The Navy version of the training described in a recent Newsweek article is conducted at Warner Springs near San Diego, the home of the West Coast SERE (Survival, Escape, Resistance and Evasion) school.
After a three day classroom seminar with instructors such as Chuck Law, the Quartermaster on the USS Pueblo who had been a POW in North Korea and subject to grotesque torture, we spent a week on the beach and in the mountains eating only what you could scrounge from nature. There wasn't much to be had given that for years bi-weekly courses of 50 guys had been doing the same thing in the same area. A few snails and one tiny prickly pear from a cactus wasn't enough for me, and by the end of the week I was weak enough that just walking around was a huge effort. Sleep depravation was easy given cold mountain nights, hard ground, and no protection except a few pieces of parachute silk.
Then you go through an evasion course where 'enemy' soldiers are on on patrol, and machine guns pepper the area with fake bullets. Weak or not you find the energy to run. A favorite trick was to yell, "I see you Yankee. Stand up or I'll shoot. " And often a well hidden and unseen flyer would stand up.
But by definition you don't succeed in your evasion attempts and you don't escape. Captured was violent. They used the now infamous waterboard treatment on us (all the more effective when they do it to your buddy and make you answer questions while he gasps, drowning, and throws up). I was even knocked out once after being slammed up against a wall. They take all your clothes away except undershorts, a jacket, and your boots, cover your head with a canvas bag, and put you in a dog house size enclosure, no bigger than the hole under a desk where you can't sit up straight or stretch out.
Periodically the guards would come and bang on the cages just to keep you awake with your heart rate off the scale, and you're subjected to several interrogations. I stuck to my story that I was a new trainee and didn't know anything about the EA-6B's secrets. But they use every trick in the book. Southern boys were interrogated by black instructors, for example. And there was a bogus United Nations representative, with a French accent, that was your friend and offered food if you'd tell how you were doing (as if he cared) and what you knew (he cared far more). Spray from a hose in 36º temps is effective too, when your teeth are already chattering from cold and an over dose of adrenalin. Periodically we'd all have to form up for a 'Red Cross' inspection, really Navy medics making sure we weren't being harmed—at least physically.
And they do get inside you head. Spent a fair amount of time at one point trying to figure out how to communicate, in a "confession" letter we were supposed to write, that I was okay and who else was with me. Then I remembered that we would all be "rescued" within 24 hours.
Our senior officer present was doing such a good job as a leader they finally had to remove him from the course. He was shot, in front of us, in a very realistic way. Many of us, including myself, had a hard time not believing that some instructor had run amuck and over stepped the rules of the 'game' because the other instructors all acted horrified and dragged him away as our leader lay in a heap.
At sunrise the next day, oatmeal and the star-spangled banner were never so good. The memories, to this day 35 years later, less so. Yet, rationalization or reality, I did feel better prepared if I'd had to play the game for real. How you physically, and more important, mentally, survive seven years of such treatment, none of it simulated, is an amazing testament to human resilience. What they've learned about our chemistry that lets us survive and even excel in such an environment, as described in the Newsweek article, is fascinating.
This pictures was taken at NAS North Island, about two hours after we were released, and after we'd had a chance to clean up a little, if not shave. Made the mistake of wolfing down and donut and coffee and regretted it for hours.
Some comments from others who went through the school:
I went through Navy SERE level D at Warner Springs near North Island...during Vietnam. I can tell you this. It is an extremely brutal no bullshit course and it has to be. The enemy is typically brutal so you must be trained to Survive, Evade, Resist and Escape. They use the waterboard..beatings, not love taps...real *** beatings.. solitary confinement..interegation...sleep depravation..starvation..etc etc. to bring out your worst fears..break you down mentally and physically to where you are basically withdrawn internally so your no longer aware of anything beyond your current situation. At this point the intensity increases to a breaking point level...you may actually believe that your a POW at some point...that being in training is a mistaken illusion. This is where you pass or fail...You will leave SERE knowing who you really are and or are not. While I cant say I or anyone every enjoyed the experience I can say that I am a stronger person due to SERE training. My final statement during the after action review was..."This I now know! The Enemy will not take me alive...the last bullet will be mine."
During training I escaped three times and burned down the bamboo interegation hut...they kicked my *** six ways from Sunday for that but my response was.."My mother beat me harder" From that point the beatings never stopped..
LAst memory in POW training was absolute madness surrounding me...next thing I know is we are debriefing in San Diego..and eating at the chow hall like a starved pig....
SERE nowadays is probably much more Politically Correct which in my opinion does nothing but leave the soldier unprepared for what to really expect.
There is no training in the military more extreme than SERE...only the enemy can offer you more...
My son went last year. He said if he was Ever faced with the choice of going through SERE again and his career in flying, he would not fly again. He said there was a point he truly did not know that he was in the US. He was also pretty beat up/bruised. Nothing he experienced indicated "political correctness".