In late September 2004, I completed the military’s survival and evasion course known as SERE. The purpose of this training was to provide me with the skills I would need to survive, should my aircraft ever go down in enemy territory.
Even though it was a simulation, the goal of the course was to make the experience as real as possible, in order to prepare you for what you might face in real life. It is designed specifically to break you.
On the morning of September 11, 2004 I was brought to the cold, rainy forest in Eastern Washington, where I would remain for the next six days. I received a sleeping bag, two MREs—Meals Ready to Eat– a canteen, a tarp for shelter, and the coordinates for the extraction point where I would rendezvous with the instructors. I was ordered to locate the extraction point in three hours, all the while evading capture from the “enemy” patrols combing the forest. If I was captured, I would be brought back to the beginning to try again. I was captured several times and eventually led to the extraction point. The disappointment of failure was exceeded only by my desire to be warm and dry once again.
The next day, resistance training began. Men with guns appeared from nowhere, yelling at me to get to the ground. Someone placed a bag over my head, bound my wrists and threw me in the back of a vehicle. I was taken to a Prisoner of War camp with no idea what to expect. I was terrified, even though I knew that it was all just a simulation. From there, I was “interrogated” by my captors for hours. It was so real that I broke down in tears. I didn’t think I could take anymore, but the worst was yet come.
I was allowed to return to my barracks, where I was told I would be allowed a shower and a night’s sleep in a dry, warm bed. It was not to be. Sometime in the middle of the night, I was taken prisoner once again.
For three days it was as if I was less than human. I lost the rights I had grown up with as an American and a human being. I was thrown into a 6 x 3 foot box and given a bucket to pee in. I dared not sleep; sounds of what happened to those that did filled the air. There is no other way to say it: I was broken. I knew it was all simulated for training, but I still developed an intense hatred for my captors.
I survived, though.
At the end of the course, I stood before the proctor, an Air Force major. He congratulated me on a job well done. It was from him that I learned that many people never pass the course. But I had. That experience taught me that I was capable of so much more than I ever knew, that I possessed the physical and emotional strength to survive extreme stress and adversity. I knew that if I ever did get captured by the enemy that I would be strong enough to evade. I would be capable enough to resist. I would survive.
Sara Arps was a participant in the 2016 University of California Student Veterans Summer Writing Workshop.