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To survive is to win

SERE School builds confidence

Second Lieutenant Steven Billa and Senior Airmen Aaron Arteaga use their land navigation skills during survival and evasion training at the Air Force’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) School. Photo credit: J.M. Simpson

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Deep in the Colville and Kaniksku National Forests, 2Lt. Steven Billa and Senior Airman Aaron Arteaga oriented a compass to a map in order to determine a heading.

"It looks like it's 356 degrees," said Arteaga. 

"Almost due north," replied Billa.

Once they determined their heading, the two airmen measured the distance they would have to travel to arrive at an extraction point. 

"We're about 900 meters away, and our pace count should be 900 steps -- assuming each step is one meter," added Billa.

Airmen exit a modular egress training system (METS) during their water survival training. Photo credit: J.M. Simpson

With heading and pace count figured out, the two studied the map to identify landmarks to use as "handrails" to help stay on course.

Joining Billa and Arteaga in the land navigation exercise were Airman 1st Class Kaylor Keltner, 1Lt. Chris Kolkowski, Airman Basic Thomas Czerwinski, Tech Sgt. Josh Zuercher and Airman 1st Class Raymond Mion. 

The land navigation exercise is a small part of the training they would receive while taking -- and enduring -- the Air Force's SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) School.

"A lot of learning occurs here," commented SSgt. Nick Valentine, a senior instructor.  

Over 16,000 students from all branches of the service attend the school on an annual basis.

"This part of their training -- the survival and evasion part -- is crucial; it helps to build confidence in their survival skills."

SERE School reinforces this point in airmen so they know that if isolated and/or captured they can survive and will "Return with Honor," the school's motto.

"These students leave with a confidence that they can survive anywhere in the world," emphasized Senior Airman Anders Arenson, another senior instructor.

Located at Fairchild Air Force Base outside of Spokane, the SERE School trains "at-risk of isolation personnel" such as aircrew members, special tactic personnel and other airmen with specialized skills, in order to survive.

The three major components of the course are water survival, survival and evasion if at risk of capture, and Code of Conduct training which emphasizes resistance and escape during captivity.

The basic SERE course lasts 19 days and occurs 48 weeks out of the year. The majority of the course is taught at Fairchild; however, six days are spent 70 miles north of the base in the national forests.

The six days in the woods -- the survival and evasion part of the course -- focuses on the physical and psychological stresses of survival, hands-on training in post-ejection procedures and parachute landing falls, survival medicine and recovery device training and equipment procedures.

"The key thing here is communication," Arenson pointed out.  

"Life sustainment, fire, shelter, water, food, land navigation, and evading the enemy are stressed, too, but communication is vital.

As to resistance and escape training and water survival, they are taught on base. The Code of Conduct training stresses resistance to, and conduct in front of, the enemy after capture. This training is classified.

As to the water survival training, it is a two-day course that includes lessons such as getting clear of a ditched at sea aircraft, hazardous aquatic life, signaling rescue aircraft, food and water procurement, and life raft procedures.

Conducted in a state-of-the-art pool, airmen strap into a modular egress training system, or METS, hanging about five feet above the water as their instructors tell them what will happen next. For effect, the instructors can create waves and windy conditions should the training scenario call for them.

Once secured, the METS rolls upside-down and drops into 14 feet of calm water. Surrounding it are scuba divers and other instructors to ensure the safety of the airmen. One by one, the airmen extracted themselves from the METS and bobbed to the surface.

"There's a lot of learning done here," Tech Sgt. Garry McLean, a spokesman for the school, said.

"It's the best in the world."

Editor's Note:  Mr. Simpson is a 1984 graduate of SERE School.

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