Wing's SERE Specialist gives aircrews survival skills

  • Published
  • By Gene H. Hughes
  • 908th Public Affairs
When it comes to risky jobs, being a member of an aircrew ranks fairly high on the list.
Aside from heavy machinery, moving metal parts, toxic chemicals, flammable fuels and large amounts of cargo/personnel, the potential for mishap and injury is always present. But there's another risk, which is the possibility of capture, imprisonment and torture by the enemy.

Staff Sgt. Cody Speckman is the 908th Airlift Wing's new Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE) Specialist. Together with Staff Sgt. Patrick Harrington, he is responsible for making sure that aircrew members are prepared that possibility.

"Sergeant Harrington and I are working together to create exceptional training courses for the 908th aircrew members," he said. "With our combined experience in program development, maintenance, classroom and field instruction, joint operations, personnel recovery planning and execution, we hope to advance our knowledge and abilities through cooperation with the unit."

Originally from Colorado Springs, Colo., Speckman's motivation for joining the Air Force was simple. His older brother had joined out of high school, had deployed to Iraq immediately after September 11 and shared stories about his challenges in the military. 

"I admired his bravery to go overseas," Speckman said. "He never once complained, refused, or tried to stay in the United States. He acted as if it was an honor to serve this country. I wanted to be like him."

Speckman began his career at Fairchild AFB, and subsequently was assigned to the squadron where the best SERE Specialists go. There, he eventually became the Operations NCO before deploying to the Middle East. Once deployed, he was selected from a group of 12 SERE Specialists to travel around the Middle East to help train a wide variety of personnel in survival techniques.

Speckman spent the next five months traveling on his own as a Senior Airman. 
"Still to this day I think how crazy that was," he said. "I was able to work with British and Canadian forces, different U.S. government agencies such as NASA and the FBI, and all branches of the American military, including rescue and Army Special Forces teams. It truly was a privilege to work with such a united force that believed in fighting against the terrorist ideology."

"A famous quote (by George Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm) I heard from the fighting members was, 'People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.'" 

When he returned, he was sent back to Fairchild, and assigned to the Resistance Training section.

After that, he was assigned to Barksdale AFB, La., to work with B-52 aircrew members.  He joined the 908th in November of 2014.

"Presently the 908th SERE program is in the infancy stage of development," he said. "It's a privilege to build an organically run and efficient program."

To accomplish such a goal takes a great deal of trust, something Speckman has received in abundance from the operations group leadership.

"They have allowed me the freedom to create the most realistic training environment for aircrew members," he said. "Maximizing the realism of training increases the depth of learning students obtain."

The SERE field makes up a weapon system that primarily focuses on Personnel Recovery. Whenever any U.S. service member or foreign ally becomes separated from their unit during both war and peacetime, getting that person back to friendly forces is the SERE mission.

Not only do specialists take part in the planning and preparation for high-risk warfighters to go overseas, they also coordinate and execute recovery missions. 

What SERE instructors teach are not everyday activities. To be effective, training must increase stress levels while inducing an emotional connection to the survival mission. This is done with the hope of reinforcing lessons learned during training.

There are a lot of rumors about what goes on at the six-month SERE School, located at Fairbanks AFB, Washington. It's one of the most difficult training courses in the military, with a incredibly high attrition rate.

Those rumors, according to Speckman, "are all true!"

To become a member of this highly demanding occupation, students spend most of their six months learning survival skills in several different environments called biomes (forest, desert, arctic, tropics, coastal and the ocean's open waters).

Skills became more refined as students enter each  biome, survive its unique challenges and then move on. To graduate, students must overcome a series of seemingly impossible challenges.

For Speckman, the most difficult was the constant deterioration of his physical condition. He said it was a process that's difficult to explain to anyone who hasn't experienced such a brutal combination of exhaustion and pain, both mental and physical.

"During our time in the field we were provided a minimal amount of food and tasked to work for approximately 20 hours per day. There may have been a night or two we didn't see sleep," he said.

The days soon turn into weeks, and over time, every step taken is a reminder of the difficult training students volunteer for.

"You start to wonder if your ruck is getting heavier, if the mountains are getting taller, and the distance is getting farther," Speckman explained. "At this point, a number of people have quit and those that remain are feeling great despair. You stop counting how many weeks you have left. Every day the sun falls is a feeling of success, and we hoped that time would stop."

"Every morning our bodies ached, our stomachs were empty and our feet were swollen, but our faces were expressionless because we refused to give in, refused to quit, refused to fail."

Speckman believes his experience, his faith, and his SERE teammate will help him accomplish his mission here at the 908th.

"God has allowed me to experience the process of designing, creating, altering, and executing a SERE program. Rather than the unit benefitting from me, I am greatly benefiting from this unit."