SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) is a U.S. military training program developed at the end of the Korean War to provide service members with training in the Code of Conduct, survival skills, evading capture, and dealing with being taken prisoner. It was created by the Air Force but was expanded to the Army and the Navy after the Vietnam War. The school is intended to train aircrews, special forces, and other service members who operate in dangerous areas and are thus more likely to be captured.
The flagship program is conducted by the Army’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (USAJFKSWCS—which Col. Wendell Fertig helped to found), at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The program was begun in 1981 under the supervision of LTC James "Nick" Rowe, a Special Forces officer who suffered under North Vietnamese captors for 62 months before escaping and evading to freedom (Five Years to Freedom). The primary Air Force SERE training location is Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington. The Navy SERE training is at NAS Brunswick, ME.
SERE at USAJFKSWCS is a 19-day intense course of instruction that is also Phase VI (last phase) of the Special Forces Qualification Course (the "Q course") in order for Army Special Forces candidates to receive the coveted Special Forces Tab. The course is taught 25 miles southwest of Ft. Bragg, NC at Camp Mackall.
The SERE training curriculum can be divided into three parts: "survival and evasion", "resistance and escape", and "water survival". The majority of SERE focuses on survival and evasion. Skills taught include wilderness survival (encompassing a wide scope of natural climates), emergency first aid (a variant of battlefield first aid), land navigation, camouflage techniques, evasion techniques, communication protocols, and the construction of improvised tools. This list is not comprehensive and some of the subject matter has been classified Secret by the United States Government.
The "Resistance and Escape" component of SERE focuses on resistance and survival in captivity. Despite constituting only a small portion of the whole training, it is often regarded as mysterious and controversial, despite, or perhaps because of, the dearth of verified information regarding its actual content. The majority of this portion of the course is classified Secret by the United States government. What is known about this portion of the course is that it is very unpleasant.
The remaining portion of SERE is Water Survival, a separate Professional Military Education (PME) course lasting two days and typically attended after the main SERE course. During the water survival portion, students are taught skills to enhance their ability to survive in an aquatic environment. Academic subjects covered include emergency first aid (tailored to an aquatic environment), communication protocols, ocean ecology, and equipment maintenance. The course also requires students to become familiar with and display proficiency using aquatic survival gear.
The actual techniques used in the school have been classified by the US government, but several official sites exist to give a general overview of the curricula. The training has been widely reported to provide a realistic simulation of harsh and abusive interrogation techniques. The SERE program has been reported to involve the following elements:
* extreme temperatures
* waterboarding - being tied to a board with the feet higher than the head and having water poured into the nose
* noise stress - playing very loud and disonant music and sound effects. Recordings have been reported to include babies wailing inconsolably, cats meowing, female orgasms, and irritating music (including a record by Yoko Ono)
* sexual embarrassment
* religious dilemma - given the choice of seeing a religious book desecrated or revealing secrets to interrogators.
* flag desecration
* prolonged cramped or restrictive confinement
* sleep deprivation/starvation
* excrement familiarization/humiliation
* mock execution
* overcoming food aversion (eating bugs, roadkill, dumpster diving, urine drinking)
* height/water/enclosed spaces
* physical beating
* "stress inoculation"
SERE at the U.S. Air Force Academy and the 1995 scandal
One of the U.S. Air Force's SERE training programs was conducted at the United States Air Force Academy from the late 1960's until 1995. Because a large number of pilots and other aircrew members graduated from the academy, it was more efficient for the Air Force to send all cadets through SERE training while they were still at the academy. Cadets would normally complete the training during the summer between their fourth-class (freshman) and third-class (sophomore) years. A number of selected second-class (junior) and first-class (senior) cadets would serve each year as SERE training cadre under the supervision of enlisted Air Force SERE instructors.
As a result of POWs' experiences during Operation Desert Storm, sexual assault resistance was added to the SERE curriculum. However, some of the training scenarios allegedly were taken too far by SERE cadre members at the academy during practical portions of the program. In 1995, the ABC television news program 20/20 reported that as many as 24 male and female cadets in 1993 had been allegedly sexually assaulted at the Academy during SERE training. One of the cadets sued the government, which eventually settled for a reported $3 million in damages.
As a result of the scandal, the SERE program at the Academy was reduced to the survival and evasion portions only, and called Combat Survival Training (CST). All graduates going on to aircrew positions were then required to attend the resistance portion of the training at Fairchild Air Force Base before reporting to an operational flying unit. The CST program was discontinued entirely in 2004. As of 2006, the training at the academy has not yet been reinstated in either form.
Use of SERE techniques in interrogation
In July 2005 an article in the New Yorker magazine alleged that SERE staff have been advising the military at Guantanamo Bay and other sites on interrogation techniques.
According to a November 14, 2005, New York Times op-ed column by law professors Gregg Bloche and Jonathan H. Marks, the Pentagon "flipped SERE's teachings on their head, mining the program not for resistance techniques but for interrogation methods. At a June 2004 briefing, the chief of the United States Southern Command, Gen. James T. Hill, said a team from Guantánamo went 'up to our SERE school and developed a list of techniques' for 'high-profile, high-value' detainees. General Hill had sent this list - which included prolonged isolation and sleep deprivation, stress positions, physical assault and the exploitation of detainees' phobias - to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who approved most of the tactics in December 2002."
The SERE program's chief psychologist, Col. Morgan Banks, issued guidance in early 2003 for the "behavioral science consultants" who helped to devise Guantánamo's interrogation strategy although he has emphatically denied that he had advocated the use of SERE counter-resistance techniques to break down detainees. The "New Yorker" notes that in November, 2001 Banks was detailed to Afghanistan, where he spent four months at Bagram Air Base, "supporting combat operations against Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters".
In June 2006 an article on Salon.com confirmed finding a document buried among 1,000 pages obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through the Freedom of Information Act. A March 22, 2005, sworn statement by the former chief of the Interrogation Control Element at Guantánamo said instructors from SERE taught their methods to interrogators of the prisoners in Cuba. The article also claims that SERE's physical and mental techniques mirror the treatment of some detainees at Abu Ghraib. And the statement of the interrogation chief and the interrogation logs of Mohamed al-Kahtani reveal many striking parallels.
According to Human Rights First, the interrogation that lead to the death of Iraqi Major General Abed Hamed Mowhoush involved the use of techniques learned in SERE training. According to the organization "Internal FBI memos and press reports have pointed to SERE training as the basis for some of the harshest techniques authorized for use on detainees by the Pentagon in 2002 and 2003."
SERE training is presented at three levels:
* Level A - Entry level training. All services personnel are provided this basic level training annually.
* Level B - For personnel operating (or anticipated to operate) forward of the division rear boundary and up to the "forward line of own troops" (FLOT). Normally limited to flight personnel of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.
* Level C - For troops at a high risk of capture and whose position, rank, or seniority make them vulnerable to greater than average exploitation efforts by a captor. Limited to Special Operations Forces (SOF) personnel only.
* Level D - For aircrews, but it has recently been phased out and all SERE-D students will undergo SERE-B training