Capt. Scott O’Grady survived and evaded capture by Serb forces in the cold, hilly forests of northern Bosnia with the help of lessons he had learned in the cold, hilly forests of northeastern Washington.
As part of a grueling and sometimes controversial training program that O’Grady took in February 1991 at Fairchild Air Force Base and in the nearby wooded mountains outside Spokane, he outwitted a team of American “aggressors” in a deadly serious game of hide-and-seek.
The 17-day program, called SERE for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape - taught O’Grady how to live off the land, remaining out of sight during the day and moving only at night to lead rescuers to his hiding place.
Eluding friendly Americans who played the aggressors was one thing. But getting out of Bosnia, where the Serbs were eager to capture an American as a possible hostage, was a triumph for his training.
Thus, as he celebrated O’Grady’s rescue Thursday, Adm. William Owens, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the 29-year-old fighter pilot “was trained well, learned his lessons and then executed his lessons when it mattered most.”
And Air Force Col. John Chapman, director of the SERE programs for all the armed services, described what O’Grady did as “virtually textbook.”
Lt. Cmdr. Paul Rochereto, a Marine Corps physician who examined O’Grady aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge in the Adriatic Sea, quoted the pilot as saying he had begun eating “bugs” and drinking rainwater after his initial survival rations had run out.
It was what he had been trained to do. And in briefings for reporters, delighted Pentagon officials outlined O’Grady’s survival techniques and the equipment that summoned his rescuers.
Until O’Grady tells his own story, no one will know for sure what happened after he parachuted into hostile territory. But military officials Thursday speculated about his ordeal based upon the training and equipment given to every combat pilot.
Key is the survival kit. Buried in the ejection seat, the kit is blasted free from the seat along with the pilot. As the seat itself falls away, a one-man raft is designed to inflate and sail behind him in the air at the end of a 35-to 40-foot rope. The kit is about halfway down the rope.
Survival gear includes an extra radio and battery, distress signal flares, a first-aid kit, a compass, a five-inch survival knife, drinking water, a blanket, matches, a strobe light and a beacon. Each survival kit also carries a survival manual tailored to the particular theater of operations.
The military plans for worst-case scenarios, so O’Grady carried still more survival gear in his vest. The vest held another radio, the PRC-112A, which he used to make contact with another F-16 pilot from his home base in Aviano, Italy, early Thursday morning.
O’Grady, whose mission was to enforce a UN-imposed “no fly zone,” also carried a global-positioning system receiver, camouflage, face paint and a small 9mm handgun. He had the weapon in his hand when he dashed out of the pine woods of northern Bosnia to the helicopter Thursday morning.
“He’s taught to get his chute and other equipment out of sight quickly and get the hell away from the area as soon as possible,” said Robert Dussault, the civilian deputy director of the SERE program. “He is taught to stay in the general vicinity of where he went down, but to remain hidden by day, using leaves, brush and caves or holes in the ground for cover. If he has to move, he is taught to move only at night, toward higher ground where his radio and his beacon will work better.”
O’Grady apparently turned on his homing beacon, which was heard intermittently. And he was trained to use his ground-to-air voice radio only infrequently, when he heard searchand-rescue aircraft in the vicinity. Using the radio too regularly and from the same vicinity risked bringing the Serbs to his location, Dussault said.
Besides the site at Fairchild Air Force Base where O’Grady was trained, the military services run several SERE camps in Maine, at Fort Belvoir in Virginia, and at the Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs, Colo.
The program, given to all pilots and intelligence agents who might find themselves lost in hostile areas, includes about 10 days of harsh instruction on how to behave if captured by an “aggressor.”
Often the instructors act as prison guards - harassing, insulting, interrogating and even subjecting trainees to some form of physical discomfort and solitary confinement. That has gotten the program into occasional trouble when trainees charge mistreatment by overeager instructors. Last month an ABC television program reported cases of beatings of cadets and the mock rape and sexual mistreatment of women at the Air Force Academy’s program.
Following the mock prison camp experience, students are taken into the field with instructors who show them how to hide, move and forage for water, plants and insects that can sustain life. The instructors, Chapman said, “try to get you over your food aversions.” Then, the students are turned loose to survive on their own for two or three days while being hunted. O’Grady didn’t get caught.
“If the student is really smart, in the real situation, he’ll head for an area where a helicopter can land,” said Dussault. “That is exactly what happened.”