SERE Challenge shows pride is alive in the Air Force

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Mike Hammond
  • Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs
Pride is alive and well in the U.S. Air Force. I never really doubted it, because it's easy to see examples of pride in service every day: freshly pressed uniforms, shiny boots, good customs and courtesies. But like an excited kid conquering the latest and greatest video game, I just like to see the next level sometimes.

I didn't think I'd ever personally meet a weapons system but the participants in the 2007 SERE Challenge, June 11-14, were just that: a weapons system called "Guardian Angel." The Guardian Angels are Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape specialists; Pararescuemen; and Combat Rescue Officers. Thirty such individuals voluntarily subjected themselves to a rigorous competition that seemed to require superhuman strength and stamina.

As I stood on top of Calispell Peak, the tallest mountain in that area of Washington, and looked at a panoramic view of territory the likes of which I'd previously seen only in movies and pictures it would have been natural to focus on the breathtaking vista. But it was impossible to miss the more inspiring work going on as I covered the work of the Guardian Angels surrounding me.

In the early light of morning, I watched Senior Airman Gailin Manzonie dress his teammate's simulated wounds, pick him up, and not simulate carrying him about 60 yards up to the snow covered summit for a helicopter medical evacuation. Later that day, I heard Staff Sgt. Michael Garcia talking his teammate through a spot of pure mental fatigue as they tied logs together to form a raft and cross frigid, murky pond water.

I witnessed a real-life example of the wingman concept when Staff Sgt. Steven Raethel refused to leave his fallen teammate behind. He would not finish the competition without Staff Sgt. Brandon Klein, who would have rather applied duct tape to his blistered feet (and later painfully remove half the bottom of his foot in peeling it off) than quit trying to complete the challenge.

I heard competitors say, "Outstanding," and "Eat up!" with smiling faces as event organizers handed out plates of "stew" -- made from a collection of foul-smelling castoffs from the local butcher shop -- during an exercise to overcome food aversions. I watched them encourage Staff Sgt. Matthew Zimmer to choke down the last of the unpleasant concoction (with great effort) only to learn he still had a two-course dessert of mealworm and cockroach to chew on. Food aversion seemed the only obstacle that gave Sergeant Zimmer much trouble on his way to winning the challenge with his teammate, Sergeant Garcia.

I watched 30 Air Force members voluntarily trek (carrying ruck sacks weighing 60 pounds dry and heavier when wet) through 45-degree water, over hills and ridges thick with downed timber and undergrowth, and arrive, smiling, at the next checkpoint - only to learn what grueling tasks awaited them next. I heard Sergeant Raethel's enthusiasm when he said "You can't beat getting paid to work in the great outdoors!" right after he scaled a 70-foot rock face and prepared to trust his life to a rope and a knot in rappelling down the other side.

I heard poetry in a group of tough guys known for surviving in the wild and rescuing others in combat environments. Upon reaching the top of a ridgeline, Staff Sgt. Sergio Avalos channeled Robert Frost, saying "And miles to go before I sleep ... and miles to go before I sleep!"

Finally, I peered over the edge of a bottomless well of resolve when I saw a group of young officers and enlisted members put aside their blistered feet, sore muscles, and exhausted minds to still crank out dozens of pull-ups and hundreds of push-ups and sit-ups before picking their gear up for a six-mile ruck march around the base.

Pride is alive and well in the Air Force. Thanks to the inspirational dedication of the teams competing in the inaugural SERE Challenge, I finally got to see that next level.