Serving others through SERE

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Samantha Krolikowski
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
Born in Dayton, Ohio, Elizabeth “Liz” Russell was used to not staying in the same location for very long. Her father was a salesman for the government, selling transducers for spacesuits and submarines.

In December 1976, she continued her family’s tradition of serving in the military and joined the Air Force. Being in shape before she joined, she was told by a military training instructor, she would be a good candidate for the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school.

“My family has been serving since the American revolution,” said Russell, Joint Personnel Recovery Agency lead program manager. “Growing up serving in the military was something kind of expected and I was happy to join the Air Force.”

Not knowing anything about the SERE career field, she wanted to learn more. She thought the career sounded easy. Growing up, she had worked with horses, dug ditches, chopped wood, went hiking and canoeing. While still in Texas, she signed up for the SERE career field and she was immediately assigned to the base gym for a couple months to get in shape before being shipped to Fairchild.

“I came to Fairchild in July 1977, and met the rest of my class,” she said. “The training was all new and different.”

Although she had done a lot of outdoor activities as a child and teen, SERE training consisted of long hours, wearing heavy rain gear, which at the time were made of rubber.

“There was no concept of lightweight gear back then,” Russell said. “I bought the long Air Force formal blue rain coat and wore that in the woods.”

During their training in the woods, her classmates had to figure out ways to stuff two sleeping bags into their packs. It was important to have the size and strength to carry the packs while wearing snowshoes because of the weight, Russell said.

SERE training consisted of several phases that challenged recruits for six straight months. Her class went through training phases in Tillamook, Oregon, the rainforest, coast, desert and the Colville National Forest.

“SERE back then, mission wise, was different than it is today,” Russell stated. “It was a lot simpler as far as duties being an instructor; it’s more complicated now.”

According to Liz, it was difficult being a female in SERE training because there were individuals who weren’t happy about having females in the career field. Even though the training pushed her mentally and physically, in December 1977, Liz was one of the first two women to ever graduate from SERE to become an instructor.

“I will credit the leadership of SERE for ensuring we were treated fairly,” she said. “Luckily, a problem never happened, but I always had confidence that if something were to happen, I felt I could go talk to them.”

During her time as an instructor, she enjoyed helping students master tasks they could use to safely return back home. After she made technical sergeant and hit her 10 year mark, Liz attended Officer Training School and earned her commission. The next stop on Liz’s journey was Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota where she began as a command post officer and shortly after was appointed as the new protocol officer due to her performance as a change of command narrator.

“After several years at Minot, I returned to Fairchild,” Russell said. “The 92nd Air Refueling Wing protocol office staff had copies of all the programs I had created in Minot, providing guidance to start their protocol program.”

She was sent over to SERE when she returned to Fairchild and worked as the officer in charge of curriculum and worked as a member of the support squadron.

After serving over 20 years in the Air Force, beginning and finishing her career in SERE, Russell retired in September 1997.

“I would encourage anyone to become SERE,” she said. “Man or woman. It’s a great career field. If you have a sense of service to others and want to make a real positive difference in people’s lives, come to SERE.”

Shortly after she retired, she began working for the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency. She started by helping establish a training program and continued to work on further developing other training programs.

“Depending on mission risk or being exploited by a captor, individuals get more specialized training from us,” she said. “We help analyze an individual or group’s threat, and then tailor training to provide them a capability that, in turn, can make them a confident person who is able to conduct their SERE tasks in such a way that they can return home with honor.”

JPRA ensures isolated personnel who are on the ground evading capture, have the knowledge to conduct certain tasks. This can either be to meet up with a recovery force or to affect their own recovery.

“Some things we teach are new to people and it’s very gratifying being able to work one-on-one with students so they can master the task and feel confident doing it,” Russell said. “Later, years down the road, they know they will be able to do well and won’t have to second guess themselves.”

While working at both the Air Force survival school and JPRA, Russell said the main thing the units provide is confidence and tenacity for graduates. They encourage students to feel secure in their ability to complete these tasks.

In the future, in their defining hour, SERE training graduates can recall what to do and have the grit and capability to accomplish it, enabling them to return with honor, she said.

“The more experience you get, the higher you rise, to me that means you have a better capability to help other people,” she said. “It’s such a rewarding mission set, to be able to again give America’s warfighters confidence and capabilities to do their mission in support of our nation.”