FORT RUCKER, Alabama -- In the movies, kidnap victims or prisoners of war often come home to parades and marching bands as large crowds cheer the returnee emerging from the airplane and waving to the masses.
A few short steps later, a wife hugs him as children run to embrace their father after an extended period of time apart.
Lost in the movies is the real-world application of how that process of reuniting families works and what exactly happens from the moment of recovery, to the first seconds the returnee spends with his loved ones.
With that in mind, a group of Soldiers and civilians left Fort Sam Houston, Texas, to travel to Fort Rucker, Ala., to work with recent graduates of the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school and their families to rehearse the process of reuniting recent captives with their families, and returning them back to full duty.
"This scenario is as close as we can get to the real thing," said Mike Moccia, a U.S. Army South SERE/personnel recovery specialist. "Through these interactions with the returnees and their families, we are setting the conditions to get the individuals back to a healthy lifestyle and return to society."
The exercise at Fort Rucker is conducted four times per year and is designed to start at the conclusion of Level-C SERE school training to create a realistic flow from the captivity environment into the post-isolation process for the Army South reintegration teams, the SERE school graduates and their families.
The reintegration program is a structured process that not only engages the returnee through a de-briefing activity, but allows him a chance to normalize his ordeal and his return to society, and also reaches out to the families involved so that they and their loved one are better equipped to be able to digest what has happened, as well as assist in his return to the world he knew before captivity.
Returning from captivity all personnel have the same basic needs, medical stabilization, gaining control and predictability over their life, telling their story in a healthy way, have their emotions normalized, and to re-engage socially and with family.
"It's a reassuring feeling knowing that my family will be taken care of in the event I may find myself isolated in the future," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Justin Owen, a flight school student assigned to Bravo Company, 1-145th Aviation Regiment out of Fort Rucker, Ala. "One of the biggest challenges a Soldier faces during time away from his family, whether it is through school assignments or deployments, is returning home and having your family understand what you've been through. With this reintegration process, it will be a really big difference going home and having my wife feel like she was included in everything and having an idea of what I have been through."
The Army South group was comprised of military de-briefers from the 470th Military Intelligence Battalion and members of the family assistance teams. The two teams' mission centers entirely on the returnee and returning him to the life he knew. Normally, a third group would join the team for the reintegration process, but the medical team responsible for an initial health evaluation and treatment were unavailable for the trip to Fort Rucker.
Forgoing their medical evaluations, the SERE students were whisked away from their class peers and shuttled to a remote location in a small van where they were met by Moccia, who explained to them what their role was and the importance of the training they were preparing to take part in.
Each returnee was then escorted into a room to meet with de-briefers to begin the process of trying to recall any information from their time in captivity. The immediate de-briefings are important in these scenarios because the experience is still fresh in the returnee's mind. This experience and the relaying of the information to the de-briefing team can often lead to invaluable information in regard to lessons learned while in captivity and intelligence.
"The post-isolation de-briefing process is an important step," said Moccia. "The first thing we do is make sure the returnee knows he is important, he has a mission to complete, and that he may have information that is vital for the military in order to keep other people from getting isolated and to save lives."
Owen believes the de-briefings were an important step for him retaining his SERE training.
"Being able to re-tell my experience in isolation really helped me to remember everything I learned during my training," said Owen. "During my training, there were times where I told myself, 'I really need to remember this later.' Having the opportunity to say it out loud and tell the story of my captivity helped bring back some of those memories that would have possibly been lost."
In addition to recalling information for intelligence-gathering purposes, the de-briefing also serves as a cathartic experience for the returnees. Part of that healing process is a step called storytelling, where the returnee learns to speak about his experiences numerous times and learns how to effectively tell his story.
"People who have been isolated often experience traumatic emotional events while in captivity," said Moccia. "If they don't learn to deal with these traumatic events, they'll process them in different ways and often when not processed right, it becomes difficult to re-enter their healthy lifestyle. We have them tell their story repeatedly, in an emotionally healthy manner so they can face those issues that happened to them and gain some toolsets to help them deal with those issues once they re-enter their normal life."
Moccia believes the unique relationship Army South shares with the SERE school at Fort Rucker is critical to replicating the details the Army South team might encounter in a real-world reintegration mission.
"Bringing our teams out to this situation, where they can interact with a person who has been as close as possible to an isolated scenario, really gives us an opportunity to train our de-briefers in as realistic environment as possible," said Moccia.
While the de-briefing teams were busy working with the returnees, the family assistance teams used their time to prepare the families, families who were truly separated from a loved one.
"The value our teams will get out of this is the ability to experience real families and real emotions," said Moccia. "During isolation, real things happen to real families and real emotions happen between them. This process replicates almost exactly what happens during a real-world isolation process."
It is the experience gained during the Fort Rucker post-isolation exercise that Moccia feels will enable his family assistance teams to be successful when called to execute a real-world reintegration mission.
"This isn't a simulator. This is a real situation with real people with real problems, real challenges and real goals to meet and our teams do that very well," said Moccia. "When they take that back and have to execute a real-world mission, as they walk into a home of a family of a Soldier, they are ready for it."
Adrian Mighty, husband to recent SERE school graduate, Spc. Cameil Mighty, feels his interaction with the family assistance teams has helped him overcome any anxiety about seeing his wife after weeks without contact; something that was not available to him during her time away at basic training or other military schools she has attended.
"I think working with the family assistance teams is a great thing because they give you an idea of what our loved ones have experienced and provide an idea of how to react once they come back," said Mighty. "I feel really good. In the past, I felt left out. With the reintegration program, it helps me feel like part of the solution in helping my loved one back to a normal, healthy life."