FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Washington --
“After a long day of teaching in the field, a fellow instructor and I got a call from our squad leader claiming he would meet us at the nearest road with a hot meal,” she said. “A normal field meal is a peanut butter & jelly sandwich or a freeze dried meal, so there is no SERE Specialist in the world who would turn that down.”
The instructors hungrily pulled out their maps and scrambled to locate the nearest road and relay the meeting spot coordinates to the squad leader, setting out immediately to push through the rough terrain before the light faded completely.
At last they found themselves atop a steep cliff overlooking the meeting spot, the last hurdle keeping them from a real dinner.
“Just looking down at the headlights of the vehicle that had our hot meal inside waiting for us was all the motivation we needed,” said Staff Sgt. Bethany Bowater, 22nd Training Squadron Survival Escape Resistance Evasion specialist. “We were carefully climbing up the cliff on our way back to camp an hour later, yet I had a belly full of the best meal I ever ate on the trail.”
“That trek exemplifies SERE Specialist training. We knew it would be hard to accomplish, but it’s worth it to get something awesome in the end,” added Bowater.
SERE Specialists are put through more than six months of rigorous and demanding trials to become instructors. They must be able to set the standard and provide a positive example to their students as they lead them through situations designed to test physical, mental and emotional limits.
“This job demands all we have to give,” Bowater said. “The best leaders come out of here realizing what the differences between people are and the unique qualities each person brings to the table, using that to maximize what a team can accomplish.”
Many give up during the training process, but not these two dedicated Airmen. They met the SERE challenge head on and came out the other side as proven survivors, ready to instruct others.
“When I went through the SERE Specialist training course, as they do with everyone, they constantly kept trying to tear me down,” Bowater said. “It's to break you. They will figure out your weakness and exploit it, try to get you believe that you're a burden, a failure, to make you quit.”
“Don't quit, no matter what they say,” Bowater added.
Few trainees make the cut to become specialists, with approximately 50% washing out or choosing to “self-eliminate” before course completion.
The process exists to mimic real-life situations where captors will attempt to mentally wear a captive down, evasion situations where avoiding capture may demand quick and decisive action, and surviving harsh environmental extremes a stranded soldier may find themselves in.
“SERE is mostly attitude,” said Senior Airman Brittany Wilson, 22nd TRS SERE Specialist. “You have to be physically able to do all that is demanded of you, but even the physically strongest person can be made to give up.”
“Those that keep at it will have determination and an ‘I-can-and-will’ attitude,” Wilson added.
Neither of them started out as survivalists, but rather as young people looking to make something of themselves after finishing high school and college.
“I was working at a restaurant after high school, and I was getting tired of it,” Wilson said. “I went to a recruiter and was talking about making the state finals in cross country and weight lifting, so they asked me if I wanted to try out for SERE.”
“Once I got to the SERE school and completed the physical test, they gave me an axe and a rucksack and off we went; I had no idea at the time what I had gotten myself into,” said Wilson. “I quickly found out how hard it was and wanted to give up early on as I joined just to get money for college, but my Dad pushed me to see it through.”
“He tried for years to be in SERE and couldn’t make it, and he didn’t want me to quit now that I had a shot at it,” Wilson added. “I’m close with my dad, so I listened and kept at it.”
Family had a strong influence in both women’s lives, pushing them to make the most of an opportunity to do something special.
“My dad had been through what I was facing,” Bowater said. “He told me to run until you puke, swim until you puke, you ruck until you puke, you do calisthenics until you puke … and then you get back up and do more.”
“I trained hard to make it because this is what I wanted to do, yet it still took me about two years to get in.” Bowater added.
After overcoming all of the hardships to become SERE instructors, these two Airmen believe that more people should try to push themselves and realize that they can succeed in SERE and bring their own abilities to the table.
“If you want to teach and you want to work outdoors, if you want to take the most amazing training, then just do it,” said Wilson. “If you’re interested in SERE, don’t ask yourself if you should do it, but instead ask yourself, ‘why not do it?’”
SERE has afforded these Airmen a special position in one of the most demanding jobs in the military, and they said they wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“This is the best job in the world if you ask me,” Wilson said. “I get to do things that I wouldn’t have even dreamed about as a civilian.”
SERE training puts people to the test, but the rewards are well worth the effort of persevering, something these instructors have taken to heart and now seek to pass on to others.
“The personal growth you gain is huge,” Bowater said. “The skills I teach may save my student’s life. That impact is very dear to me.”