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Around The Fleet

Training the Best for the Worst

A Look at Navy SERE School

A loud snap in the distance makes the Sailor immediately drop into a low crouch, his eyes wide and heart racing; the noise could have been anything - deadfall from the dry tree branches, a desert fox or mountain lion, or perhaps even the enemy stalking him.

His feet crunch through the brush as he slowly and carefully moves to investigate the noise, avoiding cactus and trying to stay somewhat hidden despite the lack of vegetation in the sprawling desert landscape.

The Sailor is completely isolated, and miles behind enemy lines.

Deep in the desert mountains of Warner Springs, California, the U.S. Navy runs Sailors and Marines through this scenario as part of Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training, better known as SERE.

"You're going to be hot, you're going to be tired," said a SERE instructor, facing a large group of incoming Navy and Marine students. "You're going to be miserable, wishing you didn't come here."

SERE students come from varied backgrounds across the services; the bulk being reconnaissance Marines, Naval and Marine pilots and aircrewmen, and special operations support personnel. However, the instructor said the training is available for any Sailor or Marine to apply to as long as there are slots available.

For two weeks, these students will be living in the desert, facing sweltering days under the hot sun and frigid nights sleeping under the stars, all the while searching for food amongst the desert foliage and attempting to evade capture by the instructors. During that time they will learn valuable survival skills, and be able to put them into application in the field.

"A lot of guys when they come out here don't have a lot of field experience," said the instructor. "We teach the basics - not just on hiding, but navigation, how to procure water, and how to procure food."

The training is infamous among Sailors and Marines for being extremely difficult and intense, but it also serves a valuable purpose - especially for those whose missions will take them into enemy territory.

"The purpose of this training, when you boil it down, is we're teaching our students how to survive, and return with honor from any isolating incident," said another unidentified SERE instructor.
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SERE West, the parent command of Remote Training Site Warner Springs, is housed on Naval Air Station North Island, San Diego, in a building named after Adm. (ret.) James Stockdale, whose story helped shape the training's curriculum. During the Vietnam War, Stockdale's aircraft was shot down over North Vietnam, and he was held as a prisoner of war in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" for seven-and-a-half years. During that time, Stockdale stayed faithful to the U.S. Military Code of Conduct, and despite intense interrogation and torture, was able to resist his captors and return home with honor.

Today's SERE training takes inspiration from Stockdale's story, as well as others. After days of training students how to survive, coupled with the exhaustion and hunger of living in the desert, the students are released in small groups and must attempt to evade the instructors, who play the "enemy" in this phase of training. Once captured (according to the instructor, all students will eventually be captured), they will undergo simulated interrogation and imprisonment.

While this phase of training is classified, the unidentified instructor hinted at the intensity of it.

"I think it would shock most students to know that everything they've heard about SERE school - all the sea stories - are all true," he said.

The heat of the desert, coupled with exhaustion from lack of food, lack of sleep, and constant marches and hikes through the mountainous terrain, creates physical difficulty for the students. According to the instructor, however, the physical aspect of the training is not the most difficult.

"There's plenty of physical barriers, obviously, when you're in a survival situation," said the instructor. "But the hardest ones are mental; you have to have the will to survive."

Many of the students said the difficulty of SERE training is far outweighed by its importance.

"There's a chance that this could happen," said a SERE student (all SERE students' identities are withheld in this article). "I don't want it to happen, but it's a possibility, and there's no other way to [prepare for it]."

When these students graduate training and return to their units, the instructor said he knows the lessons they learned at SERE will stick with them for their entire careers.

"We train the best for the worst," said the instructor.
SERE infographic