The men were sloshing in their boots, soaked to the bone from sweat under their clothes and drenched with rain from head to toe. Their gear would have a chance to dry out under the shelter, but the Airmen would have a harder time getting dry.

The students were in groups of four or five, and in addition to their sparse allowance, they were authorized three additional pieces of gear to share between them, and a ration of uncooked rice. They were then led from the "cadre" island to a different "student" island, just across the waterway, and left to fend for themselves.

"As subject matter experts, these guys should have no trouble making it in this environment," said Stephenson. "We may have heard a little grumbling, like 'if we knew this was what we were doing, we would have packed differently,' but the point of this exercise is not just survival training, it's training in dealing with the unexpected and overcoming that, which is exactly what happens to a flight crew when the aircraft goes down. They certainly don't expect to be thrust into a survival situation, and we want these guys to understand that this is how their own students ---- people with no survival training ---- are going to feel."

Having "no trouble" was not the case during this training event. The students had to face a wet, muddy first night. They were given rice but had to find their own way of cooking it. They had to endure a relentless onslaught of mosquitos and watch for poisonous snakes.

One of the students, Staff Sgt. Craig Rockhold, 22nd Training Squadron, Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., said the most challenging aspect of the exercise was finding the balance between protection, necessity and comfort.

"You have to protect yourself, but there are a lot of things working against you ---- especially with minimal equipment," said Rockhold. "I've got one pair of boots and one pair of socks. So at night, if I stay in that same (wet) pair of socks and boots, when I wake up in the morning my feet are going to be destroyed (trench foot). But if I take them off, my feet are going to be covered in mosquito bites. You have to decide where you are wiling to make the sacrifice for personal protection: Am I going to let myself get eaten up by mosquitos and not get any sleep at all, but at least I'll be mobile and able to function the next day, or am I going to wear those socks and boots, maybe get a little more sleep, but the next day be unable to travel?"

Luckily, for some, there were scattered bits of discarded man-made items on the island. Some groups found old, broken coolers, buckets, marine line, plastic jugs, tin roofing ---- even a couple of old election signs for someone running for office. They made shelters, fire pits and more with these items.

The next day, as the sun made its first, welcome appearance through the early morning clouds, the cadre went to the student island to check on everyone and throw yet another kink into the plan ---- they all had to turn in their hammocks and rainflys.

"One of the challenges you'll have today is to make an all-natural shelter ---- no scavenged materials," Braun told them. The shelters would then be judged and the winner got an additional piece of gear. Other challenges included food procurement (the group with the most food wins, based on quantity and quality), fish challenge (the group with the most fish wins), fire challenge (the first group to have a knee-high, maintainable fire wins) and a rice challenge (the first group to get cook their rice fully cooked in a segment of bamboo wins). Eager to win more gear to make their situations better, the groups worked hard to win each challenge.

The cadre was not completely heartless in this training ---- they brought fresh tropical fruit including mangos and coconuts to each group that morning as well, and they brought a medic to treat any ailments.

The medic, Sgt. 1st Class Remo Soldaini, was a borrowed asset from Fort Polk's 1st Battalion (Airborne), 509th Infantry Regiment. As part of the cadre, he didn't have to endure the trials with the students, and that's a good thing as his specialty was certainly needed. Among his patients were victims of poison ivy, heat rash, cuts, blisters, trench foot, dehydration and one misjudged chop of a machete (nothing was severed ... everyone has all their parts).

One additional bonus: On the way to the first group's camp, the cadre came across a meaty copperhead snake. They signaled for the group to come see it, and they promptly dispatched the serpent, burying the head (as it should be), then skinning, gutting and cooking it for a high-protein mango-and-snake breakfast. Mmm, mmm-good!

Any survival situation, even in a controlled environment, can and will affect a person's mood. It's difficult to smile when you've had little sleep, you're covered in mosquito bites, your tummy is grumbling and you can't stop sweating. So a little positive motivation was required. Once again, the cadre stepped in to raise the students' spirits. Pishner had spent part of the day preparing a smoked pork feast, complete with a rice dish, pineapples and fried plantains. The students were then invited back to the cadre island for a feast, including fresh water and Gatorade. The looks on their faces were drastically changed ... unhappy, exhausted dispositions turned downright cheerful once they had a bellyful. The students then had to return to their own island.

The second night was much drier compared to the first, but the humidity was worse. As the sun set, the temperature seemed to rise rather than fall as the earth released the day's accumulation of heat. Mosquitos, gnats, flies and other buzzing, flying bugs were abundant. The clucking and cooing of baby alligators could be heard coming from the bank where the canoes were stationed, meaning mama gator wasn't too far away. Owls hooted, frogs croaked, insects clicked and screeched into the wee hours. Armadillos rooted and scurried around the camps. Sleep was impossible for some, and came in short intervals for others. Nonetheless, everyone made it through the night.

Day three: As the sun began peeking through partly-cloudy skies, the cadre loaded into their canoes and paddled over to the student island. Another snake, this time a water moccasin, was found and put to use just as the copperhead had been the day before. Minor wounds were treated. A head count was taken. Finally, the last challenge was issued: Each group had to make a raft of all-natural materials that was big and buoyant enough to hold all the gear that was originally brought along. Then, they had to tow the raft with all the gear aboard back to the boat landing where everyone started.

The reward? Everyone was going back to Fort Polk that day ---- two days sooner than they expected. The catch: Everyone had to leave the island at the same time, so whoever was last at successfully building their raft was holding up the return to civilization. Everyone worked hard and tried to hurry, eager to get off the island. The experience was not without glitches. Some rafts seemed to float fine on their own, but sank below the water line when weight was added.

"One of the biggest takeaways for everybody was building the raft for our gear and making it big enough to hold 200 pounds," said student Sgt. Cody Steinbar, 18th Operations Support Squadron, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan. "We had a pretty good idea from the get-go, and tested out certain things before we lashed it all together. We'd throw logs into the water and test their buoyancy. We tried to make it so we wouldn't have to tear it all apart again and start over."

The paddle back to the boat launch was a slow progression. The makeshift rafts couldn't be towed too quickly or they would overturn. Though the gear was lashed to the rafts, an overturn would have resulted in a wet, therefore heavier, load to float.

Once the exercise concluded and the vans were loaded to head back to Fort Polk, the men, though somewhat battered, itchy and haggard, were in relatively good spirits.

"I think most of us really enjoyed it (the exercise)," said Rockhold. "It may have seemed kind of miserable but we got to do exactly the kinds of things that we have been teaching our personnel to do (if they are caught in that situation). Going out there and putting yourself in that (downed) air crew's situation, or being in that isolating event, shows that what we are teaching our students actually works ---- not that we didn't know it would work, but this gave us a chance to practice what we preach."