SAN ISABEL NATIONAL FOREST, Colo. --
Above 14,000 ft. in San Isabel National Forest, a lazy smoke trail climbs through the light canopy of conifers off the side of a well-groomed cross-country skiing trail. Stepping off the trail towards the smoke, 3-foot snow banks prevent easy access. However, breaking through the frozen fortress reveals a large canvas canopy covering cases, coolers, two tents and three merry mountain men.
The scene turns less cozy when one reads the temperature; a balmy –5 degrees Fahrenheit, and that doesn’t even account for wind chill. What’s more, these three men aren’t here to live out a homesteading fantasy. Rather, it is their job to potentially protect 16 Colorado Air National Guard 120th Fighter Squadron pilots and one flight doctor from freezing to death in sub-arctic and arctic tundra.
Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape training focuses on rescuing Airmen from behind enemy lines and bringing them back to safety. In the frozen national forest, U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Eric Meartens, SERE non-commissioned officer in charge, Tech. Sgt. Jack Bell, SERE augmentee, and Staff Sgt. Stephen McDavid, SERE augmentee, 140th Operations Support Squadron, will focus on survival training for their charges.
“We will focus on medical, fire starting and shelter for this training iteration,” explained Maertens. “We’re putting a big emphasis on shelter since you won’t last long at –30 [degrees] with wind in a tundra; you’ll freeze within 15 minutes without proper equipment.”
Luckily, the pilots undergoing the training didn’t need to test that statement. Instead, Maertens and his team developed a hands-on, single-day curriculum to review and test SERE survival skills. Further, the training provided a prime opportunity to evaluate, and possibly augment, equipment on-board the F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft’s Advanced Concept Ejection Seat II and on the pilots’ person during flight.
“Every pilot undergoes SERE training to become flight ready,” said Maertens. “Here, we want to prepare them for specific missions and mindsets around a particular environment to augment that baseline knowledge.”
For U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Josh Rasmussen, pilot, 120 FS, that specificity could not be more welcome.
“I, like many other [Colorado Air National Guard] pilots, grew up in Colorado and the cold,” said Rasmussen. “But what we are preparing for is a whole other level of survival, and Eric is a wealth of knowledge for us.”
Having Maertens assigned to the 140th Wing is also its own unique fortune, said Rasmussen.
“The only reason we could make this training possible was because of Eric,” explained Rasmussen. “Wings across the Air National Guard don’t have a SERE specialist, and [the COANG] is much better prepared because of his inclusion in our ranks.”
Leveraging Maertens’ experience was paramount to the entire wing, according to Col. Micah Fesler, commander, 140th Wing, who initially approached Maertens personally to initiate the arctic training.
“We want the ability to put our alert [aircraft] in an arctic theater of operations,” explained Fesler. “To do that, we need to give them the training and equipment they need to survive.”
Additionally, the commander said he’d like to expand the SERE capability to other viable parties.
“Pilots aren’t the only people who may find themselves in danger or in need of vital survival skills,” said Fesler. “We’re working on future opportunities for more members of the COANG to work with Eric to leverage his excellent skillset.”
Maertens said he looks forward to the opportunity to get out and around Colorado and elsewhere to continue similar training exercises.
“Every time I can get out to the field, I see a higher level of learning than in the classroom,” he said. “It really sinks in when people engage with the training in the appropriate environment.”
It’s clear that Maertens’ experience, the pilots’ desire to learn, and the wing commander’s support all culminate into a picture of readiness for the COANG. Not bad for three merry mountain men buried in the forests of Colorado.