Possibly The Worst Thanksgiving Day Ever, Courtesy of SERE School

Back in the day, we were in a support cycle having come back from a deployment with the 7th Special Forces Group and myself and another guy got ourselves put in a short course the Weapons Committee was running for some reserve Heavy Weapons guys. It was early November and the weather was turning crappy in Ft. Bragg. Rainy, cold and raw.

But then the word came down that the Company was sending me to SERE School as back then it 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. And back then, 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 Camp Mackall I go.

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 where 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 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 was captured by the Viet Cong in 1963 along with Colonel Nick Rowe who started the SERE Course after he broke his leg during an ambush. 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.

During his time with us, as 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 my diploma. 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 and a total stud named Joe and a Ranger, a huge, red-headed E-4 whose name escapes me. He was a riot. Away from the rigid life in the battalion, he was loving life as instead of standing at parade rest when higher ranking NCOs spoke with him, he was loving the laid-back atmosphere with SF. His answer for everything was, “This is soooo-fucking HOOAH!” We immediately loved the guy and we probably caused the guy 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 fucking Hooah!”

Doing the Survival training in a group was actually a heckuva lot more fun than doing it on your own. We got checked on by a retired SF NCO who was an expert on edible plants MSG (ret) Phil Salzwedel (probably butchered his spelling), 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 FUCKING 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 fucked my left index finger up. As I was getting ready to go down, with the Ranger to follow me, I slipped on the wet concrete and slid off with getting in position. My guide hand (left) had a hold of the rope still 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 bandaged it up. It was quickly forgotten but 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 quiet tonight.” He answered, if I was home right now, I’d be sitting on the couch fat on turkey watching football, getting a hummer with a beer in my hand.” That broke the ice.

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 where the guy on either side of you was right up against your leg. We were all shivering and it would go around the circle from you, to the guy next to you, until it went all the way around the circle until it got back to you again.

The CW3 that 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. 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 fucking well right at your feet.”

We had crossed an old homestead and the people had dug about a 20 foot well. Joe, in the dark, had somehow stepped right into it. Another step and I’d have too and 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 broke his right tibia.

We knotted together our ponchos and lowered them to Joe who wrapped them around his body and tied it 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 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 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 showed up and wanted us to show them where it happened. They were amazed that we were able to get him out and about the infinitesimal odds of Joe stepping in a tiny well in the middle of nowhere.

We were by now hours behind schedule and had a long way to go to get to 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 inspect the hide. They told us 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 the 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 dogshit. After starving for days during an E&E, you know it was awful when it tasted that bad. Tony remarked, “this tastes like road-kill raccoon” as a joke. “That’s exactly what it is,” one of the guerrillas said. “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 messed up night in the Uwharrie National Forest and how that was about the most messed up Thanksgiving ever. Would I change a minute of it? Not a chance.

Photos: DOD