SERE specialist ‘digs holes’, wins AF award

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Sonny Cohrs
  • 23d Wing Public Affairs
For Staff Sgt. Joe Dittmer, 347th Operations Support Squadron, 2011 was a good year.

For his efforts, he was named the 2011 Outstanding Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape Airman of the Year at both the Air Combat Command and Air Force level.

The SERE specialist also earned the John L. Levitow award when he graduated from airman leadership school in December - the final requirement for his promotion to staff sergeant.

Dittmer is described as a team player, especially considering he opted to delay his ALS class, and ultimately his promotion to E5, in order to keep his then one-deep SERE shop open. For his sacrifice, he was coined by the 9th Air Force commander. He has two deployments to the Horn of Africa under his belt, was a lead planner for a multi-service hostage exercise, and he is a certified Army Combatives instructor. This summer, he's excited to add "father" to his resume as well.

This 27-year-old Arkansas native looked to follow in his own father's footsteps, who served in the U.S. Army. Dad's advice? "You better be good at digging ditches." Dittmer instead joined the U.S. Air Force, and volunteered for SERE duty during his second week of Basic Military Training. Following basic and technical training, Dittmer spent three years at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., as a SERE instructor before heading to Moody.

"I picked the job in the Air Force that's closest to the Army," Dittmer said. "I get to dig a lot of holes being a SERE guy."

As a SERE specialist, Dittmer provides life-saving training to Moody aircrew. Additionally, he teaches survival skills to members of the 820th Base Defense Group. Typical training includes, but is not limited to, water survival, emergency parachute techniques, signaling and rescue techniques. In September, he's excited to conduct unique evasion training with local law enforcement. Dittmer's students will be released into the woods and then tracked by bloodhounds and German shepherds from the Lowndes County Sherriff's Department. Dittmer and the deputies will monitor both man and beast via GPS tracking collars.

"Survival and evasion [is what] a lot of us are suited to do and really enjoy," Dittmer said. "You get aircrew on the ground, which is not what they're used to."

The SERE classroom at Moody is tucked away in the 347th OSS and consists of typical tables, chairs, maps and charts. A small television screen is on hand to show training videos, but Dittmer and his fellow SERE instructors hate being in the classroom. A lot of the combat survival training takes place at their other office - the great outdoors. SERE training is conducted in and around nearby Grand Bay Range and a Wildlife Management Area adjacent to the base - a massive playground of mud and muck, gators and snakes.

"They told me we were going to be done around midnight - I thought they were joking," said Lt. Col. Pete Dominicis, 23d Wing inspector general and former director of operations for the 347th OSS. "The feedback we always got [about their combat survival class] was fantastic. It's the best class I've gone through since initial training at Fairchild."

The colonel describes Dittmer as very sharp and extremely motivated, also noting his dedication to the job. He volunteered to come in on a Sunday morning to teach a water survival class for some guys who were deploying.

"I'm talking 5 a.m., because these guys needed to get trained," Dominicis said.

When he's not teaching survival skills to Moody aircrew, Dittmer enjoys hiking, camping, and kayaking through class IV and V rapids. However, most of his spare time lately involves pursuing his bachelor's degree in psychology and reading new parenting books in preparation for his new baby.