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Local man defies odds, becomes USAF SERE Specialist

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It started with more than 6,000 applicants and ended with 28 young men successfully completing the course to graduation.

Sam Neitzer, of Lebanon, has beaten the odds to become an Air Force SERE Specialist (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape).

Statistics show this to be one of the toughest military technical schools to complete. About 25 percent of young Americans qualify to enlist in the Air Force, and of those who do, more than 6,000 each year apply to be a Special Forces SERE Specialist. With half the applicants eliminated after the initial mental and physical tests, the remaining 3,000 were put through an extremely intense training and selection process.

“It was brutal,” said Neitzer, 21, as he recalled his past 15 months in the Air Force.

Every day was a battle with constant severe challenges. Countless hours of relentless physical training were required. Hundreds of miles of uncharted mountains were climbed carrying 100-pound packs. Desert training included 110-degree temperatures with no food and water. Helicopters lowered them into the open ocean with an air raft intentionally leaking. The tropics had constantly wet conditions. Trapped in a cockpit, they were submerged underwater. Extended time was spent outside in subfreezing temperatures. Evasion techniques were applied sometimes resulting in capture. Mock POW camps were grueling places to practice resistance methods.

Neitzer first learned about the SERE program from his brother, Steven, 23, an Air Force Staff Sergeant. Steven was sent to Fairchild Air Force Base to complete the survival course before he was deployed to Japan and then Iraq. Knowing his brother thrived in extreme sports and an adventurous lifestyle, Steven encouraged Sam to pursue becoming a SERE instructor. His warning that it would be an extremely difficult technical school to pass proved to be a severe understatement.

SERE Specialists make up a selected Special Forces team comprised of individuals who have proven their solid integrity, unwavering determination and absolute inner strength. The Air Force is extremely vigilant in their selection because, as SERE Commander Christopher Tacheny noted, “We can’t fix stupid, lazy and a lack of integrity. Imagine these men having been out in single digit temperatures for a week, having almost no sleep or food, and then having to lead a class in navigation with zeal so his students will listen and learn it.” 

SERE is an elite operation in the U.S. Air Force comprised of approximately 325 airmen worldwide. The Air Force has the only specialized survival instructor career field recognized by the United States Department of Defense. Some are stationed near Spokane, Wash., to lead survival courses for aircrew members and other troops at a high risk of capture from all branches of the military so they may return with honor.

Some are sent to military bases around the world, in pairs or on solo missions, to train deployed troops in survival skills. Their success rate is extremely high, and their training and equipping has made a difference between life and death for troops in hostile territory.    

Sam, a 2007 graduate of Wilson Central High School, is the son of Dave and Debbie Neitzer of Lebanon. He and his family are members of First Baptist Church, Mt. Juliet.

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