At the military's top-secret survival school, Air Force crews learn how to escape their worst-case scenario — shot down behind enemy lines. With the highest level of access ever granted to a journalist, our scout learns how to escape when Mother Nature is only one of your worries.
Late last summer, more than two years after he was captured by militants in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl escaped.
Over time, he had earned his captors’ trust enough to sleep without restraints, and near the end of August 2011, America’s only current prisoner of war made his move. He leaped from a first floor window in the mud-brick house where he’d been held in northwestern Pakistan and raced into the rugged, wooded mountains.
He was lightly clothed and without food or water. The fighters holding him set out in pursuit. They knew the territory; Bergdahl did not. Still, he stayed on the run, eluding his pursuers as he tried desperately to determine a way to escape the enemy’s stronghold.
The details of Bergdahl’s escape attempt are murky, and the military has been tight-lipped about what it knows. But according to Taliban fighters interviewed by journalists, the 26-year-old from Sun Valley, Idaho, hoped to find a civilian who would show mercy and help him contact U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Unknown to Bergdahl, most of the civilians had long ago fled the area because of constant fighting. Anyone he came across would likely help his hunters.
On the third day of the chase, Bergdahl sought refuge in a shallow ditch he’d dug with his bare hands. He lay down in the depression and covered himself with leaves. It wasn’t enough. The Taliban found him there, weak and dehydrated. Bergdahl tried to fight off his captors, but they subdued him.
As an Army infantryman, he’d been taught to march and shoot a rifle and pitch hand grenades, but he hadn’t learned the tricks and skills of escape and survival.
“Had he had this training, would he have been successful?” Senior Master Sergeant Jerry Nowlin asks from the auditorium stage at Fairchild Air Force Base outside of Spokane, Washington. Packed in the seats before him are 92 students on their first day of SERE school—Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape.
Over the next 19 days, Nowlin tells them, they’ll learn how to handle themselves in just this type of situation. Before stepping off the stage, he offers an ominous prediction, delivered with a smile: “You’re going to get wet. You’re going to get hungry. You’re going to get tired.” He doesn’t need to add: You’re not going to be Sgt. Bergdahl.
SERE training is required for those deemed at high risk of isolation or capture, mostly pilots and aircrews who could find themselves deep within enemy-held territory. “The government has pumped millions of dollars into training these guys to do their jobs,” Nowlin tells me later. “This is an extended warranty.” He wants students to have the practical and mental skills to survive five weeks on the run in the wilderness, and an indefinite time in captivity.
The Air Force survival training started after World War II, in Alaska, and was originally focused on wilderness skills. But after the Korean War, when captured soldiers were interrogated and sometimes swayed by the enemy, the military introduced the Code of Conduct, which outlines service members’ responsibility to resist by all means necessary and never surrender or betray themselves, their comrades, or their country.
The Code is summed up in the SERE school motto, “Return with Honor.” The school’s method: inoculation. Expose students to a little stress now and teach them core skills so if they encounter the real thing, they won’t freak out, whether it’s being cold in the woods or beaten as a captive.
I’m here to learn how that inoculation works. I spent a few years as an Army infantryman, which included two tours in Iraq, and I’ve hiked and camped around the world, so I have a foundation of outdoor and survival skills. But I wanted to learn the most effective, most efficient methods for staying alive anywhere—and in conditions where cold and hunger aren’t your only worries. For that, nothing compares to SERE.
The Air Force let me enroll with a caveat: I couldn’t observe the final week of training—resistance and escape—which is secret, and I couldn’t write about some of the signaling techniques we’d use to alert rescue crews, again because that could presumably endanger soldiers in real-world scenarios. And even though this is training, the real world is never far away. When we’re divided into small groups for field-based training, my classmates include First Lieutenant Blake Brooks, who will soon be flying small reconnaissance planes in some of the world’s most dangerous areas. He knows if his plane goes down, he and his crew could be hundreds of miles from friendly forces.
There’s Airman Daniel Hernandez, who will run the surveillance equipment on those planes. And Sgt. Seth Rhow, an airborne linguist who will monitor conversations from several miles up. In a few months, they could be flying anywhere in the world. But consider just Afghanistan, a likely destination: After a crash landing, they could be on the run in the desert, amid snowy peaks, or in thick forest. They could be on the run in places that look just like the area in which Sgt. Bergdahl remains a captive of the Taliban today.