What is it like to go through Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) School?

Military members share their experience and memories of SERE school

What is it like to go through Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) School?

Staff Sgt. Andy Craig, a Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape specialist with the 304th Rescue Squadron, discusses the survival tools he brings with him during operations as part of SERE refresher training during RIMPAC at the Pohakuloa Training Area, Hawaii, July 18, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by 2nd Lt. Jaclyn Pienkowski/Released)

By Military1 Staff

A question recently posted on Quora asked, “What is it like to go through SERE school?” Check out these answers and add your insight in the comment section below.

Matthew Downer, USMC veteran

We could tell you, but then we'd... be in violation of a non-disclosure agreement.

That said, I will share some of my thoughts without straying into the confidential portions. I know various portions are in the open domain already through autobiographies and the like. I take the NDA seriously not because I'm worried they'll come after me or something, but because SERE is an excellent and important training program that substantially depends upon those in training not knowing what to expect.

I attended the Navy's two-week SERE school in December 2009 before deploying with a Marine Reconnaissance Battalion to Afghanistan in 2010. Other services have their own versions and I am not entirely sure how much they differ. Our class was a mix of Marine and Navy personnel. The Marines were mostly from the Reconnaissance and MARSOC communities while the Navy personnel ranged from air crew to EOD to SEALs (while the SEALs developed their own SERE program at some point, they still send some of their personnel through the Navy's program). The training is broken into two segments: the first week is classroom instruction and the second week is application in the field.

The instruction covered our legal and ethical obligations as members of the American military in various types of hostile control scenarios: ranging from a POW camp in WWII (i.e. The Great Escape) to being captured by rogue hostiles (Black Hawk Down) or terrorists (Homeland)). We were also taught various strategies to employ while being interrogated. The week of instruction was very laid back throughout.

The week of field application was a mix of low intensity learning to high intensity "application" all heightened by continual food and sleep deprivation. Also, they limit everyone to entirely insufficient warming gear for high altitude California in December. We were taught various types of wilderness survival and basic land navigation (mainly for the air crew types). This part was actually pretty enjoyable for those who were used to operating in harsh conditions. The material was interesting and the great outdoors beats an office any day, the gnawing hunger, unyielding cold, and insufficient sleep notwithstanding. The field learning portion soon gave way to the field application portion, which included increasing degrees of exertion, stress, disorientation, and pain.

Without giving too much away, we had the opportunity to apply what we had learned in surprisingly realistic scenarios. When you read about the "enhanced interrogation techniques" adopted after 9/11 against enemy combatants (some of which have since been discontinued), they were adapted from the techniques that had long been in use in SERE school. My class was one of the first* after water-boarding was discontinued. We were actually disappointed, which will seem crazy to some and understandable to others. Nevertheless, the remaining techniques were designed to disorient, break-down, isolate, and exploit us in our weakened state. Regardless of how successfully you apply what you've learned, everyone is pretty miserable.

When the training finally ended, they gave us a brief about the physical and even mental/emotional injuries that we were likely to have. They told us that nightmares and hallucinations were likely the first night or two but that if they, or the physical pain, continued that we should let them know. I didn't think I had any hallucinations but my wife begged to differ. Everyone lost substantial weight. I think 10 lbs for me. To prevent us from gorging ourselves right away, they eased us back onto food for a day before we were left to our own devices.

One of the best things about the Marine Corps is that it makes you appreciate the little things in life. Being warm. Sleeping in a bed. Having a hot meal. Most  Americans don't stop to appreciate or enjoy these luxuries throughout the day. But after an experience like SERE (or really most of the other training schools I attended ranging from OCS to the Infantry Officer Course to parts of the Basic Reconnaissance Course), it's impossible not to savor the simple and wonderful things that we otherwise take for granted.


Sam Morningstar, veteran

There are aspects that cannot be discussed obviously, but I'd just describe it in rather vague terms: it is an intense and hands-on training scenario.

The purpose of the training is to simulate survival situations (e.g. avoiding capture, or conducting oneself according to a code of conduct if captured, basic combat search and rescue protocols), so it is far from pleasant. But, the thing is it is designed to impart this knowledge to the trainees. It isn't like Ranger school or HALO, combat diver, etc. where a person will get tabbed or attain their wings, so they have to make it through an intense selection process and there is a high washout rate. SERE is a different kind of training - basically  for people that are already assigned to careerfields with an elevated or high risk of capture. It also provides an introduction to combat search and rescue techniques that an individual may continue drilling and training in throughout their careers. So, it can simply be an intense introductory course for some.

Because of the nature of this training and how it is designed (and the professionalism of the SERE instructors) most people do just fine. It may weed out a few people here and there, but the majority will get through it and be stronger and better trained after the whole ordeal. I went through numerous SERE courses and actually enjoyed them all.