|Air Force Survival, Escape, & Evasion Instructors|
|Training the SERE Instructors|
It's survival of the fittest when airmen find themselves in enemy territory on their own.
Evading capture and eking out an existence is not necessarily based on how physically fit someone feels. The main ingredient is training, which is where the Air Force's survival, evasion, resistance and escape instructors come into play. These SERE instructors teach people in "high risk of capture" career fields to survive and "return with honor."
The search for such survival instructors begins in Lackland's basic training flights, where members of the SERE Indoctrination Course attempt to recruit for the all-volunteer career field.
But this is not a career for everyone.
Master Sgt. Gary Herman and his fellow SERE specialists working the indoctrination course, which is part of the 342nd Training Squadron's Combat Training Flight, look for very specific individuals to become survival instructors.
"We screen roughly 13,000 basic trainees (annually)," Herman said. "We take about 100 for the indoctrination course. We have a small niche we are looking for." Herman said the people instructors are looking for people involve one man or woman out of 150.
The indoctrination course instructors are also responsible for airmen looking to cross train from one career into the SERE field.
There are, of course, physical requirements that include being able to lift 100 pounds. But most important, according to Herman, is a positive mental attitude and personality.
Herman said the ideal recruit is comfortable talking about subjects in front of people who normally outrank them. SERE instructors spend a large portion of time teaching a variety of people in an outdoor setting.
The instructors also seek recruits who can take pressure and stress in stride.
"Eighty percent of the job is mental," said Herman. "We are looking for someone who is mentally strong." This is because out in the field, instructors lead pilots and crew members into the unknown to survive for days with few supplies and in less-than-desirable conditions. SERE instructors, said Herman, can not lose their cool when others are depending on them.
Recruits who pass initial eligibility requirements go through a psychological evaluation and several interviews during the indoctrination course.
"As a SERE instructor you will literally be in charge of colonels, lieutenants, and senior NCOs (noncommissioned officers)," Herman said. "Those are unusual circumstances for an airman first class right out of tech school." Herman added that not being able to perform to the standards necessary, could be a problem.
Training includes everything from how to build a temporary shelter to trapping wild animals for food to escaping enemy captors. SERE instructors work in various locations to teach techniques in different regions.
Those who make it through the indoctrination course go on to a six-month technical school at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash. There, the classroom is the outdoors and training is done in all the different geographic climates in which pilots and aircrews can find themselves stranded, including the arctic, the desert and the ocean.
Students are taught how to find food, water and shelter, as well as land navigation, camouflage and evasion techniques, first aid and search and rescue. For Air Force pilots, crew members and special forces units, such as pararescue and combat control, this training is a necessary and important lesson.
Therefore, it is important to have good instructors, which is why the Air Force established the SERE Indoctrination Course here in 1993. In an effort to reduce the self-initiated elimination rate at the survival instructor's school at Fairchild, the Air Force set up the indoctrination course here where new airmen attend basic military training.
The course is a clearinghouse of sorts before sending recruits to the Fairchild technical school at a cost of roughly $60,000 per person.
Before the indoctrination course, the self-elimination rate at the Fairchild school was high, representing a loss in money for the Air Force. This also meant moving and re-training airmen who dropped out. The Lackland course has helped reduce that number by giving recruits a better idea of the career field, both the positive and negative aspects, before sending them to technical school.
As part of the process, Herman and fellow SERE instructors visit basic trainees during the first week of training and talk with them about the SERE career field. All eligible volunteers are then prescreened to make sure they meet the initial requirements, which include a minimum score of 53 in the general category of the apptitude test, the ability to obtain a "secret" security clearance, an 11th-grade reading level, normal color and night vision, and no history of disabling defects.
Qualified candidates then go through several screening interviews during the second week, and instructors show them an indepth technical school video. During this time, there is a review of recruits' medical and personnel records.
Those who meet the qualifications and finish basic training will work with the SERE indoctrination course members for several weeks before going to school. During that time, recruits train on survival techniques. These come in handy when they finish up with a four-day field exercise in the woods 200 miles from Lackland's gates. Putting to use the survival training they have been taught, recruits build shelters, catch and prepare their own meals, all the while being tested on their ability to handle stress and to continue instructing others during the exercise.
"They need to get in the mental mindset of an instructor," Herman said. "We see that over the weeks. Slowly but surely, the successful candidate will emerge."
Those candidates will follow in the footsteps of survival instructors before them, teaching others to "return with honor."
Article by Heather Feldman