There are many legends surrounding SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) courses organized in the USA. Americans who serve in elite units share some facts about them.
A lot of myths have arisen around SERE courses for the US Armed Forces, partly due to their confidential character. It is said that taking part in this specialist course can cause PTSD or psychosis. Some people even claim that in particular cases the instructors are allowed to break bones. It is undoubtedly true that in order to finish the highest level of SERE, the participants must be of outstanding psychophysical fitness, but the course was not created to harm them in any way.
“Each phase puts emphasis on different skills necessary behind enemy lines. »Survival« means, among other things, the ability to acquire food and water on your own. During »Evasion« we learn camouflage and tactical relocation. The »Resistance« phase teaches how to survive interrogation and brutal torture. »Escape« focuses on the ability to get out of captivity.” According to “Foxtrot Seven,” completing these four stages does not always mean the end of struggle. After successful escape, soldiers must still get to the zone from which a rescue team can retrieve them.
Foxtrot Seven is a Pole who served at the United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC). Throughout most of his career he was connected with the Green Berets’ Operational Detachment Alpha (the famous ODA, whose commandos, for example, had been infiltrating Afghanistan before the arrival of regular NATO forces). The commando is obliged to keep confidentiality, so there is a limit on what he can share about the US Army SERE courses. “This course tests our endurance, so we are exposed to hunger and exhaustion for many days. In such circumstances we make decisions that mean life or death of our friends.” In his opinion, the training is essential for anyone who goes to high-risk countries. Now the US Army finds it obvious, but working out appropriate solutions has taken decades of experience, usually gained in dramatic circumstances.
Based on Facts
Due to the development of aviation during WWII, pilots started going further beyond the front line, facing a bigger risk of being shot down. Those who had in fact been shot down, and had managed to return to their units, later joined together in clubs, such as the British “The Late Arrivals Club.” One of them was a RAF pilot, Roy Veal, who after having escaped Italian captivity, spent weeks plodding his way through the desert. He fed on insects, and managed to survive despite lack of water and lethal differences in daily temperatures.
The MI9, i.e. the British intelligence department, had decided already at the beginning of the war that preparing experienced soldiers to handle difficult situations might be much cheaper than training new ones. The idea was developed by an American general, Curtis LeMay, who in 1943 created a course teaching survival in arctic conditions. From then on, Americans gradually extended the original program and created an instructor base. In later years, they used experience gained in Korea and Vietnam.
American SERE courses, similarly to those organized in Poland, now have three levels. Level A is an introduction and is compulsory for all military men. Level B is targeted at line units and civilians who are to serve outside the US. Level C is only for special forces operators, military attachés, pilots, and aircrews. Capt Daniel Liebetreu, the AH-64 Apache helicopter instructor completed level C. “A three-week SERE course for US Army pilots is organized, for example, at Fort Rucker in Alabama. First, we had to acquire theoretical knowledge on navigation, self-rescue and survival. As for the classes on how to behave in captivity, I can only say they were based on real-life experiences. Later on, we had to put the knowledge in practice during an exercise based on a very realistic scenario, organized in nearby forests. Our instructors took on the roles of enemy forces. Their task was to capture us and force us to reveal all possible information,” explains Capt Liebetreu.
Escaping pursuit made the participants behave in ways they had never experienced before. The captain recalls a situation when his team saw a water moccasin. They had been starving for days, so despite the danger they decided to eat the snake. “After the meat was roasted over a small bonfire, I appreciated even the tiniest bite,” recalls Liebetreu and tells us about another situation, when they had to spend the night in the middle of a thick forest. The officer on watch heard something rustling in the nearby bushes. “I was sure that we had been discovered by the pursuit party. I saw shadows approaching me. I was worried whether we were hidden well enough, but at the same time I started wondering why I couldn’t see flashlight beams. After a moment, I heard something moving right behind my back. We were trapped.” As it turned out, the soldiers were in fact surrounded, but not by the enemy. “One of the shadows suddenly howled. They were coyotes! Luckily, they gave up the hunt.”
There have been many controversies around SERE courses. The pilot course had for many years included sexual assault elements, which were justified by experience gained during Operation Desert Storm. After many complaints, this element of training was eliminated. There have also been reports accusing services of using SERE techniques after capturing militants. It is a fact that in the last phase of the training, the participants must withstand very realistic interrogations, during which they suffer lack of sleep, humiliation and noise. “Imagine being closed in a wooden box. It’s so small that you can’t move at all. You stay inside it for minutes, maybe hours, infinity. You hear screams of other captives, guards. You try to stay calm and think of something pleasant – your wife, kids, something that will help you survive,” says Foxtrot Seven. Without this part of the training it is impossible to fully simulate the circumstances for which the soldiers are being prepared. In some situations soldiers must obey a special Code of Conduct that includes six points. They oblige military men to stay faithful to their fatherland and be prepared to sacrifice their life to protect it. According to the code, no soldier will surrender willingly, or force members of his team to do so. In the event of being captured, he will resist, cooperate with other captives and take advantage of any occasion to escape. Last, but not least – during interrogations, he will reveal only his own name, rank, ID number and date of birth.
It is very hard to obey the Code of Conduct in circumstances such as those simulated during the training. However, the interrogation is not the most memorable thing for the participants – it is the moment of release. “I still remember when the American flag was raised. This meant the end of captivity. We had gone through some really hard times, which made us realize that it was only a small bit of what prisoners in real situations have to endure,” adds the commando.
Both speakers emphasize that thanks to SERE training they prepare for tasks differently. They know what might be essential in the event of possible isolation, and how their colleagues might behave. According to Capt Daniel Liebetreu, the most demanding element of the training was to keep cooperating within the four-person team, despite the exhaustion, hunger, and the necessity to constantly be on the move. These are the skills that have a big impact on the service, and more. “The awareness that I can survive behind enemy lines makes me feel calm. It is a lesson for life, but thank God I didn’t have to repeat it in reality.” Recent years have shown that soldiers must be prepared for unexpected events. During the January attacks in Nairobi, a SAS operator took initiative and with the help of local units saved many lives. He used skills gained from his own experience and trainings, including SERE. Foxtrot Seven has also been in such situations. “There were moments when I was tailed or interrogated. Then I used methods learned at the course. You need to be aware that even an ordinary party can suddenly turn into a nightmare. SERE is a specialist school for elite commando units, but nowadays every single person should be extremely sensitive to what is going on around them.”
autor zdjęć: USMC