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Fairchild Mission to Return Captives ‘With Honor’

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Paige Browning
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Spokane Public Radio

In a rare move, media were invited to Fairchild Air Force Base on Friday to learn about Fairchild’s survival school. It came after the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture, which reminded people that contract workers developed many of the harsh interrogation techniques. Two of those contractors, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, were former psychologists at Fairchild.

 Colonel Jon Duncan heads Fairchild’s SERE school, the largest Air Force survival school.

Duncan: “I can tell you they were not associated or affiliated with this school. I understand they were in this school in the past, but after they retired they went off and did their activities, but I can’t speak to what they did.”

The Senate committee’s report suggests Mitchell and Jessen may have taken techniques learned at Fairchild, and reverse-engineered them to be used on enemies. They signed as CIA contractors after their Air Force retirement, post 9-11.

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Credit Paige Browning / Spokane Public Radio
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Spokane Public Radio
The SERE school uses facilities, like this one at Fairchild, for parachute training.

While Duncan won’t comment on the two men’s work, he explained the need for psychologists in survival training.

Duncan: “So SERE training is highly regulated. And there’s a lot of oversight that we have, that watches over our training every day, to ensure that it is safe and effective training. Part of that is to have SERE psychologists in here to help students cope with the difficulties of training and to get through training.”

Base officials were eager to share some information about the program, like’s it’s mission to have airmen return with honor.

Duncan: “A good portion of our training is geared towards survival training, so you’ll have water procurement, food procurement, shelter building, fire craft, land navigation, communication signaling, wilderness medicine and that sort of stuff.”

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Credit Paige Browning / Spokane Public Radio
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Spokane Public Radio
SERE school officials toured media around parts of the Air Force base on December 19, 2014.

Other details were off limits, like the resistance and escape part of training.

Duncan: “Actually the tactics, techniques, and procedures of that training is classified, and that’s to ensure that we protect those that would be at risk in the future, so that some enemy couldn’t exploit it against them.”

Duncan says they use lessons learned from other conflicts going back to Vietnam. A bulk of the training happens right at Fairchild, outside of Spokane, but they also conduct lessons in Washington’s forests, the coast, and in swimming pools that simulate threats. The Air Force also has SERE programs at the bases in Pensacola, Florida, San Antonio, Texas, and Fairbanks, Alaska.

The base received unwanted attention after torture report came out. Duncan said he wanted to set the record straight that the base has no involvement in interrogation training. He also says "I am not aware of any senate investigators that came on base.”

About 6,000 airmen go through Fairchild’s rigourous survival school every year, under a staff of about 500.

Copyright 2014 Spokane Public Radio

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