The psychological aspects of the SERE military training program (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape).

The psychological aspects of the SERE military training program (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape).

The term ” SERE ” (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) indicates that set of theoretical and practical knowledge of military training with which you learn all those techniques, tactics, operational plans, precautions and methods of resilience, which in adversity situations are fundamental for the survival of military personnel (but not only), if they are forced to struggle with adverse weather conditions, primary needs, states of imprisonment, interrogation techniques, escape from enemy territory and many other situations at the limit of endurance Human.

“Whether it’s in the desert, the arctic, at sea, in the jungle or as a prisoner of war, Airmen are prepared for any situation. And it’s the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) specialists who train them. These elite instructors are experts on how to survive in the most remote and hostile environments on the planet. And it’s up to them to make sure that when a mission doesn’t go as planned, the Airmen involved are ready for anything. And we mean anything “[1].

Born to tactically instruct military pilots of the armed forces should they find themselves in enemy territory in the event of aerial malfunctions or attacks by the opponent, the same today has become the basis for training not only special forces, but in a proportionate way to their own also those who carry out special jobs that could expose them to kidnappings or forced interrogations (war journalists, intelligence forces, embassy staff, entrepreneurs and etc.). With its formative peculiarities, it gathers a whole series of targeted practical training not only aimed at physical training but also, and above all, at the psychological one. In fact, one of the many main rules that are explained within these training courses is preciselythe importance of emotional responses : they will be perpetually obstacles for survival if not controlled through the necessary precautions and skills. As we will see later, these programs are fundamental to be able to experience one’s personal status in adverse situations with a high rate of psychological and physical stress, in which it will be possible to test to what extent it is possible to have control of the environment or techniques used by the tormentor, how important the will to live, the attitude and the determination, to be able to obtain advantages within a hostile contingency.

“The aim of the course is to survive – explains the lieutenant colonel Carmine Orsini (curator and coordinator of the SERE) – it is important to make it clear to those who catch you that you can be more useful alive than dead. Mission codes, however, should never be revealed. In fact, despite having been changed after the aircraft was shot down, getting hold of it can still be useful to the opponent to understand how a force communicates with its men on the territory, studying their length, disposition, listing, etc. .”[2]

In history there was no lack of courageous military pilots who with both legs broken crawled in the desert four days in a row without eating or drinking, or had to use their teeth or nails to be able to dig into the rock, or driven by their religious values , morals or patriots have managed to face torture except death without releasing any kind of information. Unfortunately, extreme situations can happen without anticipation, those who work in certain areas are aware of this, and unfortunately, the outcome is not always positive. Although the important Geneva Convention exists which protects the life and humanity of the human person, unfortunately it is not always taken into consideration especially if, on the other hand, there is a non-state actor such as terrorism.

“The chosen soldiers are generally aware of the most important military secrets, and therefore it is easy to imagine with which yearning the enemy wishes to capture one. Part of the training of special soldiers focuses on techniques to escape capture and detention. In addition, soldiers are often real warriors independently of others, and if the enemy tries to capture them by force, he will have to expect a lot of effort to be able to achieve the desired result. Yet even special forces soldiers and airmen are captured, and must resist the hardships, boredom and horrors of detention. Ironically, it is precisely their role as chosen soldiers that puts them in situations of extreme danger, because they are chosen for missions to be carried out in full enemy territory, away from the safety net and support teams. Furthermore, their missions can be so secret that in some cases they will not even be officially recognized; this situation places the soldier too often outside the protection of the Geneva Convention directives. “[3]

For this reason, more than ever, one must be aware (also by civilian personnel of a certain weight) of what are the best techniques and strategies to use in case of adversity, not only from a technical point of view but also and above all psychological.

We cite the words used by Alberto Scarpitta in his article “Evasion, escape and resistance to interrogations: the training of special forces”, in order to understand what is the mood that is often experienced by the war soldiers who are in suffer imprisonment:

In the detention cell there is no real danger, but the accumulated tiredness, the impossibility of seeing, the anxiety and fear of the unknown are acting in the psyche of the prisoners. Every unknown noise, every variation of the environmental situation just perceived, every novelty that one cannot evaluate and master rationally are experienced as a new threat of unevaluable scope, which produces a fear magnified by fantasy. The persistence of this situation of insecurity generates anxiety, which hinders the correct judgment ”[4].

Starting from the beginning, including the difficult situation in which one can find oneself, it is useful to maintain that the psychological aspects with which one must confront and fight in foreign territory, whether in the event of trying to escape or being prisoners, are so many to request at least two key elements to try to stay alive: an ironic instinct for survival and a strong control of one’s emotional reactionswhatever they are. As for the first, it is fundamental to overcome those challenges that mind and body will face day after day, hour after hour, between life and death. All this will be important because “an observation made repeatedly is that where conditions are extremely harsh and no hope of survival is left there is a psychological rendering of these subjects who stop being collaborative, spend all the time lying down assuming the position fetal (they tend to fold and close in themselves by bending their legs, curving the trunk and lowering their heads), they refuse food and water even if they are hungry and let themselves die “[5].

Of the same weight is the second element, as emotional self-control will be decisive in order not to be dominated by the environment, by one’s own weaknesses or by individuals hostile to us. Especially in those situations where one would like to act instinctively, let oneself go or abandon oneself, self-control assumes the fundamental guiding task: the more the reason will be able to evaluate various factors, the more the chances of escape will increase, of not being to capture or not to release information of a certain type. In other words, those who find themselves in this situation must be able to respond constructively: evaluate the situation and develop an appropriate action plan; otherwise you risk falling into the traps of anxiety, depression and fear. In case you want to take the example of an escape, you have to stay clear and motivated to be able to move quickly from the central area, do not leave traces that could facilitate the search for the enemy, also know how to hide in shelters by staying still for many hours, with an empty stomach, with muscles aching, in a state sometimes even of hypothermia, to finally be able to control even the inner obstacles such as the upper hand of panic, despair and fear. Considering the fact that the enemy will always find himself ahead, compared to the variables that are local knowledge, basic necessities, clothes, technological tools and weapons; you have to put in place precautions that can complicate what your research is (evasion, camouflage and concealment tactics) such as the following:

  • Walk in their own steps to change direction and deceive the enemy;
  • Destroy the opposing faction by stepping on an unnecessary section of vegetation or creating fake shelters;
  • Look for areas with dense vegetation to better blend in;
  • Walking, if present, on water channels for two reasons: position yourself at a lower level than the line of the ground and hide your tracks;
  • Choose hard soils to avoid leaving your cast;
  • Deciding to rest in areas naturally suitable for hiding one’s person;
  • Never take the main roads, which are shorter and easier to travel;
  • Avoid using light sources at night;
  • Playing with shadows to better blend in;
  • Getting dirty as much as possible, with mud or what nature offers, to limit the possibility of attracting more attention;
  • Don’t forget to look up too: areas with thick vegetation and trees are also good against any drones or planes.
  • If you have GPS, check if the signal is active in your position;
  • Avoid leaving your clothes on the way as they could be used by dogs to be able to follow their tracks;
  • Especially in areas where there is not much vegetation, you have to walk in line with what is the soil (jaguar step).

Any mistake made by the fugitive will be an advantage for the enemy. Many times we are caught precisely because we prefer main, short roads, possibly without vegetation around that can protect our visibility. In this sense, putting yourself in the shoes of your pursuer can be useful to reflect even better on the choices to make. For example, in the case of some chases, there was no shortage of situations in which the enemy himself preferred to wait for the “prey” in areas with little vegetation to identify and capture it. In general, therefore, failing to remain lucid in many cases would mean making gestures that could lead, in this case, to capture or death. Not for nothing, what we try to make participants learn during the SERE preparation courses,spirit of adaptation or that set of appropriate knowledge and behavior, with respect to the objectives to be achieved, taking into account the constraints and conditions dictated by the situation. In this case, the four activities to be put into practice to adapt effectively, from situation to situation, should be the following:

  • Observe: use what are the senses and their knowledge to collect as much information as possible;
  • Analyze, interpret: evaluate the data collected from the previous observation with a critical and analytical eye;
  • Decide: define an operational plan that is appropriate to the situation, based on a cost-benefit evaluation.
  • Execute and modify: one of the most difficult tasks for a prisoner or subject on the run to put into practice is to predict and anticipate the other’s moves. In certain situations of stress, under pressure from a fairly wide range of factors, the actions taken may not be suitable for the situation so as to require corrections during the work.

Those who find themselves in the situation of having to make one decision rather than another may find themselves in the condition of having to endure even the pains from injuries, caused by firearms or cuts, or feel dehydrated, hungry or tired. Again survival will have to take over everything although the body in that situation will require something else:

  • Concentration on pain and on one’s physiological needs;
  • Lack of initiative;
  • Limited self-control;
  • Apathy;
  • Inability to perform physical tasks or travel.

Regarding this last physical state, it is important in these situations to know how to evaluate when it is time to stop and rest. Fatigue builds up by requiring longer shooting times if continued over the long term. In this sense, in addition to regaining strength through sleep, short breaks are important for many reasons:

  • To increase the efficiency of the activities;
  • It reduces the accumulation of fatigue and stress;
  • Improve morale and personal motivation;
  • Allows the person to be able to give their best in the most tiring moments.

Total exhaustion must be avoided even when you want to move something heavy or climb a particularly insidious tree; every action must be carried out critically, especially if the individual finds himself injured. In general, with the right breaks and in good physical and mental condition, you could deprive yourself of sleep for up to five days without suffering consequences. The issue of isolation or actual captivity deserves a separate discussion, as the problem of isolation , self-esteem and dependence prevail more than other situations. As for the first, among the most serious stresses that can be suffered in this circumstance we have the sense of helplessness, loneliness and abandonment up to despair. These will be accentuated by those who conduct the interrogations or torture to be able to benefit in terms of yield and release of information. Also in this case the understanding of the situation, of those who are the targets of the enemy (if, for example, the ransom has been requested or if he wants to obtain information in his possession) and of an iron will to resist at all costs, can be essential for their survival. If you find yourself in a situation where you can no longer resist for a variety of reasons, releasing some confusing pieces of information could be a good way to buy time, wait for help to arrive, or come up with an escape plan that is as effective as possible. Related to the phenomenon of isolation, especially if you were to live in captivity or undergo a planned torture plan, there may be times when the prisoner may lose his self-esteem. Isolation, sleep deprivation, being stripped naked, bombarded with deafening music, forced to be in painful positions for many hours, deprived of water and food, are all ways to lower what is the self-esteem of subject and more generally collapse their defensive lines. In this situation, feelings of addiction can be created for the kidnapper as he is able not only to determine what our survival is, with water and food, but also our need to be recognized and understood at that moment. In other words, he will try to develop a strong sense of need and self-confidence in the hostage through everything that can be useful to create power and control (offering basic necessities, clothes, social contacts and medicines). By playing on his state of regression he will try to make him more and more vulnerable to all those suggestions that will be useful in achieving his goals. In other words, each conditioning technique will be aimed at intensifying the prisoner’s emotional states such as depression, fear, guilt, distrust, insecurity and dependence, in order to recede his maturity, personality and defensive systems, to an almost infantile state. The aim is almost always the same: to remove the subject from the possibility of confronting the external environment and force him to fall back on himself to such a level that he will feel the need to identify the jailer as a friendly or paternal figure (Syndrome of Stockholm). Stripped of its identity recognition, like the uniform, through larger and annoying clothes or left totally naked, it leverages anything that may be useful in not making it fit to what is the daily routine: diet, sleep cycles and other fundamental aspects of the subject are continually changed to generate confusion and dizziness.

Faced with such a well-articulated plan, structured also with particular forms of interrogation that do not respect the person and his humanity (an example is the interrogation protracted for many hours in the cell, with the possibility of being able to sleep 5-10 minutes, to then resume relentlessly), only an acknowledgment of his plan and a strong critical spirit can delay its effects. In fact, being subject to these forms of manipulation, especially in a passive form, would mean becoming vulnerable to the intent of the manipulator. Having a good self-confidence and own qualities, putting the situation as a challenge to be able to win and making use of the experience / training done, can be fundamental to keep control of the situation and of one’s emotions.the survival instinct : “Prisoners of war will never be forgotten”. In this sense, therefore, it is essential to use that ability to look at oneself with analytical detachment, almost as if you were a third person, to always keep your awareness alive and to avoid, in an authoritarian way, to modify or hide those who are the real facts surrounding themselves. The great power to observe us when we are talking and interacting with the person, to analyze in a critical and lucid way our way of behaving, can help more than anything else to preserve our identity fabric as much as possible. All the more so if he makes use of our life:

“My muscles were sore and the ice axes broke. I felt dark music pounding in my head and a black, suicidal mood enveloped me, yet I felt the instinct to go on. If you lose control, you lose. ” (Mark Twight)

In conclusion, unfortunately those who find themselves in this situation have not voluntarily chosen to participate and cannot escape from fighting if they want to survive. First of all, we need to know how to recognize the real extent of the problem, work out among the many physical and mental obstacles of alternative solutions and then evaluate which is the best plan to act or react to all the difficulties involved. SERE training does just that: prepare your participants for any possible form of difficulty.