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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.

In the morning, we start the evasion phase, and the Kaniksu National Forest transforms into Limnadia, a fictional country that has started a war with its fictional neighbor, Adlene. And, as an Adlene ally, the United States has gone to war. Flying a mission over Limnadia, we’ve been shot down, and are on the run.

Just after dawn, a lanky man wearing khaki pants and a blue check shirt walks down the road, sees us, and bounds our way in long, deliberate strides. “Put your hands up,” he shouts. “You guys Americans?”

“You’re on my land,” he says, pacing back and forth, agitated. “You Americans are worth a lot of money. They’re looking for you and said they’d give me $5,000 per head.”

Brooks tells him he has something of more value, and shows him a “blood chit,” a note printed in multiple languages (first carried by aircrews in World War II) that promises a reward for assistance—in this case by providing us shelter and safe passage, or just ignoring our presence. With far more civilians than enemy fighters on today’s battlefields, this scenario is quite likely.

In past wars, locals have been given large cash rewards and even U.S. citizenship for helping service members in distress. As an Army infantryman, I carried a real blood chit during the invasion of Iraq. Fortunately, it stayed folded in a pocket. The Limnadian is suspicious, but intrigued. “I’ll check this out. If it works, I’ll help you,” he says. “If not, it won’t be too hard to find you.”

On a map, he points out an area several miles away that Limnadian forces never patrol. If we were really on the run, we’d surely regard his offer with skepticism but, for the training scenario, we take him at his word. (The last downed airman to be in this situation didn’t have much choice, either.

When Air Force Capt. Tyler Stark ejected from his F-15 over Libya last March in the first hours of the air war, he injured his knee so badly on landing that he couldn’t run. Libyan rebels soon found him, though Stark didn’t know if they could be trusted. Fortunately, they could.) We quickly plot a route and are on our way, up and down through steep drainages and skirting ridgelines on 30 percent grades and steeper, without a trail to be seen. We stumble over lattices of fallen trees and logging slash.

For high-threat areas, where detection is more likely, we use the caterpillar technique to avoid detection. From a hole-up site, the first man moves about 50 feet, gets in place, and gives a thumbs up, starting a chain reaction that cycles through the group as each man advances. This is slow going—moving a mile could take well over an hour—but safer than just trudging through the woods.

At dusk we link up with the landowner, who provides a safe place to camp. Trust rewarded. Blackmon divides our seven-man element in two for the next day’s evasion—smaller groups are less noticeable—then he leaves, finished teaching. Now we’re on our own, and he’ll be one of the enemy, hunting us.

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