Tagging along

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. John Severns
  • 55th Wing Public Affairs
It's not every day that a public affairs officer gets invited to a survival and evasion training course, so when Capt. Rhett Murphy, 55th Operations Support Squadron aircrew protection flight commander, asked if I would like to attend one of his classes, saying 'no' simply wasn't an option.

The outdoor portion of the survival course actually started indoors at 3 p.m. June 22, with a meeting in the 55th OSS Life Support conference room. The instructors, 14 students and one reporter conducted a final equipment check, removed personal belongings and patches from uniforms and piled into a bus for the ride out to the training site.

While we were en route, Captain Murphy gave me some background on what the trainees (and I) could expect that evening.

"When we get out there we'll hold a few training sessions to re-familiarize people with the contents of their survival packs, then we'll break them up into teams for the night," he said.

The terrain, he said, wouldn't be wooded. Although survival and evasion courses in the past had been taught in forested areas, such environments were no longer an accurate model of what pilots could expect in real operating environments such as Iraq. The solution, the captain said, was open areas with less cover.

And that was exactly what our group found when we arrived at the training site, an Army National Guard preserve that consisted mostly of large, rolling fields dotted with occasional tree stands and belts of vegetation following a deep creek. Despite being nearly two miles on a side, it was possible to see from one end to the other with only a few trees obscuring the view.

Each team was issued a survival pack containing a radio, GPS device, map and night-vision monocle. The radio, which would be the team's sole link with their rescuers, was the subject of a quick refresher course that outlined the many steps, procedures and codes that downed aircrew members would have to execute in order to initiate a rescue mission.

After some final safety tips and a refill of our canteens, it was dark enough to move to our initial hiding spots.

Our team - consisting of Capts. John Campbell and Robbie Jouben, 1st Lt. David Clark and me - had the misfortune to be the only group moved to the other side of an empty, fallow field to start the night's exercise. Since it was still light enough to see, we decided to hunker down in an isolated tree stand, apply camo paint, and wait for instructions to arrive via our radio.

We were finally contacted by our 'rescuers' as night settled in. With no moon and the nearest town several miles away, there was barely enough light to tell the ground from the sky, much less read something as detailed as a map.

Instead, we broke out the GPS and entered the pick-up coordinates our rescuers provided over the radio.

The little device - which we read by the illumination from my digital watch's backlight - said that our destination was 1.2 nautical miles to the northwest; across several open fields, roads and a stream. Since we had over four hours to reach the target, our team decided to circle around rather than approach it directly.

Over the next two hours our team moved barely 400 yards, just enough to reach the entrance of the play area. We spent the entire time low-crawling through unpleasantly barbed weeds, convinced that the aggressors were only a short distance away, scanning for us with night-vision goggles.

The reality, which I discovered after joining the aggressors just before the end of the exercise, was that the searchers were nearly blind and deaf. The ATVs they rode enabled them to travel quickly across the exercise area, but were so loud they couldn't have heard us if we yelled at them. The headlight illuminated everything in front of the vehicle, but ruined the drivers' night vision and left them unable to see anything off the road.

Even the night vision goggles were only a partial help for the hunters. They could pick up the slightest light - such as my digital watch or the backlight on our GPS - from hundreds of yards away, but as long as the teams maintained light discipline, there was almost no way to spot them.

In the end, all four teams made it to their rescuers without being captured. After a quick debrief from the instructors and a check to make sure no one had left expensive equipment lying in a field somewhere, it was time to head back to base.