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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.

“I don’t like it,” says Air Force First Lieutenant Blake Brooks, a 24-year-old pilot from Waco, Texas, and the leader of our four-man team. “But I think it’s the best way.” He’s considering our route options as we try to make our way to a predetermined rendezvous with American forces. The obvious and quickest route is to the southeast, along the ridge. But enemy patrols no doubt are up there. And skirting the steep mountainside below the ridge would eventually funnel us into a danger zone, between a road and a creek.

When you really, really want to be found by one group, but really, really don’t want to be found by another, the rules of backcountry travel are upended: Keep away from roads, power lines, and railroads—the sort of harbingers of civilization that most people lost in the woods would seek. And stay off animal trails. People are lazy, and they’ll take the easiest path, so the enemy is probably using the trails, too. Instead, struggle—quietly—through the thick and nasty tangles of vegetation. Walk the military crest, well below the ridgeline, so you don’t silhouette yourself from below, and can quickly move lower if spotted from above. And avoid straight-line headings.

Over time, broken branches, trampled grass, and footprints add up, telling the enemy your direction of travel. So we’ve taken a longer, zigzag route, moving east, then south to our link-up point with friendly forces. But we still have to cross a road.

Ideally, we would cross the road at a bend or in shadow. But we pop out of the woods on a straight stretch, with little concealment. We watch for a long moment, looking left and right, then slide down the hill, riding a wave of loose dirt, and dart across the road like skittish squirrels. We jog 50 yards into the treeline. Breathing hard, we hole up on a narrow ledge, against a 10-foot overhang, hidden from above and below. This is good timing, because now a helicopter hunts us from above, blades beating the mountain air. We’re so well concealed the crew can’t spot us.

Enemy trucks race by on the road we just crossed, and, to the south, where many of the 23 other evasion teams are moving, a Limnadian calls out on loudspeakers. “Americans, we hear you! Come out. We won’t harm you.” The enemy lies in the direction we need to go. With our faces streaked with camouflage paint, and branches stuck in our backpacks to break up our outlines, we creep south, deeper into the forest.

We move through the dense creek drainage. The helicopter still circles overhead, searching. Initially we had made constant noise, and the sharp crack of snapping sticks would have alerted anyone within a couple hundred yards. But we’ve found our rhythm, stepping slowly and deliberately, heel rolling to toe, careful to place our feet between fallen branches, or lengthwise across them, as Blackmon taught us, so they’re less likely to break.

Throughout the week, with each skill learned, my teammates’ confidence has grown. Brooks, who attended the Air Force Academy to play football, hadn’t thought much about how to survive outside his plane during his year of pilot training. He’d only been camping a half-dozen times, and knew little about navigation, fire- and shelter-building, or foraging. Now, being alone in the wilderness isn’t so foreboding. “There’s comfort in knowing that if I go down, I’ll know what to do,” he says.

In the late afternoon, we crawl up to the edge of a berm near our rendezvous point and see a swath of parachute silk strung up as a canopy 50 yards away, with two men standing beneath it, one with a rifle. This is our link-up, with American Special Forces operating in the area. They lead us to a clearing and tell us to sit as they run off to find more evasion teams. We’ve found a safe haven for the night.

It doesn’t last. (For training purposes, we’re on the run again the next day.) A light rain wakes us on the last day of evasion, and in our four-man team we move fast for the first 800 yards into a patch of new growth, where the wet saplings and bushes soak us as we push through the branches. Again, we take a longer route to the link-up coordinates to avoid being bottlenecked in the most obvious paths of travel.

Three hundred yards from the rendezvous point, we stop halfway down a long slope and sit under two tall cedars. The concealment is minimal. We should know better, but we plan on staying just a few minutes. We hear voices, closing fast. We debate leaving, but decide the noise would draw too much attention. We lower onto our bellies, behind the cover, and look up the slope at four ominous figures dressed in black uniforms. Limnadians. They move closer and finally stand over us. “I smell Americans,” one says.

The instructors tell us what we already know, that we should have done a better job of concealing our position. Then they give us a 10-minute amnesty from capture. We amble down the hillside, sullen and frustrated by our carelessness. No one likes failing, of course, but it’s more than that. The instructors don’t have to point out that in a real conflict, we’d be prisoners of war right now.

And even though they let us continue to our final rendezvous a few minutes later, the thought weighs heavily on us. I can’t help but think of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. I’m sure others here will recall that cautionary tale as they head off for the quiet side of the base, a place called Happy Valley. There, they’ll learn what to do in the worst-case scenario, should they ever find themselves in Bergdahl’s place. I’m not allowed to attend this last phase of secret training, but I can’t say I’m disappointed. Some survival lessons, like this school itself, are only for those who need them. •

Former infantryman Brian Mockenhaupt has written about war-zone issues for The Atlantic, Esquire, and other magazines. This is his first story for BACKPACKER.

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