SERE specialists past, path help others survive

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Greg Nash
  • 23d Wing Public Affairs

Growing up in a log cabin in the Michigan wilderness, one young man’s quest for adventure consisted of bushwhacking trails where he’d sometimes end up lost in the middle of nowhere with his survival at stake.

While developing a love for finding his way to safety, U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Travis Siegwart, 347th Operations Support Squadron NCO in charge of Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape training, pursues this same passion by helping aircrew members find ways to survive some of the most adverse situations.

“Anybody who’s been in or will face the challenge of being in survival mode needs to deal with the problems at hand,” said Siegwart. “Whether a way has been laid out already or if someone needs to create a plan at a moment’s notice, it doesn’t matter. If you need to move forward, you do what it takes to move forward.”

This forward progress at all costs mindset started when Siegwart was a child, where he dreamed of being a SERE specialist. His father, an Air Force aircrew member, who served in Vietnam, told SERE tales about training scenarios and missions that intrigued him. These stories led him to join the Air Force as a SERE specialist to get people out of isolated, life-threatening situations.

“When dealing with matters of life or death, there are skill sets you want to have but never want to use,” said Siegwart. “My job as a SERE specialist is to prepare aircrews for their worst day imaginable by equipping them with these skill sets and the mindset necessary for them to first survive and then evade the enemy. If that fails, they need to resist the enemy’s interrogation tactics in order to escape so they can return with honor.”

‘Return with honor’ is SERE’s motto and Siegwart imparts skills to Moody’s aircrew members to use in the event that their aircraft goes down so they can be rescued and brought home safely.

Whether it’s combat or non-combat training, in the water or on land, Siegwart says he loves the opportunity to take control and manage emergency situations, while also teaching his students how to accomplish SERE objectives.

“Your aircrew will only do what you would do in an emergency situation,” said Siegwart. “If you want them to perform at their maximum potential, you have to give and show twice as much effort so that they’ll follow you. You have to be a good leader and teacher. I think I’ve been able to accomplish both because of my upbringing.”

Siegwart says that being in-tuned with nature accompanied with his SERE experience has greatly impacted his teaching ability, resulting in him emphasizing every lesson with equal importance.

“You never know what skill set you teach that someone will retain to ultimately decide their survivability,” said Siegwart. “A defining factor could have been just two sentences out of a whole day of class. Everything is critical to your survival. The hard point is emphasizing every point and hope you emphasized them enough to matter. Not every aircrew I teach is going to be on the ground, not everyone is going to be interrogated by the enemy. But for the one that is, they need to have the skill sets required to be successful.”

For Senior Airman Shelbi Bear, 41st Rescue Squadron special mission aviator, out of all the skill sets and knowledge she used in Siegwart’s trainings, her most critical lesson learned was vital.

“The most important takeaway I got from the training was to overcome the feeling of panic and to stay calm,” said Bear. “I was really nervous about water survival training because I don’t like the idea of being strapped in a chair under water. While I did panic a few times throughout the class, [Siegwart] was patient and understanding. Overall, his patience and calm, joking demeanor helped me get through the training.

“I like the way he used his personal experiences to help me get a better grasp of the intended learning point,” Bear added. “He was also able to help us understand and learn how to use our survival equipment. His teaching was very effective, and under his guidance, I absolutely feel confident and comfortable if ever put in the situation to test any of my survival skills.”

For Siegwart, the comfort from growing up in a rural environment while putting his survival tactics to the test was a life-time passion he wanted to professionally pursue. Thriving off of that passion, what was a dream is now a reality, one where he lives out his motto.

“My life’s motto is ‘Invenium Viam Aut Facium’, which is Latin for, ‘I will find a path, or make one,’” said Siegwart. “I live by this because I’ve always refused to give up and continued pushing on, even when it didn’t make sense to do so. This resiliency has helped me accomplish finding my path.

“Now, my dream job allows me the chance to help others out of nightmarish situations so they can find or create their own trails to make it home safe.”