The art of survival

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Daniel E. Liddicoet
  • 49th Wing Public Affairs
Survival is the foundation of all human instinct, yet for many, the struggle for life is composed of skills rarely used or long forgotten, skills all but replaced by the modern comforts of the 21st century.

Jack London once wrote, "I'd rather sing one wild song and burst my heart with it, than live a thousand years watching my digestion and being afraid of the wet."

Those same sentiments are echoed today by Tech. Sgt. Daniel Roman, 49th Operations Support Squadron survival, evasion, resistance and escape specialist, as he faces the challenges found in hostile and captive environments head on.

"The primary mission for me at Holloman AFB is to train aircrew members and make them combat ready and prepared for flight," he said. "I train them in local area survival, which entails teaching them about indigenous species of plants, how to collect water, the items in their survival kit, and how to utilize them. My job is to teach them what to do in case their aircraft ever goes down in the desert."

For Roman, a 13 year journey through the Air Force began as a trainee in basic military training, on the edge of his seat as a SERE specialist briefed an ever-shrinking group of hopefuls on the rigors they might soon encounter.

"When I joined the Air Force, I knew I wanted to do something challenging, something that would push me to my limits," he explained. "I just didn't know exactly what. When I first heard the briefing on SERE in BMT, I was sold, ready to give it all I had."

Becoming a SERE specialist entails a series of some of the most gut-wrenching and thorough training the military has to offer. Airmen train to become masters in the four major disciplines of survival, evasion, resistance and escape. To Roman, the skills he learned manifested themselves through a comprehensive understanding of improvisation, and the instinct to make life or death decisions without hesitation.

"Basically we are trained to be MacGyver," he jested, "to figure how to pick a lock and hot wire a car with an avocado heart and some duct tape. Once we learn those skills, the most important part of our job is to teach it to others."

The coveted pewter green beret worn by all SERE specialists upon graduation, comes with a price tag too steep for most. Training begins with an indoctrination phase at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, where trainees are pushed to their physical limits, and are mentally strained through a barrage of improvisation exercises. This phase accounts for the largest majority of drop-outs.

"It's about dedication," said Roman. "It's about enduring and pushing through the suck. You have to be able to make whatever you need out of whatever you have."

After making it through the initial indoctrination course, the real test for Roman had only just begun. Moving on from Lackland AFB, SERE students travel to Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., for more hands-on, field-based training exercises.

Fairchild AFB is ideal because of the large diversity of biomes in the state of Washington. Trainees can learn how to live, travel, evade, and personally recover in temperate, tropical, desert, open ocean, and arctic environments.

"We set up permanent camps," Roman described, "and trained on how to travel in different environments. For instance, if you're travelling through deep snow, you may have to improvise snow shoes out of tree branches. We traversed through the hot sands and high winds of the desert, as well as the lush vegetation of tropical environments, where we learned how to find animal trails and hack our way through the thick brush. We also had the barren arctic, with almost nothing there, no vegetation, no animal life, nothing. So we had to build snow caves to survive."

"Then we learned how to evade all those environments as well, where the best places to hide were, how to conceal our movement and foot prints, and much more. For example, if you're in a deep snowy environment, you're not going to be able to hide your foot print, so the best thing you can do is disguise them by putting cloth on the sole of your boot. In the desert, you can walk on the wind side instead of the leeward side, so the wind can naturally obscure your boot print."

Beyond the physical exhaustion brought on by days of training in the field, SERE students are also expected to complete traditional classroom activities. Public speaking is an essential skill honed by all SERE specialists throughout their technical training.

The men and women who undergo the process of becoming a SERE specialist are tested on nearly every level, taxed beyond points they never knew they could reach. In the end, the training they receive teaches them to conquer weakness within themselves, and gives them the confidence to cope with almost any scenario.

"I'd say the most difficult aspect of it all was the sleep deprivation," he recalls. "We had an entire week where our whole job was to improvise materials for our field training. During the day we were doing PowerPoint slides, learning all about surviving in the next phase, and then after work and physical training, we had to go back and do all of our assignments. Over the entire week I may have gotten two and a half hours of sleep, just from sneaking in naps at lunch. It got so bad that sometimes I would hallucinate. They do that to push you to your limits, and to show you what it's like to deal with sleep deprivation and still be effective."

The trials and tribulations of SERE ultimately helped imbue Roman with the wisdom and authority to pass along all that he had learned.

"It's so important that we go through all of this so that we can translate the difficulties to our students," he explains. "All SERE specialists know what it's like to be dehydrated, hungry and tired, and we can speak from a place of experience about how to function through that."

The skills Roman has acquired allow him to contribute in many unique ways outside the parameters of his day-to-day mission. In addition to training aircrew members at Holloman AFB, he also assists Civil Air Patrol, Boy Scout troops and local search and rescue organizations.

Inspiration has come from many places in Roman's life, but words once spoken by Gunnery Sgt. Paul McKenna and India Company have always resonated for him:

"Today I have given all that I can give. That which I have kept I have lost forever. Today I've given all, everything I had, my heart, blood and soul.''