JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-Lackland, Texas—Walking into the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) specialist training building, motivational quotes that speak to accountability, persistence and commitment can be seen on every wall, serving as an encouraging reminder of the choice candidates have made in an attempt to become a SERE specialist.
Animal pelts and antlers adorn the wall and an alligator named Thor, a gift from former students sits protectively outside the main classroom. Everywhere you look around the building, a deep sense of pride is obvious and more importantly, felt by all who enter those doors.
Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, famously known as “The Gateway to the Air Force,” is also the gateway to the SERE career field through the SERE Specialist Training Orientation Course (SST-OC), a 15-day course held on Lackland’s Medina Training Annex. This is where potential SERE specialists begin a rigorous year-long training and are first immersed in the physically and mentally demanding career field.
Candidates are critiqued on physical training, backpacking, basic public speaking, outdoor living and survival skills and their ability to improvise to assess their potential success as a future SERE specialist. Most importantly, these candidates are assessed on their ability to effectively pass on and translate their knowledge to others, the cornerstone of the SERE career field.
“Our job is really about the empowerment of others,” said Adam DeRycke, SST-OC instructor and training manager. “Our sole focus as a SERE specialist is to take someone and give them the skillsets to take care of themselves and empower them to survive the most austere or dangerous conditions we know as individuals - captivity, isolation and survival. Our sole focus is really almost the definition of servant leadership. We live and exist to serve others and there is no other purpose. At SST-OC, we are preparing young Airmen to take on that responsibility and giving them the tools to help them be successful along the way.”
Noting that being a SERE specialist is a great career but a well-kept secret of the Air Force, DeRycke said that most people do not understand their purpose as SERE specialists.
“They know we exist, but not exactly what we do,” DeRycke said. “And I think that we need to work harder and try to break that down and to be in the forefront of people's minds instead of an afterthought. SERE is a different animal.
“The goal at SST-OC is to give candidates a very rudimentary set of skills and assess them on their ability to perform certain tasks that will be expected of them throughout training,” he continued. “However, when we look for someone who has what it takes to be a SERE specialist, we are also looking for Airmen who want to help others and believe in taking care of other people instead of focusing on themselves.”
Finding interested individuals is an easy task, but finding those whose personal beliefs align with SERE priorities has proven to be a challenge. Out of the roughly 400 students that go through the schoolhouse annually, about 60 percent will not complete training. The majority of those candidates who don’t complete training, will self-eliminate from the program.
“Accountability and responsibility are difficult things and big pills to swallow,” DeRycke explained. “These are things that some people shy away from. This is not the job for those kinds of people because we are put out in the middle of nowhere with six to eight people and we're responsible for their lives.”
The accountability and responsibility DeRycke refers to extends beyond the schoolhouse, as future recruits are drawn to the image of excellence and pride that active duty SERE specialist’s exhibit.
“Growing up in Washington, I was constantly surrounded by SERE specialists,” said Airman Basic Cole Kramm, a SST-OC candidate in his final days of training and Spokane, Washington, native. “I was drawn to their character and their upstanding image of integrity and after talking to them about what they did for the Air Force, I knew it was something I would enjoy being a part of.
“Obviously, there was the initial attraction of working outdoors and being in a physically challenging career field but that alone isn’t going to get you through the ‘suck’,” he said. “Seeing the character of these SERE specialists and witnessing them giving 110 percent in every single thing they do, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a part of. I have always been a guy that can’t quit, so the mental and physical demands on my body are nothing compared to the satisfaction of knowing that someday the skills that I have taught someone else could help them on the most challenging day of their life. Even if you never see the fruits of your labor, just knowing that you’ve given all that you have to give is beyond worthwhile.”
As SST-OC is the introduction to the SERE career field, instructors recognize the important role they play in molding future specialists.
“JBSA is viewed as the heartbeat of the Air Force because we've touched the lives of every enlisted Airman from day one of their career; we’re doing the same thing here,” said Staff Sgt. Ryian Dawson, SST-OC instructor. “This is the place where candidates first learn what it is to be a specialist and what kind of mentality is needed to be successful.
“Our actions and the way that we handle ourselves is going to directly correlate to what they feel is acceptable throughout the rest of their careers,” he continued. “So to be able to mold, shape, and guide them from the beginning is extremely rewarding. This schoolhouse is the gateway to SERE and I take great pride in knowing that every SERE specialist across the Air Force has started their career right here.”