Having the worst Thanksgiving Day ever while trying to evade enemy forces in special operations school

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Way back in the day (or, as my son says, “before electricity), our 7th Special Forces Group was back from a deployment and we were stuck in a support cycle. Myself and another guy got ourselves put in a short course for some reserve Heavy Weapons guys. It was early November, and the weather was turning crappy in Ft. Bragg. Rainy, cold and raw. 

But then the word came down that the Company was sending me to SERE School as, back then, it wasn’t part of the SFQC (Special Forces Qualification Course). Of course, no one wanted to take it because it would entail being out there over Thanksgiving. And back then, I was like the kid Mikey from the Life cereal commercials “Let’s give it to Mikey!, He’ll eat anything.” Yes indeed, “Steve never turns down a school.” So off to Camp Mackall I go. (I never said I was smart.)

We had a pretty eclectic class. About a dozen guys from 7th SFG, a bunch of pilots from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment “Night Stalkers,” three Air Force Pararescuemen, a few crew chiefs from the 160th, and two Rangers from the 1st Ranger Battalion.

Senior Airman Leo Avila, 709th Airlift Squadron C-5M Super Galaxy engineer, left, and Senior Airman Dan Bates, 9th AS C-5M loadmaster, right, use a compass and a map to navigate to a checkpoint during a combat survival training exercise July 16, 2015, at the Blackbird State Forest near Smyrna, Del. Avila and Bates navigated with three other members of their team through several miles of forest to be rescued by friendly forces after escaping from enemy combatants. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class William Johnson)

One of the best parts of our class was having former SF POW Dan Pitzer speak to us one day. Dan was captured by the Viet Cong in 1963 along with Colonel Nick Rowe who started the SERE Course. Pitzer was a tremendous person and totally laid back. He spoke in a quiet, steady tone and described his years of “benevolent, humane treatment” by the Viet Cong. 

As he described his treatment, the room was totally silent. You could hear a pin drop, and it seemed that everyone was leaning forward in their chairs to catch the next word. His words were pretty prophetic, although we didn’t realize it at the time. 

“We designed this course in case any of you ever find yourself in the situation we were in,” Pitzer said. “I hope none of you ever does, but surer than anything, someday one or more of you will.”

And Mike Durant, who also attended SERE school that November, would sadly undergo that a few years later in Somalia.

One of my prized possessions is my SERE diploma, and as promised, on graduation day, Dan Pitzer came and autographed my diploma. RIP sir; you were a class act.

Related: The siege of the Green Berets at Plei Me: The first major battle of the US in Vietnam

This is so f***ing hooah!

U.S. Air Force Maj. Jayson Rickard, 16th Weapons School pilot, Senior Airman Jonathan Schramm, 66th Rescue Squadron aerial gunner journeyman, and Capt. Robert Rosebrough, 66th Rescue Squadron pilot, locate next location on the maps during Combat Survival Training Aug. 24, 2011, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. Survive Evade Resist Escape Specialists at Nellis AFB, prepare aircrew and high-risk personnel to survive, evade, resist, and escape from emergency isolating circumstances in combat and during combat training. (Photo by Airman 1st Class Daniel Hughes/U.S. Air Force)

The instructors split the class up with each patrol getting a few SF guys, pilots, crew chiefs. Ours had one of the Air Force PJs, a total stud named Joe, and a Ranger, a huge, red-headed corporal named Dennis who was a riot.

Away from the rigid Ranger discipline, he was loving life. His answer for everything was, “This is soooo-f***ing HOOAH!” We immediately loved the guy. On every break, he’d cock his patrol cap far back on his head, and stand there with his hands in his pockets, in total SF-mode, “sooo f***ing Hooah!” 

Doing the Survival training in a group was actually a heckuva lot more fun than doing it on your own. We got checked on by a retired SF NCO MSG (ret) Phil Salzwedel (probably butchered his spelling) who was an expert on edible plants. Mr. Phil was a great guy and teacher. He came up to us and asked how we were doing. We replied, “SOOOO F***ING HOOAH!” He laughed and told us we weren’t supposed to be having so much fun. 

When we did the barrier climb and body rappel, I injured my left index finger up badly. As I was getting ready to go down, I slipped on the wet concrete and slid off while getting in position. My guide hand (left) had a hold of the rope still and my weight came down right on the edge of the concrete on that finger. Luckily I wasn’t far from the ground. My finger was bleeding pretty good; Mr. Phil helped me clean it out and bandaged it up. It was quickly forgotten but would later swell up like a bratwurst during our visit to the “benevolent People’s Republic.”

Related: 6 nice perks of joining the Special Forces

Thanksgiving night during Escape & Evasion

(Photo by Airman 1st Class Daniel Hughes/U.S. Air Force)

After Survival, they fed us well, too well, because of what was next.

Our Escape and Evasion part of SERE began on Thanksgiving night. It was about 38 degrees and steady cold rain poured down on us. Everyone was quiet. My buddy Tony Forrest from 7th SFG asked our buddy, Dennis, “You ok? you’re quiet tonight.” He answered, “If I was home right now, I’d be sitting on the couch fat on turkey watching football, getting a hummer with a beer in my hand.” That broke the ice. 

The rain and the cold quickly soaked us to the bone. The movement that first night was slow since our eyes hadn’t grown accustomed to the dark yet and the visibility was about zero. We moved a couple of clicks in the Uwharrie National Forest and stopped for a map check under a pine tree. We made a very tight perimeter where the guy on either side of you was right up against your leg. We were all shivering.

Related: Frosted Misery: A Navy SEAL in SERE School

An Air Force Pararescueman suffers serious injury

A U.S. Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter assigned to the 56th Rescue Squadron comes in for a landing during an exercise at Rivolto Air Base, Italy, June 11, 2020. The 56th RQS provides a rapidly-deployable, worldwide combat rescue and reaction force response utilizing HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Thomas S. Keisler IV)

PJ Joe decided to take the point; I was right behind him with Dennis. We had moved about a click when we thought we heard a noise to our right. We stopped for a few seconds and listened. Joe was about 10 feet in front of me. “We good?” he asked. I nodded, we stood and he moved out. I turned to make the hand and arm signal for a second and as soon as I turned back around I was alone. 

I started to scan the horizon, but Joe was nowhere to be found. We lost him in a second. I took about two steps and then heard Joe’s voice which sounded very far away. “Don’t take another step!” Looking left and right, I whispered, “Where the hell are you?”  

Again he answered from far away, “I’m in a well right at your feet.” 

We had crossed an old homestead, and the people had dug about a 20-foot well. Joe, in the dark, had somehow stepped right into it. Another step and I’d have landed right on top of him. We spread out around the well and broke out the flashlights. Joe was well down there, and it wasn’t going to be easy getting him out. Worse, he had broken his right tibia. 

We knotted together our ponchos and lowered them to Joe, who wrapped them around his body and tied them as best he could. It took several minutes to get him out. He was in excruciating pain. His tibia had a compound fracture, it was covered in mud and as a PJ and medic, he was the best guy to treat it. Unfortunately, in SERE School during Escape & Evasion, you don’t have anything that could help. 

Related: Letters to Loretta: American prisoners try to escape the German POW camp

U.S. Air Force Capt. James Gregory, 510th Fighter Squadron pilot, pops a flare to signal an aircraft during an exercise at Rivolto Air Base, Italy, June 10, 2020. The pilots were undergoing a simulated Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) training in which they had to survive and make contact with the proper sources after landing in enemy territory. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Thomas S. Keisler IV)

We called on the radio and told them we had a real-world emergency. We gave them our grid coordinates, and they directed us 400 meters to our east where there was a hardball road. We rigged up the best poncho litter we could and carried Joe to the road. About 45 minutes later, a crackerbox ambulance arrived with two regular medics who didn’t have a clue. Joe took over his own treatment, and we got him inside, where we said a quick goodbye and wished him the best. He was an absolute stud, and I hope he recovered fully.

We were by now hours behind schedule and had a long way to go to get to our hide site. We moved quickly throughout the night and arrived just before dawn, only a few minutes before our window was due. We were just camouflaging the site when our instructors came up to inspect the hide. They told us that Joe was in surgery back at Bragg. 

Then two more instructors came up and pulled our Ranger buddy Dennis aside. A minute later, they put him in the truck and tore out of there. We were pissed. “What the heck is going on?” They tried to evade, but we weren’t taking no for an answer. That’s when they told us he had a death in his family and they were trying to get in touch with him… which wasn’t easy. 

So in a matter of a few hours, we lost two outstanding guys from our team, the second of which we couldn’t even say goodbye to. And no Thanksgiving turkey. It was a suck**s Thanksgiving all around. 

Related: Delta Force operator on how Ukrainian special forces rescued a prisoner from the Russians

Post-Thanksgiving Day feast of roadkill

Not what we had for Thanksgiving. Volunteers from the 104th Fighter Wing prepare a Thanksgiving feast with the help of community partners for the local Boys and Girls Club in Western Massachusetts! Tech Sgt. Lauren Gallagher and Senior Airman Kayla Gallagher of the 104th Fighter Wing, prepare stuffing for the annual tradition. (Photo by Senior Master Sgt. Julie Avey/U.S. Air National Guard)

After days of Escape & Evasion in the cold, pouring rain, we finally made contact with a friendly guerrilla element. The sun came out for the first time in a week.

The guerrillas offered us hot food, which we immediately accepted. They brought in a roasted carcass that tasted horrible. After starving for days during an E&E, you know a food is truly awful if it still tasts that bad.

Tony remarked, “this tastes like a road-kill raccoon.”

“That’s exactly what it is,” one of the guerrillas remarked. “It didn’t look like it was dead too long so we scooped him up.”  

So when people talk about what they’re thankful for on Thanksgiving, I always think of my family and how lucky I am. But I also think of that messed up night in the Uwharrie National Forest and how that was about the most messed up Thanksgiving ever. Would I change a minute of it? Not a chance. 

Oh, and by the way, us 7th SFG guys must have influenced Dennis from the Ranger Battalion. Just a few years ago, I saw that he was indeed SF, had become an officer, and retired as a lieutenant colonel. It is great to see that he’s still the same great guy he was as a young Ranger. Maybe we ruined him for the Ranger Regiment, but we inherited a great guy and officer. So, I guess, as an old SF friend of mine once told me, sometimes even being a bad influence is better than being no influence at all.

SERE is an excellent course that each of the services has tailored to meet the needs of their particular mission. But the core elements of the course remain the same throughout. It is a great learning experience and prepares you as best as possible, even (but not recommended) on Thanksgiving.

“Boots, boots… There’s no discharge in the war…” This will eventually make sense to you when you experience SERE School, for the grads of SERE, no explanation is necessary.

Steve Balestrieri is a proven military analyst. He served as a US Army Special Forces NCO and Warrant Officer in the 7th Special Forces Group. In addition to writing for  Sandboxx.com, he has written for 19fortyfive.com and SOFREP.com; he has covered the NFL for PatsFans.com for over 11 years. His work was regularly featured in the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle and Grafton News newspapers in Massachusetts.

Feature Image: A U.S. Air Force Airman Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape candidate applies additional leverage to a trucker’s hitch at Camp Bullis, Texas, Aug. 17, 2015. The trucker’s hitch is one of a number of knots SERE candidates are taught to use while creating shelter. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Chad Chisholm/Released)

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