FORT RUCKER, Ala. — It’s the Army’s most notorious training school available to conventional troops.
Survival, evasion, resistance and escape. Level-C SERE training, which is mandatory for pilots and Army special operations personnel, is intended to help prepare troops to “return with honor” if they are isolated or captured by the enemy.
Much of the training at the service’s two Level-C schools at Camp Mackall, North Carolina, and Fort Rucker is classified, which has led to myths filling the vacuum.
Tall tales describe SERE as a “torture school” where instructors have license to intentionally break students’ bones during the interrogation resistance phase of the course.
Not too long ago, Maj. Nicholas Barwikowski was one of the uninitiated. Now the infantry officer commands the SERE school at Fort Rucker, which he said trains around 1,400 service members per year. Army Times interviewed Barwikowski while observing students in the evasion portion of the course meet with a friendly role-player who was recovering them.
Their salvation was short-lived, Barwikowski said.
“An incident’s going to happen where things are not going to be as pleasant as they thought they were going to be,” he added. “They’re going to the final portion of training,” which is the resistance practical exercise.
The myths, which primarily center around the resistance phase, “exist because there’s a lot of secrecy around the school,” acknowledged Barwikowski. When he accepted command of the school, he had to attend Level-C SERE training at Camp Mackall — and he didn’t know what to expect.
“After learning and demystifying the methods, and seeing how [valuable] the school is, it’s kind of lit a fire under me to reach out to my peers in the infantry [branch],” explained Barwikowski.
All of the physical contact between instructors and students, “even handshakes,” is “highly restricted, regulated, rehearsed [and] practiced.” There is no quota of bones that the interrogators may break.
Some of the myths are true, though. The survival and evasion training helps students learn how to live off the land and avoid capture by enemy patrols. Students only eat what they can forage or catch.
He thinks the survival training alone could be a boon for more troops across the Army in light of the service’s renewed focus on preparing for large-scale combat against a foe like Russia or China.
SERE and large-scale combat
Barwikowski said Army officials are reviewing the possibility of requiring more troops from conventional units to go. Currently, the only conventional troops required to attend are aviation officers and warrant officers, though flight crew members, defense attaches, SFAB teams, scouts and others are “highly encouraged” to attend.
He pointed out that Army regulations allow other troops to attend SERE with their battalion commander’s approval, and around 600 training slots go unfilled each year at the Fort Rucker school. The commander believes that’s a wasted opportunity, and he hopes the service follows through on mandating attendance for more soldiers due to the increased potential for capture in a large-scale war.
Significant numbers of U.S. soldiers were captured during the 20th century’s wars, including thousands during World War II and the Korean War, after which the American public’s obsession with prisoner of war “brainwashing” was a hot topic. The current conflict between Russia and Ukraine has also seen hundreds of troops captured.
“One thing that they’re looking at is if any [career fields] need to be added to the list” of those required or “highly encouraged” to attend Level-C SERE, said Barwikowski. He emphasized that “in the last 60 years, we’ve really focused on isolated individuals,” but during large-scale maneuver warfare, units can become isolated even “by battlefield geometry...[without] rounds being fired.”
The service may not require 100% SERE training for conventional units, though.
“As we continue to write [large scale combat operations] doctrine, it is gonna be more important that there’s SERE knowledge at units that don’t traditionally have SERE knowledge,” the commander said. Units can benefit from having even just one or two SERE-trained personnel who can direct other troops in a evasion or capture setting.
Asked what he’d say to a soldier coming to SERE, Barwikowski encouraged them to simply “show up in the right place, at the right time, in the right uniform with an open mind.”
“SERE school is not escape the room. You can’t win SERE school,” he added. “It’s meant to train you.”
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army, specializing in accountability reporting, personnel issues and military justice. He joined Military Times in 2020. Davis studied history at Vanderbilt University and UNC-Chapel Hill, writing a master's thesis about how the Cold War-era Defense Department influenced Hollywood's WWII movies.