SERE: Training Soldiers to Survive - Army's survival, evasion, resistance and escape training
by Blaine Miller
The goal of the United States Army's training in survival, evasion, resistance and escape, or SERE, is to teach personnel how to survive if they become separated from their unit; to evade a hostile force and make their way back to friendly forces; and to avoid capture. In the event that soldiers are captured, SERE training will have prepared them to resist the enemy's attempts at exploitation, to escape from captivity and to return home with honor.
Department of Defense Directive 1300.7, Training and Education Measures Necessary to Support Code of Conduct, establishes three levels of SERE training: A, B and C.
Level A. Level-A SERE training is initial-entry training that is included in the program of instruction during basic training and during all entry-level courses of instruction for officers.
Level B. Level-B SERE training is designed for officers and enlisted personnel who operate (or who could potentially operate) near enemy lines. Unit-level instruction in Level-B SERE is accomplished using a training support packet, or TSP, that contains 16 standardized lesson plans that support training in 38 tasks.
Level C. Level-C SERE training is designed for personnel whose wartime position, military occupational specialty, or assignment entails a high risk of capture, and whose position, rank or seniority would make them targets for stronger-than-average exploitation efforts by a captor. Personnel who operate in enemy-controlled areas, such as Special Forces, Pathfinders, selected aviators, flight-crew members and members of Ranger battalions, should receive Level-C training.
Level-C SERE training is conducted by the JFK Special Warfare Center and School's Company A, 2nd Battalion, 1st Special Warfare Training Group. Company A is one of four advanced-skills companies within the 2nd Battalion. Because nearly 70 percent of Company A's instructor positions are allotted to its two SERE detachments (the Field Training Detachment and the Resistance Training Detachment), the company is commonly referred to as the "SERE Company" or as the "SERE School." Company A is the only Army unit that is authorized to conduct Level-C SERE training.
The Army's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape Course traces its roots to the Vietnam conflict. On Oct. 29, 1963, Captain Rocky Versace, First Lieutenant Nick Rowe and Master Sergeant Dan Pitzer were captured in South Vietnam after an intense fire fight. All three endured hardships as captives of the Viet Cong. Versace was eventually executed for his staunch resistance to communist indoctrination. Pitzer was freed after four years.
Rowe remained a prisoner for more than five years. In late December 1968, the Viet Cong, frustrated by Rowe's refusal to accept communist ideology and weary of his continued attempts to escape, scheduled his execution. As Rowe was being transferred for execution, he took advantage of the distraction caused by a sudden overflight of U.S. helicopters and struck down his guard. Still keen to his surroundings after 62 months of captivity, Rowe ran into a clearing, where he was spotted by the helicopters. He was rescued and quickly repatriated.
Rowe left the Army in 1974 and wrote a book about his POW experiences, Five Years to Freedom. When the Army Special Forces School recognized the need for a SERE program, Rowe was the first choice as the person to design the course and to establish its operation. He was recalled to active duty in 1981 and was given the mission of developing and running the SERE program.
First SERE Course
Guided by his own POW experiences, Rowe developed the SERB Level-C Course. Since its first iteration in March 1986, the course's intent has remained unchanged: To train personnel to survive if separated from their unit; to evade in a hostile environment and to make their way back to friendly lines; to resist enemy attempts at exploitation; to plan for an escape; and most importantly, to return home with honor.
Under Rowe's leadership, the SERE Department of the Special Warfare Center not only taught the SERE Course, it became the proponent for all SERE training throughout the Army. With funding from the Department of the Army, the SERE Department deployed mobile training teams to unit locations to validate unit Level-B training or, if necessary, to provide Level-B training.
In April 1985, the SERE Department introduced an additional course, the Individual Terrorism Awareness Course, or INTAC. INTAC was designed to teach antiterrorist-related subjects to personnel prior to their deployment to medium- and high-threat areas. In July 1986, in an effort to minimize the vulnerability of U.S. units to terrorist attacks overseas, the department added a third course, the Antiterrorism Instructor Qualification Course, or AIQC. Selected personnel attend AIQC in order to become qualified to present antiterrorism training to individuals and units that are scheduled for deployment overseas.
In 1990, Company E of the 2nd Battalion assumed responsibility for conducting the SERE Course. Company E established a subordinate detachment, the Antiterrorism Training Detachment, to teach INTAC and AIQC. In 1996, Company E was re-flagged as Company A, and in 1998, the company added the Advanced Special Operations Training Detachment. Each year, Company A trains more than 1,500 service members and other DoD personnel in its SERE, antiterrorism and advanced special-operations training courses.
Level-C SERE training
The Army's Level-C SERE training is conducted at Camp Mackall, N.C., approximately 35 miles southwest of Fort Bragg. Camp Mackall is also the training site for Special Forces Assessment and Selection and for the Special Forces Qualification Course. The Camp Mackall SERE training facility is one of only four facilities within the Department of Defense that are authorized to conduct Level-C SERE training. The Navy has facilities at Brunswick, Maine, and at North Island, Calif.; the Air Force has a facility at Fairchild AFB, Wash.
The cadre of the Army's SERE Course are among the finest training instructors within DoD. While the majority are SF NCOs, there are also SF retirees (Department of the Army civilians); NCOs from other Army branches such as Military Intelligence (interrogators), Infantry (Rangers), Signal (audiovisual technicians); and NCOs from the U.S. Marine Corps.
The Army's 19-day SERE Course is the longest SERE course taught within DoD. All training is conducted in support of DoD Directive 1300.7, Training and Education Measures Necessary to Support the Code of Conduct, 23 December 1998. Students include personnel from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and other government agencies. The course is taught in three phases: academic instruction; a survival-and-evasion field training exercise, or FTX; and a resistance exercise.
Academic instruction. Academic instruction consists of 10 days of classroom training at Camp Mackall's Rowe Training Facility, and practical instruction at the Little Muddy Training Site. All academic instruction is reinforced by practical application at some point during SERE training.
Survival and Evasion FTX. During the five-day survival-and-evasion FTX, student teams evade through a nine-mile corridor of woods and dense vegetation. Pursued by tracker dogs and by soldiers playing the role of the opposing force, the student teams must be careful to avoid contact with the local populace. During the FTX, the students must also forage for food and water. When the student teams reach their destination, they must complete a series of survival tasks that measure how much they learned during the academic phase.
Resistance exercise. The third phase of SERE training is taught in the unique Resistance Training Laboratory, or RTL. The RTL -- a mock prisoner-of-war camp -- offers what is quite possibly the most challenging training that the students will ever experience. The four days spent in the RTL test students' individual and collective abilities to resist enemy attempts at exploitation. Students learn quickly that they must work together as a team in order to survive captivity.
During the last day of the resistance exercise, students receive individual and collective debriefings from the RTL cadre. The purpose of the debriefings is to give students an understanding of how well they performed while in captivity. During the debriefings, the students learn how they might have reacted differently in certain situations, so that if they are ever held captive, they will have a better chance of resisting and of returning home with honor.
The SERE Course culminates with a graduation ceremony, during which a member of the Fayetteville, N.C., chapter of the American Ex-Prisoners of War recounts his real-life POW experiences. The Fayetteville chapter has supported the SERE program since 1985, when Dan Pitzer, then a civilian SERE instructor, first invited chapter members to attend a graduation ceremony. In July 1999, the commanding general of the Special Warfare Center and School affirmed the chapter's former POWs as lifelong members in the brotherhood and lineage of the Special Warfare Center and School.
In 1998, the commanding general of the Army Special Operations Command directed that each graduate of the Special Forces Qualification Course complete Level-C SERE training and basic language training prior to being assigned to a Special Forces group. To overcome the instructor shortage created by the increased number of SERE students, the Special Warfare Center and School developed and executed the SERE Ramp-up Initiative. Under this initiative, 15 contract instructors were hired in order to meet the increase in SERE student throughput. Contract-instructor qualifications are identical to those required of TDA instructors. Accordingly, every SERE class during fiscal year 2000 trained to its maximum capacity.
Major Blaine Miller is the commander of Company A, 2nd Battalion, 1st Special Warfare Training Group. His previous assignments include rifle platoon leader, antitank platoon leader and company executive officer in the 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division; Assistant S3 (Plans & Exercises), 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division; SF detachment commander in the 1st Battalion, 3rd SF Group; chief of theater operations in DCSOPS, USASOC; and G3, USAJFKSWCS. Major Miller holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Shippensburg State University, Shippensburg, Penn.