Among the prized possessions from my military career is a small bit of parachute canopy, probably no more than 1' x 1', and covered with the names of fellow airmen, officers and enlisted. Together, we endured Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) Training at Fairchild AFB, Washington, in the late summer of 1992. At the end of the course, the other students presented me the autographed piece of parachute, in recognition of my "leadership" during the program which included two stints in a mock POW camp.
Almost two decades later, I'm still grateful for that bit of silk and the Fairchild "Survival School" stands out as one of the most vivid memories of my Air Force experience. Virtually anyone who's been through the program would probably agree; over 17 days of field and classroom instruction (the length of the course in the early 1990s), you learn a lot about yourself, your comrades, and your ability to persevere under trying conditions.
And most importantly, you learn that the "school"--while highly realistic--is a walk in the park compared to a real POW compound. All of us emerged from Fairchild with even more respect (and admiration) for heroes like Jim Stockdale, Robbie Risner, Bud Day, John McCain and other prisoners of war, men who endured unspeakable torture and degradation for years, yet emerged from captivity with their integrity and honor intact.
My thoughts on Fairchild--and the experiences of real POWs--were prompted by today's Air Force Times article on plans to expand SERE training for airmen. Apparently, the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan have convinced service leaders that all airmen need some form of SERE training. The Air Force Chief of Staff, General Mike Moseley, has tasked Air Education and Training Command (which runs the Fairchild program) to develop a game plan, and present it to a meeting of senior generals in October. After that, Moseley will decide how to implement the training plan.
“We’ve got to start training the total force,” said Chief Master Sgt. John Myers, the SERE career field manager. “It’s a matter of time before we have the airman transporter or ... clerk or personnel specialist that steps outside the wire for a tour of town and gets grabbed. We’re a target ... out there
The most immediate concern, said Maj. Gen. Mark Zamzow, AETC’s director of operations, is to expand training for airmen deploying on assignments that will routinely take them outside the wire — serving, for example, on security forces, provincial reconstruction teams and explosive ordnance disposal teams. Those airmen, Myers said, need exposure to all four elements of SERE and at least some hands-on training — and they need it now.
The proposed expansion represents a sea change in the service's SERE training policy. For years, the Fairchild course was aimed at personnel considered most vulnerable to being captured: pilots, navigators, other aircrew members and special forces personnel, as well as airmen who provided survival and resistance training at the unit level, namely intelligence and life support specialists. While the school could "surge" to train more personnel during extended periods of conflict--such as Vietnam--individual classes were relatively small (my section had only 30 students, as I recall), emphasizing hands-on instruction.
Obviously, "ramping-up" the training pipeline will create some issues that must be addressed before the program can be fully implemented. It takes at least a year to fully train SERE instructors, who provide training in each phase of the program. Historically, the SERE instructor career field has been all-volunteer, and one of the smallest in the Air Force. Expanding the instructor cadre--while maintaining the desired standards of knowledge and professionalism---represents a major challenge.
So too, is the issue of facilities. The notion of providing some level of SERE instruction to each of the Air Force's 330,000 military members means that other sites will be required, allowing Fairchild to concentrate on its traditional mission of training those most at-risk. So, where are the other "venues" for SERE training?
Under the program that's likely to emerge, we can envision some type of introductory instruction during Air Force basic training at Lackland AFB, Texas, Air Force ROTC summer camps and Officer Training School (Air Force Academy cadets already receive basic survival training as part of their curriculum). This would represent a logical complement to the "combat skills" training unveiled by the service last year.
More detailed instruction would (presumably) follow at the new Common Battlefield Airmen Training (CBAT) Program, which will eventually be established at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana; Arnold AFB, Tennessee or Moody AFB, Georgia. The Air Force filed its intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for CBAT instruction at the proposed sites last year. Air Education and Training Command hopes select a location, build required facilities and have Phase I of the program operational by 2011.
Eventually, CBAT would train up to 14,000 airmen a year--and provide an excellent venue for expanded SERE instruction. We assume that those 14,00 airmen would include many of those identified for enhanced SERE training. Personnel requiring lower levels of instruction would (presumably) receive that training during basic at Lackland, through a commissioning program, and at their eventual duty station.
From my perspective, sending more airmen to "survival" training is an idea that's long overdue. General Zamzow is correct; the days when the "typical" airman was far from the combat zone (and seemingly immune to capture) are long since past. More training means a better chance of survival for any airman who falls into enemy hands, or finds themselves in a survival or evasion environment. It won't make a real evasion trek (or POW camp) more pleasant. But with the right training, you can learn to endure--and even prevail--in the most demanding of circumstances. And it's exactly the type of training needed by airmen going "outside the wire."
ADDENDUM: We've got to wonder if Chief Myers comment about someone who gets "grabbed on a tour of the town" was a back-hand reference to Maj Jill Metzger, who "disappeared" on a shopping trip in Kyrgyzstan last year. As readers of this blog know, Metzger turned up three days later, claiming that she'd been abducted, but managed to over-powered her captors and ran 30-40 miles to freedom.
While many in the ranks doubt Metzger's story, she was placed on an 18-month "temporary" retirement in July, to recover from her ordeal. As far as we know, Metzger is the only Air Force member who's disappeared on a "tour of the town" in recent memory. However, no one has suggested that the new training program be named "Camp Metzger." Preparing for phony abductions is something learned on your own.
Also, for clarification's sake, I am a proud graduate of the "Combat Survival Training" course at Fairchild (then known as SV-80A), and the late, lamented Water Survival course, previously held at Homestead AFB, Florida. The Homestead program was memorable because the curriculum included two parasail rides over Biscayne Bay. Unfortunately, Hurricane Andrew destroyed that facility, and the water training program was split between Fairchild and NAS Pensacola.
As for Fairchild, the outdoor training isn't bad if you don't take the course in winter. Resistance training, in a word, sucks. However, it sucks even more if you're one of the "lucky ones" who must attend "Advanced Resistance Training," which is lasts another week beyond SV-80A. Fortunately, the training requirements for my aircraft ended with the basic course, and I did not have to stick around for advanced resistance program, then referred to as "Beatings 201."