The Drive To Survive


A look at the Air Force's survival specialists, SERE instructors. Survival, Escape, Resistance and Escape.

9/30/2015 - YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- "Some of you guys are gonna see some gigantic insects today," said the tall, sandy-blonde instructor with a laugh. "Gigantic insects. It's like Indiana Jones stuff."

In front of him sat a class of eight aircrew members. The instructor had a laid-back demeanor, but some of the stories he told as the instructional slides passed by were anything but: a man in Vietnam who evaded the enemy by floating down a river; watching a man's heel peel off because it had been wet too long; how to throw off the pursuit of dog handlers. The slides showed images of edible plants, makeshift shelters and frostbitten fingers.

Staff Sgt. Robert Rogers, 374th Operations Support Squadron Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape training NCO in charge, has been serving the Air Force as a SERE specialist for eight years.

"As young as I can remember, I enjoyed being outdoors," Rogers said. "With all my free time I'm up in the mountains. I enjoy camping and fishing. I knew from day one when I went to the recruiter that I wanted to be a SERE specialist."

A SERE specialist is someone who teaches aircrew and other personnel, whose jobs put them high-risk of isolation, how to return from any type of survival situation with honor. 

"To be a SERE instructor it takes a special kind of person," Rogers said. "It takes the mindset of an individual who doesn't quite know the meaning of giving up; a stubborn person who's willing to deal with a lot of uncomfortable situations and use those experiences to teach others."

Rogers' colleague, Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Johnis, 374th Operations Support Squadron SERE NCO in charge, described Rogers as hard working, brave, humorous and dedicated to his family.

"You never know what he's cooking up next," Johnis said. "Sometimes I'll come into work to discover he's set up a full day of outdoor leadership training with the Boy Scouts or young Airmen. He's always trying to help people reach their full potential and he doesn't care about personal recognition for his efforts."

Rogers teaches the SERE combat survival course, a general refresher training course every three years which covers wilderness survival, evasion and escape from the enemy and how to conduct themselves after capture. At Yokota, combat survival comes as part of a one-week block of courses including trainings dealing with emergency parachuting and water survival, and an escape enhancement laboratory.

After the class, Rogers took the Aircrew members and several volunteers into his "territory": the wilderness. At least, the largely forested, 500-acre Tama Services Division Annex of the Tama Hills Recreation Area is about as close to wilderness one can get in the Tokyo metropolitan area. At Tama, the students donned multicam uniforms, painted their faces and set out into the tangle of vines, bushes and bamboo. The training scenario involved crawling through gutters, evading volunteers dressed as the "enemy" and being detained. Navigating with maps, compasses and their wits, the students' objective was to use what Roberts taught them to make their way to several designated area without getting caught. This realistic scenario simulates what might happen to an aircrew that survives a crash in hostile territory.

"It's a big responsibility to know that the information I provide could be the difference between life and death for someone," Rogers said. "Have I prepared the air crew enough to go through any situation? It's a bit stressful at times but I don't stay up worrying about it at night because I try my hardest to make them as prepared as possible."

As the training went into the night, the students were soaked from rain. They built a fire to keep them warm as they dealt with the cold, frustration and weariness.

"That's the biggest thing about being a SERE instructor: you push yourself to the limit physically and mentally," Rogers said. "You realize that things are possible if you try hard enough. It's something that I'll have with me through the rest of my life, knowing that there's always an opportunity to come through a difficult situation."

Rogers has been involved with real-world scenarios where he assisted recovery of personnel. In deployed environments, he worked alongside the consolidated personnel recovery centers, where he advised during recoveries.

"It's amazing to sit in on a personnel recovery mission when you have an aircraft down," Rogers said. "Just to watch the entire office shift focus to getting a person back. It's a total change in operations."

He also trained people leaving on combat missions on how to prepare to evade and survive.

"The most rewarding part of the job is the students we get to teach," Rogers said. "Your job is to prepare them for a situation that you don't want them to ever be in. I'm giving them the skills so I know if a scenario ever happens to these guys, they're prepared."

Johnis recalled how a few years ago he and Rogers were deployed to Bangladesh for a Cope South exercise.

"Rogers jumped static line from 1,000 feet to a drop zone with hundreds of spectators," Johnis said. "They swarmed him like he was a celebrity! He took the time to snap pictures and hi-five all the kids. It was a great moment shared by our two nations."

As Rogers watches Yokota execute its mission every day, he's been impressed with how his job is part of a larger entity.

"Everyone's has to continuously stay ready to support any contingency situation that may pop up," Rogers said. "Everyone's working together. SEREs just one integral part of a big moving machine that just never stops. It can never stop."

 

"That's the biggest thing about being a SERE instructor: you push yourself to the limit physically and mentally," Rogers said. "You realize that things are possible if you try hard enough."