Many moons ago, our company in the 7th Special Forces Group had just come back from a deployment and we got stuck in a support cycle. Those sucked, BS details and the lot. One of the guys from our company told me about how the Weapons Committee was running a short course over at the Special Warfare Center (SWC) for SF National Guard heavy weapons sergeants. He got the two of us plugged in and we were having a blast because we were getting some good refresher training. That lasted about two days.
But I got pulled out of there when the word came down that the Company was sending me to SERE School Level 3 (High-Risk Course), which back then wasn’t part of the SFQC (Special Forces Qualification Course). Of course, no one wanted to take it because it would entail being out there over Thanksgiving. Yep, Thanksgiving. Not me though. Sign me up coach!
I never said I was overly smart then, or am now. And in my younger days, I was like the kid Mikey from the Life cereal commercials “Let’s give it to Mikey!, He’ll eat anything.” Yes indeed, “Steve never turns down a school.” So off to lovely Camp Mackall we go in beautiful November weather, rainy, cold, raw.
We had a pretty eclectic class. About a dozen guys from 7th SFG, a bunch of pilots from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment “Night Stalkers,” three Air Force PJs, a few crew chiefs from the 160th, and two Rangers from the 1st Ranger Battalion. I believe Mike Durant, the pilot from Black Hawk Down was in our class. I saw he wrote that he attended a SERE course at Bragg in November of the same year. But I can’t be sure; he may have attended the class prior.
Other than the pilots in our patrol, I didn’t talk too much to the other pilots as they and the crew chiefs pretty much stuck to themselves during breaks. The 7th group guys did much the same as we all knew one another as well as many of the instructors teaching the blocks of instruction.
One of the best parts of our class was having former SF POW Dan Pitzer speak to us one day. Dan had been captured by the Viet Cong in 1963 after he broke his leg during an ambush. His story was detailed in Rowe’s book Five Years to Freedom. Pitzer along with Colonel Nick Rowe had started the SERE Course for the Army.
He was a tremendous person and totally laid back. He spoke in a quiet steady tone and described his years of “benevolent, humane treatment” by the VC. When he described his treatment, the room was totally silent. You could hear a pin drop and it seemed that everyone was leaning forward in their chairs to catch the next word. His words were pretty prophetic, which we didn’t realize at the time. “We designed this course in case any of you ever find yourself in the situation we were in,” Pitzer said. “I hope none of you ever does, but surer than anything, someday one or more of you will.” And Durant would sadly fill that role.
One of my prized possessions is my SERE diploma and as promised, on graduation day, Dan Pitzer came and autographed it. RIP sir, you were a class act.
The instructors split the class up with each patrol getting a few SF guys, pilots, crew chiefs, etc. Ours had one of the Air Force PJs, a total stud named Joe, and a Ranger, a huge, red-headed E-4 whose name I will leave blank. He was a riot. Away from the rigid life in the battalion, loving the laid-back atmosphere with SF.
His answer for everything was, “This is soooo-f***ing HOOAH!” Everyone in the class immediately loved the guy and we probably caused him to have to go thru RIP again by the time we were done. On every break, he’d cock his patrol cap far back on his head, and stand there with his hands in his pockets, in total SF-mode, “sooo f***ing Hooah!”
Doing the survival part of training in a group was actually a heckuva lot more fun than doing it on your own like we had to do in the SFQC. We got checked on by MSG (ret) Phil Salzwedel (I probably butcher his spelling), a retired SF NCO who was an expert on edible plants. But Mr. Phil was a great guy and teacher. He came up to us and asked how we were doing. As a group, we said, “SOOOO F***ING HOOAH!” He laughed and told us we weren’t supposed to be having so much fun.
When we did the barrier climb and body rappel, I f**ed up my left index finger. As I was getting ready to go down, with the Ranger following me, I slipped on the wet concrete and slid off with getting in position. My guide hand (left) still held the rope and my weight came down right on the edge of the concrete on that finger. Luckily it wasn’t far to the ground. It was bleeding pretty good, Mr. Phil helped me clean it out and bandage it up.
The injury was quickly forgotten. Yet, it would later swell up like a bratwurst during our visit to the benevolent, “People’s Republic”… those of you who’ve been to SERE know what that means.
After Survival, they fed us well, too well because we knew what was next.
Our Escape and Evasion part of SERE began on Thanksgiving night.
It was about 38 degrees and steady cold rain poured down on us. Everyone was quiet. My buddy Tony Forrest from 7th SFG, asked our Ranger buddy, “You ok? You’re awful quiet tonight.” He replied, “if I was home right now, I’d be sitting on the couch fat on turkey watching football, getting a hummer from my girlfriend with a beer in my hand.” That broke the ice. And we all cracked up.
The rain and the cold quickly soaked us to the bone. The movement that first night was slow since our eyes hadn’t grown accustomed to the dark yet and the visibility was about zero. We moved a couple of clicks in the Uwharrie National Forest and stopped for a map check under a pine tree. We made a very tight perimeter in which the guy on either side of you was right up against your leg. We were all shivering. The shiver would go around the circle, to the guy next to you, until it went all the way around, and got back to you again.
The CW3 pilot, who was taking the turn with the map, had made a map check under a poncho and we were getting ready to move out. Tony said, “Hey Ranger, this still Hooah enough for you?” Without missing a beat, he whispered, “Hey man, this is soooo hooah, I’m jerking off in the mud down here while we’re waiting!” I had to take my hat off and cover my mouth and the entire patrol went into a quiet fit of laughing.
Our PJ Joe decided to take the point. I was right behind him with our Ranger right behind me. We moved about a click and we thought we heard a noise to our right. We stopped for a few seconds and listened. Joe was about 10 feet in front of me. “We good?” he asked. I nodded, we stood and he moved out. I turned to make the hand and arm signal for a second, and as soon as I turned back around I was alone.
WTF! I started to scan the horizon and Joe was nowhere to be found. We lost him in a second. I took about two steps and then heard Joe’s voice which sounded very far away. “Don’t take another step!” Looking left and right, I whispered “where the hell are you?” Again he answered from far away, “I’m in a f***ing well right at your feet.”
In the dark, we had crossed an old homestead with a 20-foot well. Joe, in the dark, had somehow stepped right into it. Another step and I’d have landed right on top of him. We spread out around the well and broke out the flashlights.
Joe was well down there and it wasn’t going to be easy getting him out. Worse, he had broken his right tibia. We knotted together our ponchos and lowered them to Joe who wrapped them around his body and tied them as best he could. It took several minutes to get him out. He was in excruciating pain. His tibia had a compound fracture, it was covered in mud and as a PJ and a medic, he was the best guy to treat it. Unfortunately in SERE School during E&E, you don’t have jack shit.
We called on the radio and told them we had a real-world emergency. We gave them our grid coordinates and they told us to move about 400 meters to our east where there was a hardball road. We were to get him there and illuminate ourselves since being tactical for the time being was out. We rigged up the best poncho litter we could and carried Joe to the road.
About 45 minutes later a crackerbox ambulance arrived with two regular Army PFC medics who didn’t have a clue. Joe took over his own treatment and we got him inside, where we said a quick goodbye and wished him the best.
Our instructors were there and wanted us to show them where it happened. They were amazed at the infinitesimal odds of Joe stepping in a tiny well in the middle of nowhere and that we were able to get him out.
We were by now hours behind schedule and still had a long way from our hide site. We hauled ass throughout the night and arrived just before dawn only a few minutes before our window was due. We were just camouflaging the site when our instructors came up to inspect the hide.
They told us the bad news that Joe had a compound fracture and was in surgery back at Bragg. Then two more instructors came up and pulled our Ranger buddy aside. A minute later they put him in the truck and tore out of there. We were pissed. “What the heck is going on?” They tried to give us the stock bs “we can’t answer that” schoolhouse shit. But we weren’t taking no for an answer. That’s when they told us his grandmother passed away during Thanksgiving dinner with his family and they were trying to get in touch with him… which wasn’t easy.
So in a matter of a few hours, we lost two outstanding guys from our team, the second of which we couldn’t even say goodbye to. And no Thanksgiving turkey. It was a suck-ass Thanksgiving all around.
After days of E&E in the cold, pouring rain, we finally made contact with a friendly guerrilla element. The sun came out for the first time in a week. They offered us hot food, which we immediately accepted. They brought in a roasted carcass that tasted like pure unadulterated dog shit. After starving for days during an E&E, you know the food was awful to have tasted that bad.
“This tastes like road-kill raccoon,” Tony remarked.
“That’s exactly what it is,” one of the guerrillas replied. “It didn’t look like it was dead too long so we scooped him up.”
So when people talk about what they’re thankful for on Thanksgiving, I always think of my family and how lucky I am. But I also think of that night in the Uwharrie National Forest and how that was about the most messed up Thanksgiving ever. Oh, and by the way, us 7th SFG guys must have influenced that guy from the Ranger Battalion. Just a few years ago, I saw that he was indeed SF, had become an officer, and retired as a Lieutenant-Colonel. We’re now friends on FB and it is great to see that he’s still the same great guy he was as a young Ranger. Maybe we ruined him for the Ranger Regiment, but we inherited a great guy and officer.
So I guess, that sometimes even being a bad influence is better than being no influence at all.
Would I change a minute of it? Not a chance. Not even the most f***ed up Thanksgiving Day ever.
Be safe folks, take care of yourselves and each other.
DOL, Sua Sponte.
This article was originally published in November 2021.