The War at Home: A Wife's Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible)(11)

Written By: Rachel Starnes

By the time Ross earned his wings and we were ready to leave Kingsville and flight school behind, I was sad to see it go. I’d managed to make a few more friends and my job was ready to promote me, plus it had been nice being a mere four-hour drive from my family in central Texas. I had hoped for us to be assigned to Virginia Beach, Virginia, next, a city big enough to have a few universities within striking distance, and a variety of programs I had been researching—teaching, writing, maybe American literature, maybe even something like history or Middle Eastern studies. There were summer workshops, museums, art festivals—many more places I felt I had a likelihood of finally finding a niche, a purpose. We listed Virginia Beach as our first choice and crossed our fingers, but then the orders came through: Lemoore, California. The next stage was a stint in the FRS, or Fleet Replacement Squadron, which everyone still called by its old acronym, the RAG, or Replacement Air Group, a giant training squadron to teach the newly minted pilots to fly the F/A-18 Super Hornet. After Ross completed his time in the RAG, there would be another opportunity to try for Virginia Beach, for the next three-year stage in his career. Maybe grad school could wait until then. After three relocations in three years of flight school, I was confident I could do anything for twelve months.

Also tempering my disappointment was the thought that moving to California at least meant Ross would go to SERE school—Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape—at Warner Springs near San Diego. Ross had already set his sights on this next hurdle, a grim crash course in what to expect as a downed pilot in hostile territory. If he was going to be stranded in the woods without food or water for a week, and then hunted, captured, and subjected to the kind of treatment that required a psychological out-processing evaluation afterward, at least at the Warner Springs location he might have a chance of staying warm. The other SERE location was in Maine.

And so again, the movers came and packed up our modest collection of inherited furniture into one third of an eighteen-wheeler headed east to pack in two other military families on the move. We loaded up our vehicles with dishes, towels, computers, clothes, toiletries, flight gear, medical records, PowerBars, audiobooks, walkie-talkies to scout for cheap gas, and our dog-eared National Geographic Road Atlas. The cat rode with me, the dog rode with Ross, and we set out for a 1,700-mile trek to our next destination—a town, but no address, since we intended to find someplace to rent once we got there. This is the way to move when you’ve got no real foothold in the world beyond a few thousand pounds of household goods. It allows for speed and a certain sense of adventure, the kind that makes you turn the radio up and sing, even in a sudden spring hailstorm that spooks even the truckers, who pull off at the rest stops while the sky turns green and ice sludges up in ridges on the road. You keep going at full speed and full volume, because this makes the trip strenuous enough to avoid any thoughts about what might be waiting at the end.


SERE school became a part of the military’s training curriculum for aircrew and special operations personnel, who are seen as having the highest risk of enemy capture, after the Korean War, and its coverage of resistance techniques was expanded to address lessons learned from prisoners of war in Vietnam. “The mission of SERE is to ensure those Americans fighting in the Armed Forces of our country, defending our freedoms and way of life, are armed with the confidence, knowledge, and skills required to survive the challenges of isolation in hostile environments.” This is how FASOTRAGRUPAC (Fleet Aviation Specialized Operational Training Group, Pacific—the Navy loves acronyms, even five-syllable ones) explains why, after a few days of reviewing edible plants and principles of concealment in a classroom in San Diego, it takes people northeast into the mountains and re-creates the experience of being stranded, hunted, captured, and interrogated in hostile territory. The SERE school headquarters at Naval Air Station North Island says it more clearly in big bold letters on the front of its building. “We train the best for the worst.”

“The worst,” of course, even in simulation, is a matter of wild speculation. Graduates of SERE are sternly warned not to talk about what they’ve been through, and most would rather not anyway. The few we met before moving to California gave us a wide-eyed, ghoulish laugh when Ross or I asked what it was like, what to expect. “It f*cking sucks! But at least you’ll lose weight!” was the usual response.

Within forty-eight hours of our arrival in California, Ross left with a shaving kit and little else. An ominous directive indicated that he needed to bring only flight boots, that his SERE instructors would provide the rest. The boots, of course, had been accidentally packed in with the household move, and their absence provided another opportunity to feel like I had somehow screwed up what little my end of the bargain required of me and was sending him off woefully unprepared. We said good-bye on the front porch and I promised to find his boots and FedEx them when our stuff arrived. With any luck, they might catch up to him before the classroom portion of SERE ended and the wilderness simulation began.

“See you in two weeks,” he said.

“Be safe,” I said, our now familiar incantation. “I love you.”

For the first week that Ross was gone, I struggled to pass the time, since it would be another ten days before the moving truck arrived. We’d made it to California in three days and found a house to rent as soon as we hit town, in the hour before the real estate office closed. We were in such a rush to claim an address—road weary, short on cash, mercilessly crossing off items on the to-do list—that we ended up in our empty house with no refrigerator. We only discovered this standing in the kitchen with a six-pack of beer and a pizza in our hands, prepared to eat and then fall asleep on the living room floor with towels rolled up under our heads for pillows.

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