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Lessons in survival

Sun., Aug. 26, 2007, midnight

The Survival School at Fairchild Air Force Base, created in 1966 to train downed pilots to survive captivity during the Cold War, has a newly expanded mission in the ongoing “war on terrorism.”

Millions of tax dollars are being spent on new facilities at the Survival School as the military vigorously recruits new instructors. Glossy color brochures promise college credits and enlistment bonuses “worth thousands of dollars” to trainees who make it through the rigorous advanced course and become survival specialists.

“We are in a growth business in today’s world,” said Col. Jeffrey White, commander of the 336th Training Group, which puts more than 10,000 people each year through the school’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training.

Since January, the program has expanded beyond its previous mission to provide general training for those who are captured during war by an enemy that doesn’t honor the Geneva Conventions on the humane treatment of prisoners.

Military instructors and civilian contractors are now teaching new skills for “asymmetrical warfare” in a post-Sept. 11 world with a shadowy enemy in Iraq, Afghanistan and other world hot spots. That enemy detonates roadside bombs, kidnaps diplomats and humanitarian aid workers, and targets soldiers and contractors to use as leverage in hostage demands.

“It’s not just wartime training that’s necessary now; we are teaching our folks that it’s a dangerous world out there,” White said in a recent briefing for The Spokesman-Review.

The new training has three components: peacetime government hostage scenarios, such as the 2001 detention of a Navy spy plane in China; “resistance training” for prisoners of war; and hostage detention in wartime.

SERE resistance training also includes a mock prisoner-of-war camp. The camp used to be modeled after a Soviet-style or Vietnam-era prison but now is geared toward Middle East terrorism.The military describes its training as a confidence-building measure, distancing itself from the controversial use of “reverse-engineered” SERE tactics against al-Qaida members at secret CIA “black” sites – the focus of a current Senate Armed Services Committee investigation.

In addition to Americans, the Survival School’s SERE specialists now train coalition forces including British, Canadian and Australian military personnel.

SERE specialists are regularly teamed with combat rescue officers and parachute experts in a rapid-response group the Air Force calls “Guardian Angels.” Their training includes six months of advanced work at Fairchild’s Survival School.

Guardian Angels have saved 614 lives, including recoveries in the Horn of Africa, Colombia, Iraq and Afghanistan, according to White. Some 34 SERE specialists were deployed on worldwide rescue missions last year and about 15 at a time are located in war zones, he said. The program trained more than 20,000 “high risk of capture” personnel from all military branches last year.

While air crews used to be at the highest risk of capture, the most vulnerable now are truck drivers, embassy guards and military civil affairs officers, White said.

“Anytime anybody is lost or isolated, our people are involved,” he said. “The No. 1 priority is never, ever to leave anyone behind.”

Telling their story

Master Sgt. William Frye, a 38-year-old SERE specialist, recently returned to Fairchild after four years of duty at Ramstein Air Base in Germany where he was involved in the “re-integration” of approximately 15 military and civilian personnel who were held hostage or “went missing.” Security restrictions prevent him from discussing specific cases.

“We listen to them tell their story, start to finish,” Frye said. “They’ve gone through a significant event, and this helps them decompress and readjust. Most of them are eager to get back to their jobs.”

Debriefing for most former hostages lasts five days, resulting in a detailed report that sometimes leads to modifications in the training courses at Fairchild and other survival schools.

Fairchild’s school and four other SERE programs run by the Army and Navy are overseen by the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, a highly classified program with a large facility north of Airway Heights and offices on the Fairchild base. The agency also provides advanced SERE training for other federal agencies, White said.

Because of the increased demand for military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001, the Air Force can’t find enough SERE instructors. It has had to resort to paying private contractors to fill positions at the Survival School, said 1st Lt. Tristan Hinderliter, deputy chief of public affairs at Fairchild.

SERE specialists who retire or leave the Air Force are quickly scooped up by contractors such as SERE Solutions Inc., a private Spokane business with a $4 million contract at Fairchild, and Tate Inc., based in Germantown, Md.

Other former SERE instructors, such as Spokane-based psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, form private companies that get lucrative contracts – reportedly as much as $1,000 a day plus expenses – to do work for other agencies including the CIA and FBI.

The work of Mitchell Jessen & Associates, headquartered in downtown Spokane, is drawing attention from Senate investigators probing abusive interrogation techniques at Guantanamo and top-secret CIA sites.

At those sites, SERE techniques were altered to extract information from al-Qaida leaders, according to a recent report by the Pentagon’s inspector general.

But at the Fairchild Survival School, White said, the instruction is about building confidence and teaching military personnel about the harsh conditions they might experience in captivity.

“You can take this training and make it negative, but that’s not our intent,” White said. “We are not here to break people down, but to give them the confidence and skill levels they may need to survive if taken captive.”

While White is eager to describe the survival component of SERE training, which takes place on base and in varied terrains on the Olympic Peninsula, in the desert near Yakima and Vantage, on the Oregon coast and in the mountains near Colville, he largely avoids questions about the evasion, resistance and escape elements of the program.

Much of that training, including a mock prisoner-of-war camp at the Survival School, is classified. Two military psychologists and three technicians observe and analyze the interaction between the trainees and their instructors, who portray interrogators.

“Everything is filmed in resistance training. The films are classified. We manage time and sensory experience,” White said.

Behind a barbed-wire fence in the remote southeast corner of the Air Force base, local contractors are building an $8.1 million resistance training facility to replace some of the older buildings. In addition, $2 million is being spent on the renovation of a gym for the school. Future plans include a bigger “water survival facility,” including a large pool where instructors can simulate noises from a plane crash in the dark.

‘Environment of captivity’

Visitors are welcome at a museum and briefing room at the Survival School, but not at the resistance training site. But two Spokane professionals who met at the school in the 1970s offered some insight into the resistance training used at that time.

Mark Mays was an Air Force captain – the first psychologist hired for the Survival School. Bob Dunn, now a Spokane trial lawyer, was an Air Force staff sergeant and a SERE instructor from 1973 to 1979.

The Vietnam War had ended, and the Air Force wanted to learn more about the prisoner of war experience endured by American pilots by exploring the “environment of captivity,” Mays said.

Survival School trainees had to spend time in a dark box, where they experienced sensory deprivation, he said.

“Some found it very difficult,” Mays said. “Sometimes, when people got stressed, they’d pull them out of the box. They were hooded, and there was background noise. They knew it was pretend, but they could still get upset. Some got claustrophobic.”

Training to be a SERE interrogator involved hours of academics, Dunn said. He studied the French-Vietnamese conflict, the Nazi methods of interrogating Russians and Jews, and other examples from Vietnam and Korea.

Dunn met Jim Shively, the late assistant U.S. attorney from Spokane who was shot down and tortured in Vietnam and incarcerated in the Hanoi Hilton, the nickname for the central camp where U.S. prisoners of war were held.

“He was a guest instructor,” Dunn said. “Every session ended with a Jim Shively movie on what happened at the Hanoi Hilton. It’s still classified.”

Most of the techniques now being used against al-Qaida suspects at Guantanamo and other sites are learned in the SERE program – including waterboarding, sensory deprivation and sexual humiliation, Dunn said. But the training is for a far different purpose, he added.

“It’s no secret that resistance training is to introduce the student to potential tactics the enemy might use,” Dunn said.

He doesn’t approve of some of the techniques now being used against suspected enemy combatants – in part because they are ineffective, he said.

Abusive interrogation techniques captured in digital images at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad were “way over the line. I shook my head when I saw those photos,” he said.

Brutal treatment can get people to talk, but the quality of the information is questionable, Dunn said.

“I did 2,000 interrogations,” Dunn said. “Some people can be cajoled. Others must be threatened. Every interrogation is unique. The more critical question is, ‘who’s watching the interrogators?’ ”

That was Mays’ task as a supervising psychologist.

“My job was to supervise the interviewers so they didn’t get out of hand,” Mays said.

At that time, the potential for abuse by interrogators had already been explored in a famous Stanford University psychological experiment in 1971 where student volunteers were divided into guards and prisoners in a mock jail on the Palo Alto campus, Mays said.

Within days, the “guards” became highly abusive to their “captives” – stripping them naked at night and sexually threatening them – and the experiment had to be halted.

“It found the big change was in the people who had control,” Dunn said.

In contrast, the Fairchild SERE program was well-structured and disciplined, Mays said.

“This was not ‘Lord of the Flies.’ It was an attempt to run a fire drill for people, to help them learn what to expect if captured. It was wise and appropriate,” he added.

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