Tech. Sgt. Dereck Day, a 48th Operations Support Squadron Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape specialist, demonstrates how to build a reliable shelter at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, Oct. 18, 2018. Air Force photo by A1C Shanice Williams-Jones
JBSA-LACKLAND, Texas—One of the Air Force’s smallest career fields is also one of its most misunderstood—and undermanned—so a handful of instructors here are taking it upon themselves to spread the word.
The Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) specialist career starts with initial training in a small building here at JBSA-Lackland. The small cadre of instructors, many of whom didn’t fully grasp the job when they joined, are doing their own outreach to get more people interested in the job. Their goal is to find more capable trainees, or “good clay” as they say, to form into the next generation of instructors who can then go out and teach combat pilots—some of the Air Force’s most important assets—how to survive.
“You want to learn about yourself? You want to learn how to sharpen a mind? SERE is a perfect way to do that,” said TSgt. David Noriega, the 66th Training Squadron Det. 3 operations noncommissioned officer in charge of the SERE specialist orientation course. “You learn about problem solving to the greatest level. You learn about yourself, mentally and physically, [and] how to overcome anything.”
As part of the new outreach, the instructors have created their own social media pages where they can answer questions about the job, and they have reached out to various Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) groups in an effort to drum up interest. Noriega regularly goes back to his high school to talk to students about what being a SERE specialist entails. Most of these discussions involve dispelling myths about the career field.
The Air Force’s SERE specialists are part of Air Force Special Operations, but unlike combat controllers or pararescuemen, their job does not involve direct combat. The Lackland school is responsible for graduating about 55 specialists who then go to Fairchild AFB, Wash., for advanced training. Their first posting is also at Fairchild, where they serve as SERE instructors to aircrew members.
Eventually, SERE specialists can move on to operational support squadrons at flying wings to provide refresher training to aircrew, or to postings at other locations, such as the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency. They also can deploy to combat locations, but SERE airmen do not directly participate in combat operations. Instead, they work as experts alongside pararescue teams in planning recovery and rescue operations. For example, a PJ team may not know how capable a downed pilot is of surviving, but a SERE specialist knows how well trained they are and how to operate the available equipment.
“We’re not a combat career field. We’re not down range shooting people. We’re not kicking doors down,” said Justin Samaniego, the SERE specialist orientation course unit training manager. “We’re instructors.”
Many of those considering the career field aren’t aware that most of the job is teaching, and that the position will give a young senior airman or staff sergeant authority to tell colonels they are wrong.
At these locations, you have “one or two guys deep dealing with colonels, commanders … Take most staff sergeants in front of a [director of operations], you get a deer in headlights. For a SERE guy, no problem,” Samaniego said.
Like other special operations career fields, SERE training focuses on intense physical training along with in-depth academics and, specifically in the Lackland classes, sewing.
Students here are forced to repeatedly and perfectly sew patches and bags—a time consuming process that requires students to follow specific instructions and to balance their time between all the other daily training. If the sewing is slightly off from instructions, the trainee has to do it again on top of all of their new responsibilities the next day.
The emphasis on this has become notorious around the Air Force, and was highlighted by a scene in the 2018 movie “15:17 to Paris,” where the main character explains he didn’t make it in SERE because he wasn’t an expert at sewing.
But the instructors at Lackland view it differently. The airmen need to become experts on this not because sewing is important to the job, but because expertly sewed bags and tags show the airman is able to follow instructions, balance their time, and deal with frustrations.
It is a way, early in the training, for the Air Force to know the young airman out in the forest training a dozen pilots, who is responsible for their well being in tough situations, understands the process and can be counted on.
“People get very bitter [if they wash out]. They think it’s because they couldn’t sew. That’s what gets them thrown out,” Samaniego said. “But if you can’t count on a guy to do this, can you count on that same guy to take 12 human beings out of the middle of nowhere, when it’s freezing. … It shows trust, maturity, time management. That’s why that is so important. The situation could turn bad very quickly.”
SERE training has two classes per year—from January to June and July to December—with about 60 percent of the class washing out. That number fluctuates based on the airmen who first come in. Instructors “rarely say you are not qualified,” but airmen withdraw from the training themselves when they decide it isn’t for them. Recently, the Lackland instructors had to shut down a class because nobody made it through.
The instructors can teach the airmen how to take notes and explain how they should manage their time, but “what I can’t teach a person to do is to not quit. That is impossible. That is in them, and that is something they either have or they don’t,” said SSgt. Ryian Dawson, 66th Training Squadron Det. 3 NCO in charge of the SERE specialist training orientation course.
The Lackland school recently codified its syllabus. Since the school opened in 1992, the instructors had worked more loosely on general requirements and didn’t follow a daily ritual. After feedback from across the service and from experts in the career field, the school established a specific process for how SERE specialists should be trained. There are now objective standards an airman must meet to progress.
“The syllabus really guides us, it gives us a backbone to stand on,” Dawson said. “I’m not saying that’s good or bad. It’s teaching them to think more critically and understand the process instead of just doing it.”
“You have to PT for an hour, then you do this assignment. If they don’t meet the standard, I’m going to ask them what happened,” Noriega said. “Did you know the standard? What made you deviate from the standard? I want people to understand that in SERE, you’re going to get criticized. How does a person respond? There’s a lot of ways to respond. You fail that, you undo every stitch and do it again. If you see someone’s eyes roll, we don’t want that guy.”