In this excerpt from “The Making of a Navy SEAL: My story of Surviving the Toughest Challenge and Training the Best,” retired Navy SEAL and editor-in-chief of SOFREP.com, Brandon Webb describes what it’s like to attend SERE training, the school that prepares America’s elite soldiers to survive if they are captured.
In January 1994 I reported to Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Ten (HS-10), the helicopter training squadron in San Diego.
There, I would learn the ropes before finally deploying as part of an operational squadron. However, there were a few more hurdles to clear first.
Before you can become a pilot or rescue swimmer, or take any other job where there is significant risk of capture, you need two things. You have to have secret clearance, and you have to go to survival school.
The term “boot camp” was first used by the marines back in World War II. “Boot” is slang for “recruit.” Those of us who showed up for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training that January had already been through many month of training. But we were still considered “boots.” SERE was boot camp on steroids.
The program’s aim is to equip its trainees with the skills and the grit needed to survive with dignity in the most hostile conditions of captivity. It was far and away the most intense training I’d encountered so far.
We spent a week of classroom training that included learning how to tell a captor just enough to stay alive — but not enough to give away secrets. Then we headed out into the field.
There was a simulated prisoner of war (POW) camp portion of the training. I was no longer Brandon Webb. I was now War Criminal 53.
There were two rules here, and you learned them pretty fast. “Grab your rags!” and “Eyes to the ground!” The first meant grab the sides of your pants so the guards could see your hands at all times.
The second was to ensure that we war criminals did not look around and gain any awareness of our surroundings that we might use to our advantage later.
I was assigned to a small concrete box, and three feet tall, though somewhat larger in width and depth (thank heavens). I crawled in and did my best to find a comfortable position.
Hunching down a bit, I could just manage to sit cross-legged, sort of. I am not a tall man. Right then, I was grateful for this fact.
My bathroom was a Folgers coffee can. The box has a little canvas flap I could pull down for a little privacy when it came time to use the can.
This was my home for the next three days.
I wondered what would happen next. It wasn’t that terrible being crammed into this ridiculous box, but I wanted them to haul me out and start interrogating me.
Let’s get this over with, I thought.
As the hours crawled by, a sort of routine began to establish itself. People were randomly selected (at least it seemed that way to me), pulled out of their boxes, and taken away into the night. A short while later, we would hear screams. Then the music would start: bad songs, the worst, over and over. Other times it would be a recording of a little girl pleading for her daddy to come home. Whatever it was they played on the loudspeakers, it would go on for hours. When daybreak came this routine continued.
My most vivid memory of time in the camp was being crammed into another tiny box, this one of wood and no more than three feet in all dimensions. This wonderful location would be my accommodations for the next few hours while they subjected me to the interrogation portion. (Be careful what you wish for.)
I’ve never had a problem with small spaces, but when I was stuffed into that box (yes, stuffed), my left leg started to cramp. This was the kind of cramp you can quickly relieve simply by straightening out your leg. But in that box, there was no straightening anything out. That leg cramp — and even more, my complete and utter inability to do anything about it — drove me near to insanity. It took everything I had to keep it together.
During the course of these three days we learned a lesson that has been learned the hard way by real POWs: in any prisoner of war situation, the goal is to survive with honour. More than a few people failed out for completely losing their cool or getting “executed” for acting out.
Three days doesn’t sound like a very long time, and under normal, everyday circumstances, it’s not — but under POW camp conditions, it doesn’t take long to wear down a man’s sanity.
After day three we were liberated from the camp and debriefed on our POW experience. We had been carefully watched the entire time. I was happy to find out I did pretty well.
Now all I had to do was figure out how to get to BUD/S.
Republished with permission from The Making of a Navy SEAL by Brandon Webb. Copyright © 2015 by Brandon Webb and John David Mann. Reprinted by arrangement with St. Martin’s Press. All rights reserved.
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