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Understanding the POW Experience: Navy Research Psychologist Graduates SERE School

29 January 2024

From Petty Officer 1st Class Russell Lindsey

It’s dusk and you are alone in the forest. It’s been two hours since you were forced to eject from your aircraft, which turned into a fiery ball of metal after being hit by an enemysurface to air missile. You are shaken and lost, but still mobile. This is when your training and mental preparation kick-in.Walking in the low light of the evening, you
It’s dusk and you are alone in the forest. It’s been two hours since you were forced to eject from your aircraft, which turned into a fiery ball of metal after being hit by an enemy
surface to air missile. You are shaken and lost, but still mobile. This is when your training and mental preparation kick-in.
Walking in the low light of the evening, you squint trying to read your map and orient towards the friendly forces 40 kilometers to your south. Pausing to catch your breath, you reach for the MRE candy bar stashed in the inner left pocket of your flight vest. As you tear open the wrapper, you hear the faint rumbling of trucks and take cover behind a thicket of waist-high shrubs. You see the glint of headlights. The trucks are getting closer to your position. Driving faster, headlights getting brighter, you
hear men shouting but not in a language you recognize. Blood rushes to your feet and your eyes widen as you realize this is an enemy search party looking for you.
Scenarios like this one are familiar to the Robert E. Mitchell Center (REMC) for Prisoner of War Studies aboard Naval Air Station Pensacola, where for 50 years they have conducted physical and psychological evaluations on Repatriated American Prisoners of War (RPOW) from all services. In fact, REMC is the DoD’s sole program dedicated to studying the effects of wartime captivity on the human
body and mind.

The legacy of American RPOWs not only drives the mission of REMC but is part of the basis upon which the Navy’s arduous Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) schools were developed. Tracing their roots back to the Korean and Vietnam wars, Navy SERE is the bi-coastal schoolhouse responsible for providing advanced Code of Conduct training to service members at high risk of isolation and captivity.
As the Navy Research Psychologist assigned to REMC, Lt. Jacob Westerberg studies and provides training about captivity and identifies ways to prepare and care for the next generation of warfighter who may become isolated or captured. His days are spent interviewing RPOWs about their experiences and translating their lessons into teachable mindsets and actions that service members can apply to succeed in adversity.
“I am repeatedly amazed by the tenacity and ingenuity of the American warfighter,” said Westerberg. “I realized soon after being assigned to this position that there is only so much that can be learned from secondhand experience”.
Survival is more than just knowing which plants to eat and how to camouflage. The mental aspects of survival and endurance are only truly understood when you are brought to hardship and held at the edge of a person’s ability. Westerberg knew that he had to see this edge for himself.
“To be at my best to support the REMC mission and today’s warfighter, I felt in my core that I had to attend the very training inspired by the population I work with every day,” said Westerberg. “I had to go to SERE.”
Survive Evade Resist and Escape (SERE) training has a reputation for being one of the more challenging trainings offered by the military and is designed to test a service member to their limits. The training is designed to educate and skill students in survival in the elements and emergency scenarios, but also to prepare them for what they must do mentally as well to survive if they remain isolated and or captured. The saying “War is Hell” originated I the civil war but is still used even in pop culture today.

The reality that mother nature, injury, and not mention your adversary are going to make for brutal even hellish conditions for you to survive in can only be truly understood once you are there. Understanding what you may be encounter in the worst case scenario and how to prepare yourself mentally is absolutely critical for positive outcomes post survival.
“I certainly was apprehensive about the opportunity, but the chance to participate in something so realistic and visceral seemed like the best way to advance critical operational insights,” said Westerberg. “Furthermore, this degree of investment is the expectation of the Navy’s two dozen
Research Psychologists, who are tasked to go wherever sailors are and study the many variables that impact their health, well-being, and readiness to fight.”
Due to the nature of the training and sharing specific details of SERE training experience would spoil the experience for future attendees. However, there are meaningful takeaways to share and some observations regarding personal conduct during stressful situations which may be useful:
1. You will never know when it will be your time to rise to the occasion – when the task or mission at hand hits the bullseye of your specific knowledges, skills, and abilities, regardless of occupation. Whether you are a Recon Marine Officer, F-35 pilot, or Healthcare Scientist, you have
something to bring to the situation, that only you can bring. And because you will never know when it will be your turn to lead the team through rough terrain, negotiation on the behalf of others, or seize an opportunity to get your people out of harm’s way, you must give the situation your full attention. Be ready for your moment.
2. Being a reliable shipmate is not everything, but sometimes it is the only thing - The situation may be such that the people on your left and your right are your only chance of success (or source of sanity), and you are equally theirs. Reliably carrying your weight in challenging circumstances creates a connectedness, a cohesion, and a trust that acts as force multiplier when confronting shared adversary.
3. You will be expected to do things in the military that you have never done - The idea that “discomfortable signals growth” is sometimes thrown around as a tongue-in-cheek excuse for minor inconveniences. However, there is merit to this maxim. Expanding your circle of capability only
happens when you engage in thinking and actions that are new, unfamiliar, and outside of your comfort zone.
4. Humor brings reprieve to a stressful situation by introducing a new focal point - The value of humor is a recurring topic in the interviews I conduct with RPOWs. After my SERE experience, I can see why. For some, humor connects to something deeper in our collective conscience. As one RPOW stated, “humor seems to be a particularly American trait, it is an unmatched display of freedom in thought and speech.” But perhaps it is simpler than that, as another RPOW offered, “laughing is more important than feeling like crap.” No matter which orientation you align with more, don’t lose your sense of humor, it may be exactly what you and your team need to put the wind back into your sails.
Keeping the proper mindset and outlook despite the most trying conditions is one of the most difficult things to do and to do it correctly requires commitment. Commitment to your goal to survive and make it home, your commitment to your fellow service members, and your commitment to your training. It is for this reason that SERE was created based on the testimonies and experience of those who have endured it and lived to pass on what they know. It is this research and commitment to service that Westerberg brought back from his time at SERE to use at REMC Prisoner of War Studies that will help ensure that our service members will come home and not only survive but thrive. This insight is critical to REMC as it is the only Department of Defense’s (DoD) designated center for all the military services, to include active duty, retired, and veteran repatriated POWs. One of the additional benefits of this program is that its clinical findings from REMC’s RPOW program have been instrumental in advising private physicians, VA physicians, and caregivers on their treatment and care for this special group of service members.
This special program, part of the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute (NAMI), has the unique mission of providing follow-up evaluations to repatriated prisoners of war (RPOWs). These studies of service members from Vietnam, Desert Storm, and Operation Iraqi Freedom allow researchers to study the long-term mental and physical effects of captivity and to address the findings applicability to current and future military operations.
From his perspective of both an officer and researcher, Westerberg says this experience highlighted the importance of getting as close as possible to the issues one is trying to support or solve.
“Deeply understanding the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of those engaged in direct action affords you with not only greater credibility, but the opportunity to develop insights and interventions that account for nuance and subtly,” said Westerberg. The experience of SERE is not one soon forgotten by any who undergo the grueling training, but perhaps not for the reasons that initially come to mind. Instead, etched in one’s memory will be the lessons learned of 1) being ready for your moment, 2) being a reliable shipmate, 3) being up for doing things that you have never done before, and 4) not being afraid to exercise some humor in moments of stress.
REMC and NAMI are part of the Navy Medicine Operational Training Command (NMOTC) the Navy’s leader in operational medicine. Located in Pensacola, FL NMOTC is comprised of six nationwide detachments which specialize in aviation, surface and submarine warfare, expeditionary, and
special operations medicine.

NOTE: LT. John Westerberg would like to thank REMC Program Director, COL. (ret) John P. Albano, MD, MPH for his encouragement to attend SERE and his example as a mission-driven leader. CAPT Carrie Kennedy, PhD, ABPP, and LT Viktor Koltko, PhD, for their active roles in securing a spot for SERE, as well as their exemplary dedication to service member success.
For more news from NMOTC, visit

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