NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — Staff Sgt. Tim Emkey sat back in his chair clicking slowly through a slide presentation behind a small group of Airmen assembled around a table. “Can anybody tell me the two types of frostbite,” he asked
Blank stares were exchanged among the six Airmen of the 66th Rescue Squadron sitting in a dark room illuminated only by a projector screen. Multicam back backs, headlamps and radio equipment were strewn out on the table in preparation for the long night ahead. Finally somebody spoke up.
“Bad and worse?” replied Capt. Alex Sira, 66th RQS HH-60 Pave Hawk pilot, with a grin on his face. Muffled laughter filled the room.
Considering our environment and the task set before us, the thought of frostbite seemed laughable. Triple-digit temperatures are the norm in southern Nevada during the summer months, and even in the dead of night you won’t see much below 80 Fahrenheit.
Among other topics discussed during the evening’s safety brief was water purification techniques, how to properly eat a venomous snake without being poisoned, and how to find the North Star. The six aviators were also reminded that while capturing insects for emergency sustenance they should always look for three body parts and six legs; indicators of an excellent source of protein. For some reason, the notion of relying on bugs as the only source of nutrition wasn’t quite as humorous as getting frostbite in the torrid Nevada desert.
This rather unconventional safety brief is given by the survival, evasion, resistance and escape specialists of the 57th Operations Support Squadron preceding every Combat Survival Training refresher course held in the mountains just east of Nellis AFB. The high temperatures and rocky mountain terrain offer the perfect environment for simulating the challenges associated with current areas of conflict like Afghanistan.
“We are a one-stop-shop for providing skills and hands-on training to [service members] who’ve been determined to have a high risk of isolation,” said Staff Sgt. David Janossy, 57th OSS SERE specialist. “We give them the skills to survive isolation, evade the enemy, resist if they do become captives and escape with honor.”
The course we’d be experiencing that evening would be a condensed version of the full 19-day SERE course administered at Fairchild AFB, Wash., in the next 12 hours. The training scenario seemed simple enough.
Our helicopter was to be “shot down” somewhere in the remote hills of Afghanistan, and we’d have to work together to make our way to an extraction point.
But SERE instructors don’t have a reputation for making things easy.
Gear was packed, batteries were checked and straps were pulled tight as the aircrew piled into two pickup trucks and headed east. The brilliant lights of Las Vegas were cloaked all at once as we made our way down a twisting road flanked by jagged rock. The only evidence that remained of the city we left was the perpetual glow it cast through the sky.
The world around us was black.
Without warning the trucks pulled off the side of the winding road and stopped just yards later.
“Get out,” said the driver.
Tailgates dropped and the crew grabbed all their gear, rushing to follow the instructor who had already started off on his way into the night. For the first half of the course, the crew would be accompanied by an instructor who would monitor reactions to stressful situations and offer guidance to set students up for success. Midway through the night, however, an event would take place that would leave the crew to its own devices. Its success would depend on how well they work together implementing the skills taught during the course.
We followed the instructor about a half mile into the desert before a faint whistle pierced the midnight silence.
Just behind us, a deafening explosion lit up the landscape. Heads spun back around and rifles came up as the entire crew dropped to one knee, readying themselves to respond to the next threat. Nobody expected the challenges to come so suddenly.
In the commotion, Janossy appeared out of the black and began shouting directions to the students who had finally made their way into a small trench for some cover. Janossy had been hiding within feet of our path among the rocks and bushes.
We walked right past him.
“Your right arm is now partially severed at the elbow,” Janossy shouted to the students huddled against the trench. “You have three minutes to properly apply a tourniquet and save your own life; your time starts now!”
The students regained their wits and quickly sprang into action. In about 90 seconds, each one of them had successfully applied the life-saving tourniquet, and we were ready to continue.
Guided by Janossy, we pressed further into the desert searching for a position from which we could defend ourselves against enemy pursuers and establish communications with friendly forces. Along the way, Janossy urged the crew to avoid the normal human instinct to run downhill in times of panic – instead it would offer us a tactical advantage to work our way up.
A brilliant white light appeared in the valley below. It surveyed up and down the faces of the surrounding mountains coming dangerously close to our position more than once.
“Stay still, and don’t look at it,” Janossy said. “From that distance they’ll never see us in this camo, but your eyes are a reflective surface.”
And so we sat and waited silently; looking straight down into the dirt as the distant beam of light brushed across our position again and again.
Suddenly, short spurts of machine gun fire echoed through the hills followed by shouting in a foreign language.
“Did they find us? Are we being shot at? Who are they?”
As the chilling tune of gunshots continued through the valley, night vision goggles came out.
“Two [all-terrain vehicles] and three males with AK-47s,” said a crewmember, relaying information to his comrades. The crew had identified enemy combatants and had a huge decision to make; call in an airstrike that could potentially alert other enemies in the area to our presence or sneak on across the mountain hoping we had never been seen.
“Fire mission; fire mission,” Sira said, making the initial call for air support. As Sira made the call, the rest of the crew surveyed a map to identify their current position and provide coordinates for a bomb run on the unsuspecting combatants below.
The airstrike was a “Go.” For a moment the silence returned; the gunshots stopped, the radios went silent and nobody spoke.
The second explosion of the night was in our favor, and it produced a sound more powerful than any AK-47 ever could. Free from the oppression of the spotlight, the crew folded up maps, packed up radios and went on with their night.
Janossy’s guidance throughout the night changed the way the students thought about moving through the environment. Students were careful not to silhouette themselves at the crest of each hill and were mindful of maneuvering into any kind of choke point or depression. Every terrain feature inspired tactical thinking.
One dry riverbed in particular presented the evading air crew with a unique challenge. The original route mapped out by the Airmen landed them in a choke point where they’d have to move down into the riverbed located between two mountains, straight up the face of a mountain covered with loose rocks or through on a well-traveled path that put them at risk of detection.
“Every time we run this course students come to a dead stop here,” said Janossy as we watched the group discuss different possible roots. “I’ve seen students stop at this riverbed for an hour.” After much deliberation, a path was chosen that led us to an eventual ambush that marked the turning point of the course.
Thus far we had the benefit of traveling with a SERE instructor who knew the mountains like the back of his hand. No rock, cave, or tactic was new to him and until now he was there to correct mistakes. For the rest of the night we were on our own. No help. No hints. No mistakes.
The change of intensity was profound.
Our goal for the night was to get out. An extraction point was established, and it was up to us to get there undetected and without any losses.
We set off into the night again and immediately noticed the spotlights scanning a mountain opposite us. Capt. Bret Cove crawled his way to the crest of a hill and peered through his NVGs. One ATV sat dormant on a trail in the distance. Any human activity in the area was an ominous sign behind enemy lines, and where there are vehicles, there are people.
The lights continued sweeping motions across the cliffs as we approached the final mountain. Hiking over the last crest into the finish, we were met with a massive flat valley void of any foliage or terrain features; a death sentence for Americans on the run.
To add to the peril, a mass of blue and white lights at the end of the clearing indicated an enemy outpost.
“Fire mission; fire mission,” Sira was on the radio again ordering up another rain of fire because why not? It seemed to work so well last time.
“No air assets available,” said an authoritative voice on the other end. Everybody laughed under their breath; we knew it wouldn’t be so easy.
Our worries were confirmed when the lights from the enemy camp in the distance became drastically brighter.
“Here, take a look,” whispered Sira, handing me his NVGs and pulling out his map. I brought them to my face and looked out into a field of green and black. A convoy of vehicles departed the camp and headed across the valley towards us, turning on a road that ran parallel to our position. Seven men laid still in dead silence as two Humvees, one pickup truck and an ATV passed by just beneath our perch. Adrenaline pumping, we watched as the enemy convoy continued down the road unaware we were right on top of them.
We could breathe again.
The friendly voice in the radio instructed us to make our way down the mountain and into a narrow riverbed at the edge of the valley. Throughout the night we had covered 9.3 miles, and this was truly our first taste of flat ground.
Per the voice’s instructions, we headed south ducking behind the cover of the riverbed to a destination unknown. On flat ground our progress came easier; we had to be close.
“Get down and shut up!”
Cove dropped to his knees in front of me, and in an instant I was staring down the barrel of an M-4. A shadow man working behind helmet-mounted night vision goggles appeared from the bushes at our feet, and we hit the ground as quickly as gravity would permit.
“He’s American,” Cove turned and whispered to me with his face in the dirt. I still couldn’t believe how well orchestrated this whole event had been. I didn’t care if it was staged, every moment felt so real.
A second silent rescuer appeared from our right instructing us to follow him, and after a short sprint, we piled into two awaiting Humvees. We were out; on our way down the road to freedom to return home with honor as countless real American heroes had done before us after days, months , even years in real danger. In the 12 hours I experienced on the run, I could only hope to grasp a tiny fraction of the emotions they felt and the sacrifices they made.
The Humvee skidded to a stop, struggling for traction on the loose gravel as the deafening roar of machine guns filled the air. The SERE instructors thought we needed one last reminder that they are, and always will be, the true kings of the desert.