The small voice in your mind always feared this day’s arrival, and now it’s here. As you look back at the burning city skyline, you hear gunshots, blood-curdling screams, and shattering glass. Anxious thoughts race through your mind as you wonder if your family is safe. You are leaving this dying city with all the gear and food you’ve stockpiled and all the time you’ve spent training. You are now miles away from your hometown and family on a business trip with strangers.
You pass an abandoned police car, glancing painfully at the empty rifle rack. Gunfire grows nearer, and your group quickens their pace. People are becoming feral, primitive. The armed men you saw earlier are finished with their current victims and are now hunting those in tailored suits and expensive shoes, who appear completely defenseless: you and your colleagues.
Although this scenario is fictional, it’s not unrealistic. Civil unrest, terrorist attacks, invading armies, or natural disasters can cause society to collapse rapidly. That’s why I jumped at the chance to participate in a SERE (survive, evade, resist, and escape) course held by an elite training organization that teaches civilians, law enforcement, and military personnel survival techniques, including women’s self-defense, concealed weapon carrying, bushcraft, and tactical medicine. The two-day course made me confident that we could survive and make it home safely if we ever found ourselves in a similar situation.
From the loads of information, tactics, and experience gained from the SERE course, I have distilled the top five lessons learned. Keep reading to discover them.
SERE Lesson 1 – You Are Only as Strong as Your Team
Within the corporate realm, leaders can either be competent or incompetent. During a crisis or in its aftermath, the latter can lead to fatal consequences, be it through negligence or sheer incompetence. It is, therefore, essential to select the right person for the role.
Avoid individuals who are overly eager to take the reins and instead choose someone who is already universally respected. This individual will be tasked with keeping everyone on track, delegating responsibilities and tasks, and holding each member accountable for their actions.
That’s why the assigning of leaders is one of the initial tasks given to participants in the SERE class, as it sets the tone for the rest of the training. The decision to appoint an alpha dog falls on the group, but this doesn’t mean the leader must be a tyrant.
If a leader’s approach is too heavy-handed, group members might revolt or splinter off. Instead, decisions and plans can be made collectively in an open forum, where everyone contributes to the subject. This approach makes everyone feel appreciated and part of the team, leading to a more robust and unified plan. Ultimately, the designated leader should assign tasks and have the final say, as they are accountable for their actions, just like the rest of the group.
In the military or certain sports, it’s all about the team. The team becomes a microculture with a unique set of evolving values and customs. It is said that our values are shaped by our environment, and exposure to a new environment changes our values to match that setting.
If your world of Priuses and Frappuccinos has transformed into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, expect your perspective to change to align with your group’s, or you’ll be left behind. Group absolution is a fundamental aspect of human nature, so don’t be surprised by how primitive things may become.
SERE Lesson 2 – Sleep will get you killed, it’s a luxury you can’t always afford
You won’t be sleeping, and if you do, it could cost you your life. This is a lesson that soldiers know well, and it’s a critical one that runs throughout the SERE program. In a survival scenario, you’re likely to be on foot, as driving yourself out of danger may not be an option. The energy expended hiking all day will leave you exhausted, but that doesn’t mean you get to clock out when the sun sets.
Throughout history, armies have attacked at night or at dawn, and some of America’s top commandos still use this tactic to gain an edge. To stay safe, your group will need to post a rotating night watch, as maintaining security at all times is crucial. While a big tent and a cozy sleeping bag may seem appealing, kicking off your boots and climbing into bed is an easy way to get killed in your sleep. If there are people actively hunting you, why would you let down your guard as darkness falls? You simply can’t, and if your lookout falls asleep on duty, it could be a death sentence for everyone.
The SERE course teaches students how to build simple and effective shelters that can be set up and taken down in minutes. Using tarp shelters provides a lightweight, adaptable, and effective way to make camp. In an emergency, they can be cut down and quickly stowed or abandoned altogether.
SERE Lesson 3 – Even good guys get hurt
While it may be tempting to seek revenge and punish the wrongdoers, it’s best to avoid conflict altogether. Engaging with mixed groups of looters, marauders, and violent gangs will put your group members in danger. In a world without ambulances, hospitals, or doctors, injuries sustained during fights for resources or self-defense can prove fatal. Even with the knowledge and supplies for primitive medicine, it’s best to avoid Civil-War-era medicine at all costs. Having a medical kit and knowing how to use it is just as important as having a firearm.
It’s important to acknowledge that accidents can happen to anyone and to be prepared for them. A simple mistake with a knife or a fall down a ravine can be life-threatening. The medical aspect of the SERE course is a critical lesson for students. Along with the firearms portion of the class, it provides valuable exposure to administering care under fire and handling triage.
SERE Lesson 4 – A good plan today is better than perfect planning tomorrow
Inaction, bickering, or wavering can paralyze you and your team when swift action is needed. Talking about procuring food won’t satisfy your hunger, but disregarding a comprehensive plan that ensures all members comprehend it is unwise. While hasty decisions can prove fatal, so can avoiding any risks. Every action you take or fail to take could result in death.
However, by making deliberate and well-informed decisions, you can significantly reduce the risk. This is where exceptional leaders excel, and individual expertise shines through. (Refer to lesson 1.)
Remember that each of your teammates brings a unique set of skills and experiences to the group, which can provide a significant advantage. If you have a mechanical engineer in your team, let them take charge of building a sturdy structure or rope bridge. If there is an ER nurse, they will have valuable insights for devising a medical plan that others may not. And, just because a team member’s current occupation involves hanging drywall, it doesn’t mean that they have forgotten everything they learned during their deployment to Afghanistan in the National Guard.
Consider all of this, share your perspectives, and create good, simple, and executable plans. Assign your subject-matter experts as “project managers” for their specialties. Utilize their knowledge and experience to the fullest and incorporate them into all your plans. Remember that collective wisdom will go a long way in ensuring your group’s survival.
SERE Lesson 5 – Plan for failure
When it comes to survival, having a plan is crucial. However, it’s equally important to understand that plans can change or even fail altogether. In a world where structure and routine are vital to our sense of security, it can be hard to accept the uncertainty that comes with survival situations. But as history has shown us, humans are incredibly adaptable and capable of thinking on their feet.
To prepare for the unexpected, it’s essential to have a plan in place. This plan should outline your team’s objectives and the steps needed to achieve them. But remember, the plan is just a starting point. You must be willing to adjust your strategy as new challenges arise. Flexibility is key. If a team member is kidnapped, you must be ready to adapt and come up with a new plan of action, even if it means trading supplies with the captors or launching a surprise raid.
To survive, you must be as fluid as water and as hard as rock. This means being open to change and willing to act decisively when the situation demands it. It also means having the mental and physical toughness to endure hardship and persevere through adversity. By embracing uncertainty and learning to think on your feet, you can increase your chances of survival and thrive in even the most challenging environments. Remember, a plan is just a list of things that aren’t going to happen, but with the right mindset, you can overcome any obstacle that comes your way.
The most valuable asset you can equip yourself with during a crisis is knowledge, and the SERE course offers just that. This knowledge is gained through a range of challenging missions and tasks that are designed to test you both mentally and physically. Because these skills are acquired through adversity, they are more likely to remain with you for a long time.
Unlike real-life scenarios, attending courses like this provides you with the opportunity to learn important skills in a relatively safe environment. From bushcraft and rope work to small-unit tactics and team building, the SERE course offers a comprehensive learning experience that could help you survive in times of crisis. It’s also not uncommon to forge lifelong friendships while attending the course. The sense of empowerment you feel when accomplishing things you never thought possible, while becoming a part of a cohesive team of trusted friends, is truly remarkable.
In a crisis, people do not rise to the occasion; they fall back to their level of training and preparedness. Similarly, a crisis does not turn people into heroes or cowards; it simply reveals their true character. Therefore, the more a person hones their character and skills beforehand, the greater their chances of survival in a crisis.
Suggested resources for survivalists: