It has been almost 65 years since Staff Sgt. Esther Blake became the “first woman in the Air Force”, and paved the way for countless women to come after her. Women have joined the U.S. Air Force under various career fields, and many hold jobs that are genuinely considered male-only fields. This series will recognize these pioneering women who are leading the way for future female Airmen and the Air Force in general.
Master Sgt. Karen Rogers is a survival, evasion, resistance and escape specialist with the 612th Air Operations Center. She has traveled over the world training American and foreign military members in SERE techniques. She is also currently one of only five female SERE specialists in the Air Force.
For almost 16 years, she has trained personnel in the fundamentals of SERE and orchestration and planning of recovering isolated personnel. Her career as a SERE specialist began at basic military training.
“I joined the military to experience new things, and they were recruiting out of basic training at the time,” Rogers said. “They showed all basic trainees a video, and everything in the video was something that I had never done. So, I said, ‘Let’s give it a try.’”
Survival, evasion, resistance and escape specialists begin their schooling in the SERE indoctrination course. They do physical training and get a little experience teaching. The potential SERE specialists also go out to the field for testing.
“The instructors get to see if you have what it takes to be a SERE specialist,” Rogers said, “You also get to see if this is really what you want to do.”
The trainees build shelters, learn how to build fires, navigate and even learn to hunt for their own food by snaring and, as humanely as possible, killing an animal.
“It was different,” Rogers said. “It wasn’t bad. It was the first thing that I had ever killed, other than bugs. It was interesting. We got to experience our first lesson in overcoming aversion.”
After INDOC, SERE specialists go to Fairchild AFB, Wash. to attend technical school. It is here that, for five and a half months, they go through several phases and environments in their training. They learn to survive in arctic, tropical, coastal, and water environments, as well as learn how to teach survival in those environments.
Survival, evasion, resistance and escape is a unique career field in which the specialists become instructors straight out of technical school.
“I love instructing,” Rogers said. “That is part of what, I think, keeps people doing what we do. You’re teaching people stuff that is going to potentially save their lives.”
After graduating from technical school, SERE specialists go through up to six months of on-the-job training. The new SERE specialists are accompanied by a trainer to ensure that students are being instructed properly and given the correct information, as well as give pointers to the SERE specialists.
All of the students that go through level C SERE training receive guidance in everything from building a fire to evading capture and resistance training.
“In every class, you get people, from places like inner-city New York, that have never seen a tree outside of a park, so they’re extremely intimidated when they go out to the field,” Rogers said. “They don’t know how to light a fire, and it may even take them the entire week they are out there to learn how to do it, but just seeing the light bulb come on when they finally get it makes our job worth it.”
Survival, evasion, resistance and escape is a very unique job and grants its specialists a distinct degree of recognition. Being one of five female SERE specialists grants an even greater level of unicity.
“It’s high visibility,” Rogers said. “When people see the beret and the arch, they tend to strike up conversation quite a bit. You have to be outgoing, which you have to be in this career field anyway.”
Rogers said the career field has opened many doors and opportunities for her. She has been to Panama, Honduras and Korea, and she even went to New Zealand as part of a six-man team to train instructors for the New Zealand army’s Resistance to Interrogation course. She was allowed to be an undershirt for the 355th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron here, and she even gets to mentor a few females outside of her unit on base, who contact her because of her career field.
“The number one question I get from people is ‘What does your beret mean?’ followed by ‘I didn’t know females were allowed in SERE,’” Rogers said. “I get emails, probably on a weekly basis, from females here who want to cross train into SERE saying, ‘What do I need to do to get into that?’ I just try to get the word out that we need and want females in the career field. There are no differences in standards. They have to pass the same fit test as the guys, but it’s doable. I think everyone should do the job.”