Week 11
August 23 - 27, 2004

Land Survival Training Week. . . (Ominous music, please)

Before I get into the details of the week, let me give a little background. As you probably realize that we do the land survival training to have us be prepared should we eject over land. We also do it in order to foster team building and to learn how work together in stressful and unexpected situations. That being said, the training is given by the Navy in Maine. There is a Naval Air Station in Brunswick Maine and the survival training area is near Rangeley. Actually, the Navy does what is called the SERE School there, where SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape. We only covered the S part of SERE School. I am going to count on us not ever needing the ERE part should we have to eject.

And, we didn't exactly do the full up Survival training. We covered the skills without the total practical training exercise that the Navy folks do. Their practical training exercise consists of five days or so in the field surviving. We only did a couple of days. And, we had more food than the regular Navy folks have. They get one Meal Ready to Eat (MRE) for the entire five days and we got one per day. Since the government requires nutrition information on food, I can tell you that one MRE is roughly 1200 calories - not as much as I would eat in a regular day, but not enough to make me want to start snacking on grasshoppers either. More about the MREs later.

So, what did our week consist of? Well, it started out with a lot of travel delays. We left Houston bright and early Sunday morning. We didn't get too far, though, as our flight out of Houston was delayed. And, then our connection was delayed. Instead of getting to Maine around dinner time and heading out to feast on lobster, we got in about nine and had to settle for a Wendy's drive through. At this point, we did not know what our food situation was going to be for the week since the group I was with didn't have the low down on MREs, so we wanted to make sure we at least had some semblance of a dinner. Once in Maine (we flew into Portland), we drove an hour or so to the Navy base and then packed it in for the night. We stayed at the Bachelors Officer's Quarters on the Navy base.

The next morning we got up bright and early, had a very nutritious breakfast at a Taco Bell (it is a good excuse to eat questionable calories when you have survival training staring you in the face), then met the Navy folks to get our gear. Our gear basically consisted of a set of camouflage clothes (took me awhile to find a pair that semi fit and actually had the majority of its buttons. I backed up my buttons with my belt), a field jacket (a cool weather jacket), a ground cloth, a rain poncho, a poncho liner, a couple pieces of cloth that came from a parachute, a couple of canteens, and a bayonet (very dull). You will notice that there is nothing along the lines of a backpack in this gear. We made backpacks out of our field jackets. We were allowed to stuff anything else we wanted into our field jacket backpacks (not that there was a lot of room). Since I really didn't want to carry a lot of extra weight, not knowing how much trekking around we were going to do, I stuffed in a spare pair of socks, a long sleeve shirt, a very light pair of thermal underwear (we were in Maine after all, it gets chilly at night) and my toothbrush. We then piled into vans and drove the couple of hours to the Rangeley field training area.

We got there in the early afternoon. After a couple of minutes of milling about we got started. First order of business - filling the canteens. There was a nearby stream. Always, always, always have full canteens. You never know when you might not have access to water. Second order of business - dividing into groups. We had four in our group. Then we got down to the lectures. We had lectures on all the basics of survival - finding food, finding water, different kinds of plants, building shelter, making fires, etc. All kinds of stuff. Many hours of lectures, but it was the typical program, the military gets all the lectures over the course of a week and we get them all in an afternoon.

The key mnemonics: Be Prepared to Face These Hostile Factors, which stands for Boredom, Pain, Temperature, Fear, Thirst, Hunger, Fatigue; and Few Survivors Find Fast Solutions, which stands for First Aid, Shelter, Fire, Food and water, Signals. We learned how do deal with all of those items.

After all the lectures it was getting on towards night time. We were pointed in the direction of where we were to sleep and given our MRE for the day. For this night, we were allowed to stay in what they call a hooch. I don't actually know what that term means (I can tell you they didn't mean the hooch you drink), but for our purposes, we had some open air shelters to bunk down in for the night. We made a stab at spreading out our stuff on the floor of the hooch for our makeshift beds (I should probably have pointed out earlier that none of our gear consisted of a sleeping bag, either) and then our class gathered back together for our grand dinner of our MRE. Luckily the military folks in our class graciously showed the rest of us how to heat up our food since by now it was after dark and we couldn't read the directions.

I chose to only eat part of my MRE, since I knew I was going to want something in the morning for breakfast. Now, the military folks told us that the MREs that are made these days are vastly improved over what they used to be (I suppose that these same folks walked to school uphill in the snow also). I can't tell you if this is actually true or not, but I can tell you that I was very impressed in the variety of entrees and associated snacks. For my dining pleasure this night I had what was billed as meatloaf with onion gravy and mashed potatoes. It wasn't too bad, especially after I mixed the potatoes in with the meatloaf and gravy and liberally applied the salt and cayenne pepper that came with it. I also had in my MRE a giant cracker and a package of jelly which I saved for breakfast. And, some tootsie rolls.

Now, here is where our training really departed from the rigorous Navy training. We were called back to the cabin area where we had all our lectures and were told that if we were interested, the instructors were going to show a movie. Yes, I know, this isn't exactly roughing it. But, who am I to question the availability of a movie in the middle of basically nowhere? My group watched about half of the movie (the Last Samurai) and then we decided to call it a night since we were pretty tired. I was up for watching more of the movie, but I didn't have a flashlight, so I figured I had better go with the group.

Once we got out of the lecture/movie cabin, we quickly realized how clear the night sky was and, hence, how chilly it was getting. We were definitely in Maine. I'd estimate that it got down somewhere in the mid to upper forties that night. Of course, in the hooch we were pretty much just sleeping on a raised wooden floor. Not exactly cushioned and not exactly insulated. Yes, I was cold even though I had on my long johns and field jacket. The funniest thing was that even though one of my hooch-mates and I were pretty much shivering all night, neither one of us wanted to get up and put on the extra shirt and extra socks that we each had brought with us. We would both get scrunched in our poncho liners just so and didn't want to move lest we expose some part of ourselves to the brisk night air. We also discovered that our other two group mates snored. One person pretty much gave an all night concert and the other would chime in on the chorus. It was quite a night.

The next morning we all woke up with the sun (about 0530). The instructors, thankfully, built a fire we were able to get the chill off a bit. I enjoyed my crackers and jelly. Although, I would have preferred something a little more substantial. After breakfast we trooped back into the cabin for more lectures. The cabin has no heat, so it wasn't long before I was chilled again. This morning we covered the basics of navigation. Following the morning lectures each group got with an instructor and we went out into the field to go over some practical training. They have different areas set up where you can see different types of traps for catching small animals as well as areas where different types of shelters have been built. We also covered the basics of building fires and the different options of getting them lit.

That afternoon we were instructed to go out into the field a bit and build a shelter for our group to stay in for the night. We were given a parachute as the basic building material. Once we found a relatively flat and rock free area, we were able to put together a pretty nice tent out of our parachute in relatively short order. We also cut down a bunch of pine boughs for a floor (cushion and insulation). This was a little difficult since our bayonets were so dull, but we finally managed to get a reasonable layer. We then laid out our ground covers, made sleeping bags out of our poncho covers, and lined them with the pieces of parachute that were in our gear. I think we ended up with a nice set up. We also decided that we wanted to have a campfire before turning in, so we gathered some wood for that. I probably shouldn't admit this, but we seized an opportunity that presented itself to us. Late in the afternoon we noticed that no one seemed to be near the big pile of lovely split and seasoned wood near the lecture cabin. We may have, um, borrowed a few pieces for our fire that night.

By now, it was diner time. My MRE was chicken tetrazinni. It didn't look pretty, but I thought it was rather tasty. Some of the other MREs that my group had were chicken teriyaki, cheese manicotti with vegetables, and turkey and dressing. Everyone claimed that they were good. I had more crackers and jelly for my breakfast the next day. That night we saw another movie (The Big Labowski) and then headed off to our campsite. With all the wood that we had "gathered" was had quite a nice fire. I don't know if the night was warmer or not (I doubt it), but we were not as cold as the night before. Since our tent was smaller than the hooch, there was less air to warm up and we had a better floor to sleep on. Of course, I was also wearing all my clothes. The snore fest continued.

We again woke up early, had breakfast and got ready for the day - took down the shelter and packed up our packs. We had some lectures on communications and how to carry inured people and then we headed back into the field for navigation exercises. This consisted on hiking around and trying to figure out where we were. During all our hiking, we came across a lot of wild raspberries, blueberries, chokecherries, and apples. They made for a nice snack.

We had been instructed to be at the lecture cabin at 1:00 for information on our final exercise. We turned on our radio at the appointed hour and were told that we needed to get ourselves to a given set of coordinates by a particular time and "await extraction." We were also told that other groups were going to be meeting us there. So, our final exercise was testing our navigation skills. We had about four hours to navigate roughly 3 kilometers. The coordinates that we were given were about halfway up a mountain. Our group figured out our plan of attack and headed off. Our instructor was to go with us and only chime in if we appeared to be completely heading off in the wrong direction. The terrain was pretty rough, but we managed to get where we needed to go with some time to spare. We were the third group out of the four to make it. Each group had stared from a different location. The spot was absolutely beautiful - it was a rock outcrop overlooking a valley.

Everyone had been told that we would be receiving more instructions on our "extraction" at 6:00. When we were contacted at the appointed hour, we were told that our rescuers were having mechanical difficulties and we needed to hunker down for the night. Our final test continued. We had to build shelters for the night, which we did. Then all the groups met back at the rock for dinner and to make a campfire. For my dinning pleasure I had a beef enchilada. I was quite pleased to note that the first ingredient on the ingredient list was actually beef. I didn't bother saving anything for breakfast since I knew that we were going to be heading out and having breakfast in town. I figured I would be able to make it until then without starving.

The night was spectacular. The moon was approaching a full moon and the stars were out on full force. It was also quite impressive to see absolutely no manmade lights in the valley as far as the eye could see. It was just us out there. Well, they left behind one instructor in case there were any emergencies, but we didn't see much of him. Those guys are pretty good at hiding. We probably stayed up half the night yakking. It was a good experience.

The next morning we were expecting to be contacted at 0600. About 0540 we heard distress whistles being blown. Apparently, the instructors and planners had enlisted some of our classmates for the final, final exercise. We had two people with simulated injuries. Just as we set about taking care of them, we got the instructions on our extraction - we had to be several hundred yards away in about an hour. We quickly got to taking down the shelters, packing up the gear, and building litters on which to haul our injured classmates. Luckily, my group knew that there was a path through the woods to where we needed to be. That made it a bit easier, since we didn't have to navigate through the woods to the new extraction point. Though, the trail was pretty rough. Most of my class was on the carry the injured detail. I ended up lugging packs down the path. It is a whole lot easier to carry an injured person if you do not also have to carry your gear. So, while they were making their way down the path, I was ferrying the packs out. I definitely got a lot of exercise. We all did. Once we got everyone to the designated point, our exercise and our survival training was over. Whew! I was ready for breakfast.

We piled into the vans and went to the area where the instructors hang out when they aren't dealing with students. They have a pretty nice set up - kind of like a rustic hotel. We used their showers to clean up and then headed out to a big buffet breakfast. After breakfast we turned in our gear, had a short media fest, and then dashed off to the airport. Most of the gang was heading back to Houston. Since many of us had not ever been to Maine before, four of us decided to stay an extra couple of days and do some sight seeing and hiking (as if we hadnšt already had enough). That was really nice, we spent one night in Portland, and then we drove along the coast over to the Acadia National Park the next day. We did a nice hike that afternoon and then found a place in Bar Harbor for the night. Naturally, we had lobster every night.

© Shannon Walker   2004

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Revised 09-24-04