Just because he is not currently conducting Combat Survival Training at Saylor Park in the mountains west of the Academy does not mean SERE specialist Master Sgt. Chad Watts is resting on his laurels.
The 16-year Academy Combat Survival Training superintendent from Northwood, Iowa, is readying for a virtual deluge of cadets at Saylor Park this summer. The 22nd Training Squadron, part of the Air Education Command’s Air Force SERE School at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., does not have a commander directly assigned to Operation Location-Alpha.
The Academy has levied the CST at Saylor Park into accommodating the 1,000-plus cadets fourth class for training. “We divide the class into thirds and each third of that class will attend 1st, 2nd and 3rd summer CST periods respectively,” Sergeant Watts said. “In the end, at any given time we will have approximately 300 people in the field. The question I get asked a lot is how do they receive good training with that many people in the field? Each group is broken into flights, broken into elements, broken into teams. Our off-base training area is 26,000 acres. Compared to the Academy’s 18,500 acres.” In the progression of cadets fourth class, this summer they will go through the program as students, next summer they will have the opportunity to come back and work as cadre. The third summer they have the opportunity to come back as key staff and cadet command positions.
There are four SERE Specialists currently assigned to the Academy. As the CST program manager, he has three others who are the NCOICs of base training, survival training and evasion training. Starting this summer, cadets will be attending the 21-day program.
The program consists of various aspects which fall under the CST umbrella. Academic training covers the material the cadets will be learning while conducting operational training. From academics, the cadets will move into the base training areas which cover, navigation basics, vectoring, hoist, urban evasion, and resistance training. This summer is the first summer since the mid-90s that resistance training has been incorporated into the CST curriculum.
Unlike the previous years when resistance training was conducted at the Academy, this year the CST team is utilizing contractors to provide the “hands-on” training that the cadets will be faced with.
“However, we rely heavily on the upper-class cadets to be our leadership, trainers, and commanders during all other aspects of CST, for our rising three-degrees,” said the CST superintendent.
“In the end, the cadets will receive MT-220, Combat Survival Training and for our upper class cadets, they receive MT-420 credit as part of their leadership training. Once the base training is complete, the cadets travel to Saylor Park to begin their four day survival training and immediately after begin their four day evasion training.”
But cadets will provide the horsepower as instructors, key staff, logistical staff and admin staff except during resistance training which is all taught and conducted by defense department contractors who do this exact training at the Air Force’s SERE School on a weekly basis.
“While all this training is ongoing, my NCOs ensure the training objectives are met, provide leadership advice to our cadet staff, and add that measure of experience that each one of them has experienced in their SERE career,” Sergeant Watts said. “One huge lesson I have learned from deployments is when a person deploys, you don’t just do your job, everyone pitches in to get the mission accomplished,” said the senior NCO. “For example, when I was in Afghanistan, our helicopters launched to recover some locals who had been hit with an IED, characterized as a mass-casualty event. As they were bringing the locals back, I was out helping transport patients from the helo to the ambulance. One of the patients was a 6 year-old boy and I was holding pressure on a leg wound and an IV bag. That really hit home to me that no one goes through something like this unaffected. When he got out of surgery, I made it a point to go back to the hospital to see him and the look on his dad’s face was something I will never forget.”
His AFSC is called “survival specialist.”
“Specialist yes, expert no,” said Sergeant Watts.
“I have a personal philosophy that no one is ever an expert. You never know all the answers and there is always room to learn more. When someone thinks they know all the answers, it’s probably time to find something else to do. Having the ability to pass our skills on to someone who may need our training someday is the big thing that makes us SERE specialists love what we do.”
“During the off season, we have been busy working on the planning and preparing for this summer’s training. At the end of the day, we could not be able to do our job of ensuring our cadets receive top-notch SERE training without the support of the 10th Air Base Wing and the Academy Cadet Wing.
“This program is logistically heavy in terms of food, transportation, communication, infrastructure, supply requirements, etc and it’s our job in the off season to ensure the planning and scheduling of everything gets documented and codified.
And so the off season for the SERE people isn’t really off.
“The resistance training portion of CST was cut from the Academy in the mid-90s,” he said. “Back when the program was running at the Academy, we had cadets interrogating cadets. That portion of SERE training is the most stressful for a student, which is why the decision was made to use only contractors.”
The whole CST program came back to the Academy based on the Air Force chief of staff’s directive last year. This year CST will be incorporating evasion and conduct after training into the CST program. The training an AETC requirement that currently is being given to elements like security forces and offices of special investigations.
One was to describe what’s coming is “Spartan.”
“From the student viewpoint, they don’t get much food to begin with; one MRE, ducks, chicken, and rabbits, that they must prepare in the field,” said the sergeant of multi deployments. “In accordance with our land use agreement with the U.S. Forest Service, we are not authorized to procure any wild game. Our substitution to that is to provide the game to them. A requirement for completing the survival portion of CST is to prepare that game under the supervision of their cadre and SERE specialists to ensure everything is done humanely and properly.”
SERE continually works with the USFS to minimize the training’s footprint in Saylor Park. “Our relationship with the USFS is phenomenal,” Sergeant Watts said. “Each of the NCOs who works for me has his or her cadre in the field picking up trash and keeping the park clean and as free of trash as possible.”
When each SERE cycle is done, Sergeant Watts feels relief. “Being in charge of the entire operation is pretty stressful at times,” he said. “Having great NCOs who work for me is a huge bonus because I know I can count on them to get any job done that they are given. Personally, I feel that I have the three best SERE specialist NCOs working for me in the SERE career field. From the cadet side, my job doesn’t allow me to get to know all the students personally; however, I work very closely with the cadet key staff and get to know them all very well. You sort of get that parental instinct when working with them, give them the tools to succeed, get to know them, teach them to be leaders and then they are done and off working other programs.”
In the end, he said, it’s a double-edged sword. “I’m glad it’s over but sad to see our key staff leave,” said Sergeant Watts. “My goal when they finish the program is they have a better working knowledge of Air Force operational training, working with NCOs and Airmen and someday when they are supervisors and commanders, they remember the training we provided them and ensure their Airmen and NCOs get that respect from them.”
And, at the end of the day?
“PT is a huge stress release,” said the NCO. “I am one of those people who doesn’t take work home with me unless absolutely necessary. Also, my hobbies are photography, playing guitar and spending time with my family.”