Becoming a SERE augmentee

  • Published
  • By SrA Kenneth Boyton
  • 4th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
A torrential downpour covered a thickly forested mountain in western North Carolina. The drum of heavy raindrops pounding against leaves and ground drowned out all sound, save for a few expletives shouted out when unfortunate souls would slip on the mud while ascending a 55 degree incline on the water-logged mountain.

After reaching a flat patch of land at 3,800 feet, the group of six joined in a circle and waited.

A young man with brown, bushy eyebrows stepped forward and knelt on the ground. He reached into the pocket of his drenched black raincoat and pulled out a laminated map of the surrounding area.

“From this spot, we can look around and try to find where we are on the map,” said Staff Sgt. Alan Downs, 4th Operations Support Squadron survival, evasion, resistance and escape specialist. “Look at the tree lines to determine peaks and valleys. We know we came up from a valley and we passed a waterfall, so hopefully, that’s on the map too.”

The five others, each using a woodland camouflage poncho to cover themselves and their heavy rucksacks, observed their surroundings and oriented themselves on their own maps.

Downs gave them a set of coordinates and it was up to the group to use a compass and map to find their way there.

After conferring with one another, the group found their heading. Unsure if they were right or wrong, they put away their maps and started making their way, once again, up the steep, slippery mountain.

“This training is meant to give these five Airmen insight on what it’s like to go through the SERE S-V-80 course,” Downs said. “They’ll learn how to navigate, live off the land, create shelters, evade hostile enemies and coordinate their own rescue using the tools at their disposal.”

The Airmen in training are on their way to becoming SERE augmentees, a title which allows them to help Downs and his counterpart, Tech. Sgt. Joshua Krape, 4th OSS SERE specialist, train aircrew when their survival refresher training is due.

“If a jet goes down, it’s up to us to ensure that the pilot and anyone else up there is well equipped to make it back home safely,” Krape said. “After ejecting at a few hundred miles an hour and possibly landing behind enemy lines, maybe with an injury, we need to make sure that they keep their skills sharp.”

Hundreds of aircrew are assigned to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina, and each of them has to regularly take a refresher course.

“We have two SERE specialists to train all the aircrew on this base,” Krape said. “It realistically isn’t possible without the help we get from our dedicated augmentees.”

The training Krape and Downs provide to the augmentees gives them a better understanding of what the aircrew could go through, and allows them to provide a more realistic training strategy.

“For three days, these Airmen will be out in the woods with everything our pilots get when they fly,” Downs said. “It’s up to us to show these guys how to survive with that minimal gear.”

The F-15E Strike Eagle survival kit for the 4th Fighter Wing includes a poncho, space blanket, knife, fire starters, water purifiers, a compass, a map of the area and a few other essential items.

Since food isn’t an item kept in the kit, the Airmen had to either find their own food or starve for the three-day course.

“All around us are blueberry and strawberry plants,” Krape said while surrounded by lush green vegetation. “We’re teaching them what to look for and which animals they can eat as well.”

During the lesson, the group ate multiple types of plants until they spotted a creek and decided to look to the water for more food.

“I already ate a slug today, so I’m hoping to find something a bit different to eat,” said Senior Airman Greg Sherman, 334th Aircraft Maintenance Unit load crew team chief. “I’ve eaten off the land a lot back home so hopefully it helps me get a decent meal.”

While eating their freshly picked food, they hung their wet socks on sticks and kept their boots close by, in hopes of drying them out before they had to move again.

As they ate around the bivouac, they learned about search and rescue numerical encryption grids, how to use the Combat Survivor/Evader Locator, or CSEL radio, and how to identify themselves through encrypted means.

“We’re learning how to do all of these things because when we’re training the aircrew, they want to see that we know what we’re talking about,” said Senior Airman Adrian Montgomery, 4th Component Maintenance Squadron aerospace propulsion journeyman. “We go through this training knowing that when we help teach the combat survival course, the information we provide could be the difference between life and death.”

For the last night of the training, the Airmen had to create an evasion shelter or a refuge that kept them safe from the environment and from the eyes of any hostiles who would be looking for them.

“Sleeping on the ground isn’t the best, but it’s not too bad,” Montgomery said. “But in these evasion shelters, we have to have a smaller footprint which means less space for us. I had to sleep like a boomerang which was definitely much less comfortable than normal.”

Early the next morning, the group took down their shelters and prepared for their final lesson. Simulating a plane crash behind enemy lines, the Airmen had to run from enemy forces played by other SERE augmentees.

They used their CSEL radio to call for help, received encrypted instructions and coordinates, and used a map and compass to find their location. With enemy forces on their back, they had to traverse the slippery, steep terrain and hope they could outsmart their adversaries.

After hours of hiding, climbing and sliding, the group reached their evacuation point and ultimately completed their training.

For three days, the group endured countless rainstorms with little sleep, food and breaks. Their will to move forward kept them going, allowing them to earn the title of SERE augmentee.