March 03, 2021

Cracking the Code

Airman 1st Class Alexander Smith had always loved the outdoors. Before he enlisted, he ran his own landscaping company, but while he really enjoyed working with his hands, something was missing. He wanted to help people. When Smith considered his options, he realized he could do both as a Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape specialist. 

Smith invested nearly eight months preparing for what he knew was going to be an “extremely physically demanding” course, and training went well—until he got to coastal training, not quite halfway through the six-month program. Hunkered down on the beach and shielded from the rain under a one-man life raft, he watched as the wind whipped across the sand, burying his equipment. Though he would eventually find it, he worried he would have to tell the cadre he’d lost it all. The fear, he recalled, “got into my head.”

For Airmen 1st Class Alexis Hataway, on the other hand, it was the rigorous physical requirements, not the mental challenge, that proved hardest to overcome. She especially struggled during navigation training, when SERE candidates are required to lug a 70-pound rucksack 50 to 60 miles over the mountainous terrain for five days.

Like Smith, Hataway also spent about seven months prepping for the course. Initially unable to do a single pull up and barely able to do even 10 pushups, she met up with her recruiter about five days a week to work out before shipping off to Basic Military Training (BMT). “He pushed me to be a better person and allowed me to kind of grow in that, so that helped me a lot,” she said.

When it came to the SERE training Apprentice Course, the longest of the three-part journey to become a SERE trainer—and where washout rates historically hover around 50 percent—Smith and Hataway graduated at the top of what turned out to be an exceptional class: Only two of 28 students failed to graduate on Jan. 7, said Col. Nicholas Dipoma, 336th Training Group (TRG) commander.

Of the two who didn’t make it, one remains in the pipeline, having dropped because of an injury, Dipoma said.