Navy SERE Training

Learning to Return with Honor

Navy SERE Training
The SERE class heads out to begin their simulated problem. Official Navy Photo

It was a blistering day on Oct. 3, 1993, during Operation Restore Hope when Chief Warrant Officer Michael Durant, a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot, crashed in Mogadishu, Somalia.

The Special Forces officer was captured and held captive as portrayed in the movie, “Black Hawk Down.” According to Durant, in his book, In the Company of Heroes, if it were not for a survival-training course, he would have not returned home 11 days later with honor.

The Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) course held at the Navy’s remote training site in the mountains of Maine is similar to the course Chief Warrant Officer Durant credits with having saved his life.

SERE is actually an advanced code-of-conduct course. All military personnel get their initial code-of-conduct instruction during basic training in which they are taught an American service member’s moral and legal responsibilities if captured by enemy forces. But SERE goes way beyond that.

“We teach individuals what to do when things go from bad to worse,” said Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Harry Haug, a SERE instructor assigned to Fleet Aviation Specialized Operational (FASO) training Group, Brunswick, Maine.

“The students who attend the course have a greater risk of being stranded behind enemy lines,” said Haug. “They come here to learn how to stay alive and the values behind the code of conduct.

When the situation is real, the threat is real, so these students need to be ready to handle it.”

Aviators, aircrewmen, Special Forces and force reconnaissance personnel are the types of jobs that require SERE school training.

“With today’s ever-changing battlefield, I believe most military personnel are at risk of being captured,” said Haug.

“Hopefully what I teach here on the mountain is enough to give someone the courage and know-how to survive if they are ever in that situation.”

The instruction begins with a week of classroom work focusing on wilderness survival and the real world applications of the code of conduct for a service member. This includes an extensive look into ways of surviving off the land. What may sound like a Boy Scout manual – fire-building, trapping, creating shelters, finding edible plants – are actually rules to live by.

“Once we have the students on the mountain, we split them into teams and immediately get their hands dirty. Like ducks out of water, they do their best to demonstrate all that we teach them about survival,” Haug added.

“You never know what’s going to happen out there, in hostile environments,” said Haug. “Survival starts with prior planning and that is where we begin with the students. They have to be ready for the unknown.”

Everything the students learn in the field phase of training will prepare them for the simulated “problem.” When the problem arises they are on their own and being pursued by the “enemy.” There will be no help from instructors during this phase and what has been learned will become the key to survival.

From the minute the students lay their packs under the raggedy silk canopy, simulating a downed pilot’s parachute, they do all they can to become one with nature.

“We teach primitive means of making due with what is at arms-reach, such as constructing a fire with flint and steel, what’s edible and how to use a simple piece of metal as a compass,” Haug said.

Although the course can be a difficult experience according to Haug, “It is a necessary episode. The students never forget the simulations and lessons that are taught,” he said. “I would rather see the students screw up in camp, where we can teach proper procedures during a debrief.”

“I have messed up a lot but I have learned something each time,” said SERE student ENS Peter Kozelka. “The confidence I am gaining may never save my life but I’m definitely more confident in my abilities.”

During the problem phase of the training the students are expected to work together. Navigation skills will be put to the test, along with rigorous hiking on unknown soil, up and down mountains. Here they will also use all means necessary for immediate survival, such as making small shelters out of their ponchos.

“I enjoyed it when we were all alone and finally put to the test,” said Marine Corps CPL Sam Shumaker. “I found it rewarding to successfully find locations we had been searching for all day with a compass and map.”

The students will gain the technical knowledge, practical experience and personal confidence necessary for worldwide survival and evasion, although no two students are the same and sometimes individuals find themselves out of their element.

“I grew up in the outdoors where hunting, fishing and camping is what I did,” said Haug. “There are many students who come out here that have spent all their lives on paved streets and the only trees they have ever seen grew on street corners.”

Knowing how to handle unique individuals is up to the instructors who are part naturalist, guide, psychologist and mentor. Haug, along with all the instructors on the mountain, are highly motivated and well trained individuals possessing an immense knowledge of the subjects.

“Before we can actually teach students we have to go through the school ourselves,” said Haug. “Then we spend more than six months learning everything about the course before a written and oral board.”

The students, more often than not, outrank the instructors, although there is no lack of respect when individuals are learning how to possibly save their own lives.

“Most all the students are higher in rank than I am, but they know who the boss is on the mountain and pay close attention to everything I teach them,” said Haug.

During the fall SERE Class of 2005 a soaking rain poured from the skies and the students were tested to their limits.

With a shredded poncho hanging off his shoulders, Kozelka, took a plunge in a deep creek. He boldly responded, “I’m OK.
I can do this.”

According to Haug, “When Kozelka first arrived on the mountain he acted as if he was the only one feeling pain. To witness his transition is inspiring and a strong example of human willpower, despite adversity.”

It’s only human nature to do all that is necessary to stay alive. The training that takes place in the remote mountains of Maine opens the window into how to survive when things go from bad to worse.

“According to his book, Durant survived with honor by using the techniques he learned at SERE,” said Haug. “Being able to learn from his and other peoples’ real world experiences gives us invaluable teaching tools for the future.”

The instructors at SERE have combined years of knowledge and
experience directly from surviving POWs making this course an invaluable tool for all those that could possibly be in danger of capture by enemy forces.

“What I have learned up here, may never get put to use, but I will be ready if it does,” said Shumaker.

“I view the Code of Conduct in a different way now and have a much clearer idea of what the words mean,” Shumaker added. “If I am ever captured, I will return with honor.”