Location: Somewhere near Rangeley, Maine.

Time: 0800

Instructors’ names have been changed to protect their identities.

While most people think the Navy left Maine when Brunswick Naval Air Station closed, there’s a small contingent in the western Maine woods quietly working with one mission in mind: to make sure every sailor and Marine makes it home when things go terribly wrong.

On this March morning, the air temperature was a bone-chilling 13 degrees as the 48 students awoke following a restless night in one of several Adirondack shacks at the school. Following four days of academics in Kittery, they were shipped out to the field for hands-on training as part of the Navy Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape School.

SERE is a school for military personnel who are designated as high-risk for capture, such as air crew and those working ground operations in potentially hostile areas. SERE gives them the tools they need to return with honor and dignity should they find themselves behind enemy lines.


On day one, the students will say goodbye to their unheated humble abodes and construct their own shelters in the woods with whatever Mother Nature provides. That means snow — lots of snow.

The Navy SERE School was established in Maine in 1961. Its mission: “To provide sailors and Marines with the technical knowledge, practical application and personal confidence necessary for survival, evasion, resistance and escape in all scenarios of captivity and to provide them with a thorough understanding of their responsibilities under the Code of Conduct and their rights under the Geneva Convention. To develop insight into the personal resourcefulness necessary to endure, preserve dignity and exploit every means of relief or escape from hostile captivity and return with honor.”

The assistant officer in charge, Sheldon Prosser, is a civilian employee. Prior to his retirement from the Navy, Prosser had been the officer in charge. He is in his 11th year at the school.

Driving down a long dirt road to the SERE winter classroom, designated “Alpha,” Prosser said students spend about seven days in the field before going back to Kittery for a day of debriefing. He said the school holds 23 classes a year with a maximum of 62 students per class. To date, SERE has graduated more than 56,000 students.

At Alpha, students fill canteens from a hole in the ice at a nearby stream. Each student carries two canteens, upside down and close to their bodies, to prevent freezing. The first day, instructors constantly monitor water intake as dehydration — even in freezing temperatures — is a major concern.

“The days are long up here,” Prosser said. “A lot of information to put out there in 12 days.”


A group of students stood in front of Alpha as instructor Dallas asked them, “Anybody use snowshoes before?” One hand went up and Dallas laughed. Many here have little or no experience in harsh winter climates.

Inside Alpha, instructor Nash went over basic orienteering skills as some students, still weary from a cold night in the shacks, stood to fight off fatigue.

“Eyes right here, everybody,” Nash said, turning serious. “On this property, I’ve seen the most horrendous terrain I’ve ever walked into.” He said he was not trying to scare them but warned that “contour lines matter.”

At one of several training sites in the woods, Dallas had her group learn how to construct snow trenches for shelter. A naval aviation ordnanceman when in the fleet, she’s been a SERE instructor for a few years now.

A female student moved in close for the demonstration.

“Are you wearing makeup?” Dallas quipped.


“No,” the student replied, wiping her face.

“There’s nothing but squirrels here to look good for,” Dallas said.

Easily drifting between deathly serious topics and disarming humor, Dallas led her students through the basics of snow trenches, the insulating qualities of snow and proper placement and construction of shelters.

In teams of two, students were to dig trenches in the snow, cover the tops of the trenches with ridgepoles, cover the poles with the students’ ponchos and cover those with an adequate amount of insulating snow.

It sounded simple and straightforward, but Dallas left nothing to chance, considering many of the young men and women may have never even been in snow. She walked them through site selection, blending in and the dangers of overhead widow-makers — dead standing timber that can snap and fall in the wind.

She also warned of attaching long guide lines from ponchos to anchor the roof.


“You don’t want a moose walking off with your shelter,” she said.

Instructor Crocker was at another site, teaching snow-trench basics. “What’s the main priority here? Not freezing to death, right?” Crocker asked.

“Not getting eaten,” one student offered.

“Yeah, that’s always priority No. 1 wherever you are,” Crocker said, “to not get eaten by something else. We don’t think about that very often; that’d be a bad day.”

Emphasizing the need to signal quickly for help, Crocker asked what signals could be used.

“Radio?” one student said.


“Radio — if I ever gave you one — which I didn’t, did I?” Crocker said. “So you guys are screwed.”

There was laughter, but it made students think and dig down to understand their situation and the resources at hand.

In building a dugout snow shelter called a quinzhee, Crocker emphasized the importance of leaving a stick jutting through the snow for fresh air. “What happens if you don’t have an air vent? Let’s say you have a little candle burning in there, all nice and warm and cozy. Waking up dead in a snow cave is not your best option. They’re going to find your body. It’s going to be embarrassing when your story is written.”

Forget what you’ve seen about military instruction in the movies. These educators are calm, confident and approachable. They have to be. Chosen from leadership positions, instructors all have a history of high performance, must pass a demanding 90-day course and meet rigorous physical and mental standards.

Name and rank are seldom heard among the training sites. Instructors call on students by less formal terms: “brother,” “man,” or a growing list of nonthreatening nicknames. Students are patiently guided, step by step, and even hand over hand, to learn the skills they need to succeed.

As the afternoon drew into early evening, students donned pairs of old NATO snowshoes and their rucksacks for a combined navigation and fire-starting hike. They took turns leading with a map and compass as the hike climbed a plateau.


There, away from the other training locations, students were instructed in where to find the best tinder, kindling and wood to start and fuel a fire. They were given 15 minutes to gather materials, use a striker tool to start the fire and boil a canteen cup of water.

Students scrambled in the softwood forest, snapping only dead standing timber, as they were told numerous times throughout the day. Instructors stood around the sample fire they had lit as a demonstration and watched.

Although told to gather at least three times the material they thought they needed, some students began striking sparks over loose bundles of birch bark with only sparse amounts of kindling beside them and virtually no larger wood.

One student quickly achieved a roaring fire, only to get the tail of his snowshoe stuck in the snow, nearly preventing his escape from the flames.

“Ten minutes!” Crocker shouted. “Five left, let’s get going.”

More than 15 minutes had already passed but this — like the entire SERE course — was about building confidence. As some flames appeared on the small platforms built on the snow, instructors began fanning out and assisting those lagging behind.


Throughout the training day, the acronym PMA was repeated by instructors. It stands for “positive mental attitude” and can make or break anyone in a survival situation.

The students returned to Alpha around 5:30 p.m. as instructors debated whether or not to begin basic animal-snare training or let the students wind down for the evening and hunker into their new snow-homes.

Reveille comes early — and students will have to face another information-packed day of cold, exhaustion and lessons in PMA.


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