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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.

On our first night in the field, after Blackmon makes a shelter in the upended rootball of a toppled Douglas fir, we set snares throughout a clearing: simple traps of thin copper wire that tighten around an animal’s neck when it runs through the loop. We’re hoping for a squirrel to supplement the MRE (Meal, Ready to Eat) and small assortment of snacks and energy bars we’ve each been given, the equivalent of about one meal per day.

The snares are still empty the next morning; this sort of hunting takes time, patience, and many snares placed in well-scouted locations, near food and water sources or the entrances to nests or burrows. A pilot on the run could also snatch the occasional rabbit or chicken from a farmhouse. But even without small game, there is plenty of food in the forest, if you know where to look.

As we walk through the Kaniksu National Forest, an hour north of Spokane, Blackmon and Senior Airman Brett Charity, another SERE instructor, continuously point out edible plants: trillium, young ferns, wild ginger, Grand Fir needles—which taste like pink grapefruit—huckleberries, and Oregon grape.

Charity hands a large black ant to Airman Thomas Stone, a C-130 loadmaster from Miami who has never spent the night in the woods. Charity tells him to eat it, and preferably with his front teeth, which will prevent it from biting his lip or crawling around in his mouth.

Stone pauses and considers the creature wriggling between his thumb and index finger, then slips it into his mouth.

“Tastes like lemon drops, doesn’t it?” Charity says.

Stone nibbles and ponders. His face shows surprise. “Yeah!”

Later, Airman Bill Heebsh, another C-130 loadmaster, catches an 18-inch garter snake. Charity presses it to a log and slices off its head. Were it poisonous, he’d cut an inch or two back, to avoid the venom sacks. He grabs the meat in one hand, the skin in the other, and yanks down, which pulls out all the organs. He drops the skinned snake, ready for cooking, into a plastic bag.

That evening, as mosquitoes swarm us by the score, we each practice making fires using petroleum jelly-soaked cotton balls and the brittle bottom branches of conifers. Blackmon disappears down a dirt road to a resupply site and returns with a clucking chicken under one arm and a squirming gray rabbit under the other.

“You’re killing him,” Blackmon tells me, after learning I’ve never slaughtered an animal. Per his instructions, I grab the rabbit by the back legs and hold it upside down. With a forearm-size piece of wood, I stroke its back, from tail to neck, which calms it. I swing the club, smashing the neck just behind the ears, which brings a dull crunch. The rabbit’s legs twitch with a few post-mortem convulsions.

Blackmon hangs him upside down on parachute cord strung between two trees, makes slits on the legs and belly, and pulls the skin down in one motion. He cuts off the head and pulls it back through the skin, so the rabbit now resembles a sock puppet. Blackmon slices open the abdomen, saves the heart, kidneys, and liver, and puts the rest of the entrails and the feet into the bag of skin.

In easy, swift motions, he butchers the rabbit into several neat pieces, which now look like they should be under cellophane at the meat counter. Easy as that. Like the other skills taught here, I find this incredibly effective training, demystifying a process that could save these men’s lives.

Blackmon demonstrates how to kill, skin, and butcher the chicken, and we’re soon loading large tin cans and packets of foil with chunks of rabbit and chicken, carrot and potato slices, and handfuls of trillium, which tastes something like bok choy when cooked. Belly full, I sleep in a one-man shelter made from a 10-foot sapling, bent over and tied to a log and stripped of its branches, with a poncho thrown over the top and the corner grommets staked.

The next night, after a day of lessons on camouflage, fire building, and more navigation, Blackmon gathers us in a clearing near our new camp. “We need to talk about psychological stressors,” he says. “What emotions have you guys been feeling out here?”

“Those mosquitoes really had me down,” Heebsh says. “And I’m not used to the diet. I’ve been trying to ration my food and that was catching up with me. I felt low on motivation.”

Blackmon nods, and offers advice: You’ll survive longer if you can tolerate discomfort and overcome aversions, like eating insects and worms, which provide much-needed nourishment. Keep the mind and body active—one POW in Vietnam built mental houses, from the foundation up, nail by nail, while in solitary confinement. Don’t dwell on self-pity, set realistic goals, and take a moment to relax.

“What we’re going to do right now,” Blackmon says, “is play some baseball.” With an alder branch for a bat, a duct-tape ball, and scuffed-up patches of dirt for bases, we spend the next half hour running and laughing, and it seems very much like a camping trip.

Then we’re on the move again. By 11 p.m., after 16 hours of motion, ending with a stumbling walk through the forest practicing night navigation, we crawl into our BLISS shelters—Blended, Low, Irregularly shaped, Small, Secluded—sad-looking poncho hooches covered in sticks and pine bows.

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