After nearly a year out east, I returned to California in January of 1994 with orders to report to HS-10, the helicopter training squadron in San Diego where I would spend six months learning the ropes before finally deploying as part of an operational squadron. But there were a few more hurdles to clear first, and the toughest of these was what came next. Before you can become a pilot, rescue swimmer, or any other job where there is significant risk of capture, you need two things. You have to have secret clearance, and you have to go to survival school.

The term “boot camp” was first used by the Marines back in World War II, the term boot being slang for “recruit.” Those of us who showed up for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape Training (SERE) that January may have already been through many months of training, but we were clearly still green, still boots—and survival school was boot camp on steroids.

Based on the experiences of U.S. and allied soldiers as prisoners of war, the program’s aim is to equip its trainees with both the skills and the grit to survive with dignity in the most hostile conditions of captivity. It was far and away the most intense training I’d encountered so far.

We mustered at the SERE school building at Naval Air Station North Island, on the northern end of the Coronado peninsula, where we were scheduled for a week of classroom training, followed by a week of field work. We spent that first week covering history and background, including lessons learned from World War II and Vietnam. We learned such things as how to tell a captor just enough to stay alive—but not enough to give away secrets. The week went by fast, which suited us fine: we were looking forward to getting into the field.

That day came soon enough. We were all lined up and checked head to toe for smuggled food items before heading out. We had been warned not to try and sneak any food into our clothes or boots, but as I would learn again and again during my time in the Navy, there’s always one in every bunch. Sure enough, a few guys got caught with a variety of ridiculous food items stashed on their person. I had to give it to them for trying.

After inspection, we drove about ninety minutes to the northeast, heading into the mountains of Warner Springs, California, where we were broken into groups of six and then into two-man evasion teams. I was paired up with a big Recon Marine. These are special ops guys, similar in many ways to SEALs, including some who specialize in deep reconnaissance and others, called black ops, who focus more on direct action missions. I didn’t know if this guy was black ops or not, but regardless, as survival and evasion partners go I figured I could do a lot worse.

Then we were set loose in the wild with nothing but the clothes on our backs, simulating the experience of being on the move behind enemy lines. We spent the next three days learning basic survival and evasion skills, including trapping, tracking, and land navigation. We ate everything we could get our hands on, which wasn’t much. Survival school classes had been going out to this same spot for years, and practically everything that qualified as edible plant or animal had long ago been snatched up and eaten. Soon we were wolfing anything that wasn’t tied down, including bugs, some scruffy plants, and one lucky rabbit. By day 2, we were starving.

The nights were rough. Our first day out my partner and I built a shelter in preparation for the cold mountain night, but we way overbuilt. Being manly men, we wanted a nice roomy set-up so we would each have our space and wouldn’t have to sleep so close that we would touch each other. Having since experienced that kind of cold a number of times, both in training in the States and thousands of feet above sea level in the wilds of northern Afghanistan, let me tell you: all that manly bullshit goes right out the window and you are more than happy to be nut to butt with anyone who has a pulse and warm blood coursing through his veins. After waking up the fourth time, chilled to the core and teeth chattering, my Marine buddy and I grunted a few words of manliness and then nestled up to each other like a scene right out of Brokeback Mountain.