PEND OREILLE COUNTY, Wash –
In the far Northwest of America, winter can be unforgiving. That’s why the Colville National is the perfect place to train the military.
“If something bad happens, if a plane goes down, if we hear about a pilot being alone in the middle of Africa or wherever it may be in the world, we want them to have the best chance of survival,” said SERE Specialist, Senior Airman Carlos Sanchez. “Anyone who’s up in the air goes through this course as well as special operations airmen.”
The training Sanchez is referring to is called SERE, which stands for survival, evasion, resistance, and escape.
“Anyone who’s in danger at some point, whether in their mission or career, they may be alone somewhere where they need to survive. They need to come through this course,” said Sanchez. “We need to make sure they’re prepared if the worst happens so they can get home safely.”
The training takes place over the course of five days. Recruits must learn how to survive in the steep mountain terrain of the Colville National Forest. This time of the year it’s snowing, and for many of the recruits, it’s an alien world.
“This is probably the first time I’ve camped overnight more than once or twice,” said Capt. Jaymi Black. “We’ve learned tons of different things that I would never even think that I would learn in the Air Force and I know it’s going to help me in my future job.”
“This is the first time wearing snowshoes,” said 1st Lt., Tim Turner. “I think the most snow I’ve ever seen before this was six inches so this is different.”
Over the course of their training, recruits will learn how to navigate using their compass and map. This is important for evading enemy pursuit as well as being able to provide coordinates to rescue crews.
Students also learn how to build a fire and shelter using the basic tools they carry with them.
“When you build a fire, the work part of it warms you up,” said Sanchez. “So we try to teach them the faster you work the more healthy [they will be] and those warm conditions you will be at.”
Throughout the course of training, recruits will also learn how to relay their exact location to a helicopter pilot.
Students will start by creating signals using a variety of materials including colorful tarps, an American flag, tree branches, and by writing in the snow.
Building the signals can be hard work because recruits must hike to a peak high enough to be spotted.
“It needs to be challenging for them,” said Sanchez. “We need to see the high peaks, the low peaks, and the steep terrain. All of that needs to be trained for them so ideally, this is a good spot for them.”
“We walked a lot farther than I thought we were going to walk,” said Turner. “A lot of up and down. We eventually got to camp pretty late and we had to dig through all this snow. It was a lot of work.”
Once a signal is built, recruits will use a radio to give the helicopter pilot their coordinates using a compass.
“I haven’t really had training like this before and I’m not used to situations like this,” said A1C, David Anderson. “I think it’s setting me up for a good future.”
By the fifth day, instructors will leave recruits who must evade capture and get rescued.
The training is difficult, but students who make it through prove they can survive in any situation.
“We feel like we fail a student if we don’t teach them everything we have,” said Sanchez. “All the training we go through to make sure someone can survive and ultimately make it back home to our families.”