ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. --
On the cover of the Air Force’s former “Search and Rescue Survival Training Manual – Air Force Regulation 64-4,” the words SURVIVE, RETURN and HONOR are boldly printed.
After joining the Air Force nearly 12 years ago, Tech. Sgt. Dustin Jespersen, a 28th Operations Squadron survival, evasion, resistance and escape specialist, tries to embody those words and has made it his priority to help others do the same.
Recently, he was announced as the 2018 Air Rescue Association Richard T. Kight Award winner. The Air Force-level award recognizes individuals who have contributed to the overall effectiveness of the rescue mission.
Jespersen’s journey started in Iowa where he played baseball and worked as a printing press operator.
“I left work one day and decided that I didn’t want to do that job anymore,” Jespersen said. “I went to the recruiter’s office on a lunch break and never went back to work. I was 21.”
Jespersen enlisted through the Guaranteed Training Enlistment Program and was assured a spot as a SERE specialist.
Jespersen had heard that trainees would drop out of the SERE program because the training was so difficult. Instead of backing down, he prepared himself for the program by training at his local Y.
“I had found out that it was a difficult career field to get into,” Jespersen said with a grin. “It sounded challenging, and I enjoy challenges.”
He attended initial SERE training, conducted by the 66th Training Squadron at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington, where he was recognized as a distinguished graduate. The training program is approximately five months and focuses on surviving nature’s elements, evading capture, as well as surviving and escaping – if captured.
Following the initial training, Jespersen participated in another five and a half months of instruction to become certified to teach the material. He went on to complete a number of training courses over the years, and even though he has a plethora of training, Jespersen thinks the biggest thing he brings to the table is his experience.
“Each training event that we do enhances the mission,” said Jespersen. “We have a list of things we are required to teach, but we also have years of experience and we are able to make the content relatable to the students.”
Jespersen arrived at Ellsworth AFB in 2015. He is the SERE noncommissioned officer in charge of training and personnel recovery. It is his responsibility to provide the aircrews with personnel recovery briefings, in addition to supplying them with parachute, water and combat survival training.
Jespersen aims to make his training sessions as realistic as possible by bringing in helicopters from South Dakota’s National Guard units and employing volunteers to mimic opposing forces and capture his students.
“We simulate a combat environment, and ultimately, students go through phases of evasion and must apply their training so that they can be recovered,” Jespersen explained. “Furthermore, we conduct ‘after-capture training.’ If someone is captured, they need to know how to conduct themselves without discrediting the Air Force or the United States.”
Jespersen deployed in August 2017 and was tasked with establishing a reintegration facility. Reintegration is utilized after a person has been isolated and held captive. It provides the individual with the necessary health and psychological care to get them back into the right mindset.
“Imagine being isolated to just a prison cell – it ruins your daily routine,” said Jespersen. “Reintegration is decompression for that person and gives them a chance to tell their story. They can tell us what happened once they hit the ground, how they were successful or unsuccessful in evading the enemy.”
While Jespersen requires his students to be physically prepared, mental preparation is a crucial part of SERE training.
“We do ‘high-risk of isolation’ briefings, where we cover the spectrum of captivity: people being held hostage, peace time governmental detention – when we’re not necessarily at war – and wartime captivity,” said Jespersen.
Jespersen strives to give his students the most comprehensive survival tools but hopes they never have to utilize them.
“We give students the necessary tools to maintain life, maintain honor and return; but we don’t want them to use these tools because that means a B-1 has ejected during combat,” said Jespersen. “It means they’re in the worst situation of their life.”
In efforts to improve upon his teaching techniques, Jespersen uses his training knowledge and the experiences of people that were reintegrated in the deployed environment to build upon his lessons.
The information gained is then used to enhance the SERE training program for others.
“Jespersen is an excellent instructor and never settles for the bare minimum,” said Tech. Sgt. William, Jespersen’s supervisor. “He never hesitates to go above and beyond to disseminate the best training and knowledge – regardless if it falls within his job description or not.”
Jespersen truly cares about his fellow Airmen. It is evident through the work he does on duty, as well as in his free time. He is the brainchild behind the Peer to Peer program at Ellsworth AFB. He started the program about 2 years ago to help Airmen of all ranks meet the physical standards of the Air Force.
“Because of his background in SERE and his time spent with pre-team SERE candidates, he has been able to help other Airmen get into better shape,” said William. “It’s not something he has to do, but he dedicates three hours a week to it.”
Since the beginning of his career, Jespersen has always focused on doing his best and helping to grow the people around him.
“If I failed at my job, I would feel that I let the Air Force down, as well as that individual,” said Jespersen. “I couldn’t trust that the people who come across my path to receive training would be returned or successfully reintegrated.”
As confident as he is in the content he teaches, he admits that he still gets nervous instructing sometimes. It’s because he understands the influence he carries as SERE trainer. For his students, it could be the difference between life and death, being captured or returning home.
In the words of the rescue community, “The things we do, so that others may live.”