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Three Little Birds

Updated: May 16, 2023


Three very colorful birds perched on a tree limb.

I went to SERE school when I was 19. I had grown up in a semi-rural area and spent as much time as I could outside. I knew how to make a fire and a lean-to. I could navigate. I was comfortable. But this was Maine in December, and miles further north than any woods I had been in. I soaked up the classes like a sponge and tried to adjust to the cold and the wet.


Since I was both the youngest and the lowest ranking in my group, I was gifted the honor of killing and dressing the rabbit for our stew. My fire and shelter skills were leveled up and I was picking up new ways to navigate and care for myself. The school had fully captured my imagination and I felt capable of learning anything. I was swollen with excited confidence.


The evasion portion of the course felt like I was in the woods playing army with my friends, but with much better equipment. We were hiking from point to point while trying to avoid detection. We would make little shelters each night and move during the day due to the safety rules of the school. There wasn't much to forage in the winter woods, and we never stayed still long enough to set a snare. For a few days, the only food I had was an orange that was given to the group and we split four ways. Between the cold and watching for the enemy, sleep was just as scarce as the food.


We knew when we were on our last night of captivity because we knew the general schedule of the course, which is a luxury one cannot expect in times of actual evasion. We were tired and hungry. We got lazy. We set up camp about two hours before we should have.


As I built my shelter, I realized I could hear voices. I looked up to see if anyone else heard it. We were all looking and we slowly hid. The voices left and we all looked at one another. We all knew the right answer, which was that we needed to move, but none of us wanted to hear it. So after a pause long enough for anyone to say it passed without it being said, we went back to work on our shelters. I was laying on my back in my sleeping bag when I heard the voices again. I was in my thermal underwear and laying on top of my clothes to keep them warm and dry. I did not hear any sound from the rest of my group and took that as sign that we were keeping quiet and keeping still. It had been heavily snowing in the hour or so that had passed since we all retired to our respective shelters, so there was a good chance we would not be seen. I just closed my eyes and repeated the plea, "please don't let them see us, please don't let them see us, please don't let them see us," in my mind.


The voices got louder and it became easier to distinguish unique speakers. "Please don't let them see us." I heard the footsteps fork around me. "Please don't let them see us." A pair of legs darken the opening of my shelter. "Please don't let him see me, please don't let him see me, please don't let him see me." The legs barked an order in a language I didn't understand. "Please don't let him be talking to me, please don't let him be talking to me." Then the roof of my shelter was violently replaced with falling snow, the rest of the body to which the legs belonged, and confusion. The man grabbed my sleeping bag, dragged me some distance down the hill, and like a hotpocket out of the sleeve, dumped me in the snow . I was invited to join the rest of my group, each equally dressed for bed and barefoot, kneeling in the muddy road. For the next 20ish minutes we were passionately quizzed on the material we had covered in the interrogation resistance classes.


Once it was decided the gravity of our mistake had been sufficiently seared into our minds, we were allowed to return to our shelters. I carried my soggy sleeping bag back to my now convertible shelter and realized I was the only one fortunate enough to have had that particular experience. Everything I had was completely soaked. I didn't sleep well. The next morning our group split so we could demonstrate our ability to move as a pair. I was a zombie. I kept walking, but there was very little thought to any of it. I just followed my partner. I had already given up, but I hadn't accepted it yet. My ego forced me to pretend like I was trying. Then, while crossing a creek, my boot came off and my sock-covered foot broke through the ice into the frozen stream. I plopped myself down in the snow. I accepted that I was quitting. I didn't know how I was going to leave that spot, but I knew it wasn't going to be me walking. I stared off into space trying to think of anything other than what it meant to quit. My partner was a good partner. He was a junior officer in the early stages of flight training. He noticed very quickly that I was not behind him and came to look for me. When he found me, he didn't speak. He pulled my boot out of the water, put it on my foot, and then held his hand out to me. I looked at his hand and then his eyes. There was no judgement, no shame. He was just letting me know I was not alone and we needed to keep moving. I got up and kept walking.


The shame of that moment came several days later and followed me long after I graduated SERE school. I never wanted to feel it again. I promised myself I would never quit, but that I would also make sure to put my hand out as often as I could.



Three Little Birds was like a mantra during Ranger School. I had played the SERE school moment over and over as I tried to prepare myself for what I expected to be a tough few weeks. I did not know if I would graduate Ranger School, but I knew I wasn't going to quit, and I had a mantra that filled me with hope and helped me trust the moment.


The first two phases of the course were tough, but I was never close to quitting. I sang my little song, assuring myself everything would be alright, kneeling on one knee, wearing a backpack that was pretty heavy, while decisions were made by the student leading the way. I sang it while trying not to fall asleep on a machine gun. While trying to remember what the warmth of the sun felt like as it took its time to fill the cold, North Georgia valley. While I helped people up and while I was helped up. I kept singing.


The second night of our patrol missions in the Florida phase of the course, a very strong thunderstorm came in. We were ordered to grab a canteen, drop the rest of our gear, and spread out. One of the first skills you learn in Ranger School is how to sniff out a moment for a nap, and I had a pretty good nose. I put my plastic canteen under my head like it was a feather pillow, crossed my arms, and went to sleep. I woke up when I realized I had turned on my side and my ear had filled up with rain water. I shook my head to dump it out and tried to force myself back into the dark void of exhausted sleep, but the moment was gone. I was wet and sandy, and it was time to go.


The terrain in Florida made me feel like I was in the Flintstones. We just walked in long, straight, flat lines and the scenery just seemed to repeat itself every 500 meters. It is also when I started hallucinating. Like the time the person in front of me stopped, so I did also. That is a pretty common occurrence when moving tactically. As I waited to go again, my mind drifted. I tried to calculate how far we were from the objective. I thought about how close we were to being finished and what life would be like after graduating. Mostly I thought about food. Then I heard a voice right in my ear, "what are we waiting on?"


I was so astonished by the existence of the voice that I didn't even think about the question. I just reached out to the guy in front of me to forward the question when I realized the person in front of me had been replaced by a tree and the people in front of him had been hidden. I decided on my own to initiate a search on and tried to figure out an acceptable deadline to deliver the unfortunate news to the people following me. I was very fortunate that the group had taken a non-hallucinated pause just ahead. On top of being wet, sandy, and hallucinating, I also failed my first two graded missions. One was the swamp crossing, which is believed by most to be guaranteed failure. The other I just didn't meet the standard. I kept moving, but my mind was not in it. I couldn't stop thinking about starting the phase over, about the repeating background and the swamp. I was thinking about the plans I had after graduation.


I don't remember if someone said something, or if I just saw it on their faces, but I realized I was being "that guy." I was the cancer eating away at everyone's spirit. I had become emotionally attached to a future that had not occurred, a future to which I was not entitled. I had quit but not accepted it. I had stopped singing.


I took a moment to myself. I accepted that I was going to fail and redo the Florida phase. I pledged to forget about the future and focus on doing the best I could each moment. I was not going to quit and I was not going to be a burden to my team any more. I started singing. When the sun rose, it brought an unusually warm and disarmingly beautiful day. It had a special energy and crispness to it that had it occurred on a Friday, and not while attending Ranger School, would have been perfect for day drinking. I had a pep in my step and a tune in my heart. Then I was given a gift. My name was called for the last mission. It was a chance to pass the phase. It was a stupendous gift, and one I had neither earned nor deserved. We were tantalizingly close to the end, a permanent end through graduation for some, and a temporary end to this iteration for others, which still energized everyone the same. We moved like a symphony and had a great mission, and my team helped me graduate. When I listen to Three Little Birds, I am reminded to recognize each moment as a gift, and since there is no future to which we are entitled, everything is possible.

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