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Survival Bootcamp

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.

The school’s first phase is classroom instruction, and like most military training it’s done with PowerPoint and plenty of acronyms, like COLDER: Keep yourself and your equipment clean; avoid overheating; wear loose layers; stay dry; examine and repair your equipment. After mornings in class, we spend afternoons with an instructor who coaches small teams in hands-on skills.

With Airman First Class Casey Blackmon we read maps, sew a piece of parachute into a sleeping bag, sharpen knives, and tie knots. Much of this is basic, and that’s the point. Most outdoor enthusiasts have built their knowledge base over years of trips. But while some students here are competent woodsmen, others have never walked through a forest, so we move in small steps from fundamental to advanced skills.

Blackmon and the other instructors (known as SERE specialists) underwent rigorous training themselves, and they tell us their own stories of misery—tongues swelling and eyeballs shrinking from dehydration in the desert, skinning rabbits frozen solid by -50°F days in Alaska, puking from seasickness while riding ocean waves in rubber life rafts—ordeals they endured just to become SERE instructors.

But they mostly lace their lesson plans with real-life tales, like Capt. Scott O’Grady, who was shot down in his F-16C over Bosnia in 1995, dodged search teams for six days, drank rainwater sopped up and wrung from his socks, and ate bugs and worms—all skills he learned at SERE—before being rescued. And Japanese Lt. Hiroo Onoda, who spent 30 years hiding in the Philippine jungle.

Believing World War II hadn’t ended, he refused to surrender. In 1974, when his former commander traveled from Japan to bring him home, Onoda still had a uniform, a fully functional rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition, and five working hand grenades.

With a few exceptions, Lt. Onoda would recognize much of our field gear, as the military’s basic survival equipment hasn’t changed much. At the supply warehouse, we draw metal-framed backpacks, two ponchos, a thick cotton field jacket, two square three-quart canteens, a synthetic sleeping bag, and—a nod to more modern materials—a Gore-Tex bivy sack. We’ll also wear vests loaded with pockets, which hold small but important items: knife, lensatic compass, signal mirror, radio, and a topo map of the area.

But to use this survival gear, you must avoid capture. So on the last day before heading into the mountains, we crowd into the gym, where thick mats cover the basketball court, for “apprehension avoidance” training. For my classmates, most of whom trained for jobs that will keep them thousands of feet above the violence, this is a stark reminder of the harrowing situations they could face.

We divide into pairs and with our partner holding a thick pad, we practice strikes with the heel of our palms—think here of how a chimpanzee fights, not with a boxer’s punch, but wailing with the bottom of the fists, because it’s hard to build a fire or shelter with broken knuckles.

As I throw elbows and knees, and practice head butts and choke holds, it occurs to me: This could quite likely be a fight to the death, because even if an opponent has a broken arm, or is temporarily knocked unconscious, he could still alert others. There is no sport here. This is expedient and brutal, and the combatives training I did as an Army infantryman seems tame by comparison. Thumbs into the eyes near the nose, scooping out to the sides. Punches to the groin. “You should be a dirty fighter,” says Senior Airman Emory Corwine. “The intention of everything you do is to hurt him. You’re trying to get away.”

One of the militants interviewed after Bergdahl’s attempted escape told journalists Bergdahl fought fiercely, like a boxer, and that it took five men to subdue him. He had only his fists. Perhaps today’s training—or a weapon—could have helped. Corwine pulls out a box of makeshift weapons, quite possibly the only thing available to someone on the run. Rope to strangle, a sharpened stick to stab, a bag of rocks to clobber.

“Most improvised weapons will kill someone,” Corwine says. “They just won’t kill him fast enough.” Even knives can be too slow; in the minute or more it takes someone to bleed out, he can still fight. Corwine’s preferred weapon in a life-and-death fight? He suggests a pipe—or sturdy log in the forest—for a strike to the back of the head.

For the last half hour, we move through stations, practicing everything we’ve learned—strikes, takedowns, chokeholds. I’ll be going to the woods with a few bruises and strains.

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