Survival training reminds airmen how to avoid capture
TAMA HILLS, Japan — The fake grenade spewed purple smoke through the woods, surprising the troops.
“Get ’em! Quick! Get ’em!" shouted Staff Sgt. David Jewell.
He watched as 1st Lt. Don Perry and Capt. Joyce Hale scampered away from his shouts and flattened their bodies in the brush against wet leaves and mud.
His face a black moon of camouflage paint, Jewell looked every bit the enemy.
As an Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) instructor at Yokota Air Base, Japan, Jewell always tries to make SERE training realistic.
“The biggest problem with Air Force training, in my opinion, is that sometimes it lacks realism,” Jewell said Thursday from Tama Hills, a rugged, 250-acre outdoor recreation area near Tokyo.
“Out here, we try to avoid simulations as much as possible,” he said.
With one major exception, of course: “If I catch them, I’m not going to kill them,” Jewell said of his students.
The Air Force requires all personnel considered “high risk of capture” to complete SERE training every three years — a daylong refresher course focusing on combat search-and-rescue tactics. All air crewmembers are included.
For Perry, a C-130 co-pilot, and Hale, a flight nurse with the 374th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, Thursday’s drill was their first in the field since training school.
The training reminded Hale of grim possibilities she never thought about as a military ground nurse; Yokota is her first aeromedical assignment and the 374th AES flies all over the Pacific.
Perry and Hale were dropped off at a small opening in the trees at Tama, their pockets packed with basic survival and navigation gear, including a hand-held radio, map, a GPS device and compass. Together they had five hours to find a spot about six-tenths of a mile away, where rescuers would meet them. It’s a short distance, but it takes time to get oriented, and travel is supposed to be deliberate, slow and quiet.
Before Perry and Hale darted into the woods, Jewell set the scene:
“You just bailed out of a C-130 aircraft,” he said. “You both hit the ground and landed together. You know that there’s enemy — as you were coming down you observed them.”
Tama’s junglelike environment of dense forest, tangled vegetation, and on some days — like Thursday — rain, is an ideal training ground for most of the Pacific theater, Jewell said.
At Yokota, Jewell’s primary focus lies across the Sea of Japan — he gears his training toward “everything on the Korean Peninsula,” he said. But, he can teach his students to survive and evade capture in any environment.
Jewell’s students learn that the best chance of rescue is within the first three hours of bailing or ditching an aircraft in hostile territory.
Jewell is one of two SERE instructors on mainland Japan; the other is assigned to Misawa Air Base.
SERE instruction includes code-of-conduct training: “If you get captured, what are you allowed to say, what are you allowed to do?” Jewell explained of the code. “That is the last resort.”
Often, Jewell and Staff Sgt. Calvin Warner, a life support officer with the 374th Airlift Wing who assists with SERE training, will try to find their students. Sometimes a cough, snapping twigs or talking provide clues.
“If they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing, we don’t see them at all,” Jewell said.
Most students pass; if they don’t, they have until Dec. 31 of each year to complete the training or they can’t fly, Jewell said.
On Thursday, Perry and Hale made every effort to stay concealed, even rubbing mud all over their flight suit, face, neck and hands, as they were trained.
“We always think it’s not going to happen to us, but there are plenty of people who have proven that, you know, it does happen, their plane goes down, or they get captured and you’ve got to find your way,” Hale said.