Staff Sgt. Tiffany Zaloudek, shown here on deployment in Kabul, Afghanistan, wanted to enlist as a combat controller. Because that job was closed to women, she chose SERE. Now she is weighing her options. (Air Force)
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While Staff Sgt. Tiffany Zaloudek was sitting in a recruiter's office six years ago, the brochure for pararescue instantly caught her eye.
A buddy of hers had already impressed her with his plans to go into the combat control career field, and she wanted something equally challenging. No desk job would cut it for her.
"I was talking to the recruiter, and I was stoked," she said. "I wanted to pursue a bachelor's degree in nursing and possibly become a nurse practitioner later on, but I wanted to be something like a combat nurse."
But the recruiter had three words for the athletic, would-be airman about pararescue: closed to women.
When the Defense Department lifted the ban on women in ground combat Jan. 24, it offered new hope for women like Zaloudek, who are ineligible for the 3,235 Air Force jobs still closed to women. The Air Force, which allows women to serve in about 99 percent of its jobs, is working with the other services and U.S. Special Operations Command to review mental and physical standards of the ground combat jobs to decide which, if any, of the specialties should remain closed. A report is due May 15.
Zaloudek is an example of the type of airman who might jump at the new opportunity for women.
After being told she couldn't pursue a career in pararescue, Zaloudek tucked her dream Air Force job away for "some day" and instead signed on to be a survival, evasion, resistance and escape specialist — one of the toughest and most physically rigorous non-combat jobs open to female airmen.
She immediately took to her job — mastering skills such as how to survive in below-freezing temperatures and identifying which bugs are nutritious.
But now that old dream has resurfaced.
"My initial reaction was extremely excited," she said of learning about the end of the ban. "Right off the cuff, I wanted to go immediately into one of those jobs."
But there are other things to consider these days, she said. For one, she's 26 years old. She remains in top physical condition and is training for her first full Ironman, but she's already had a knee surgery. Zaloudek also is married. And at the end of the day, she really loves SERE.
As much as she wouldn't mind being among the first female PJs or combat controllers in history, being the first female SERE chief would be an equally great honor, in her mind.
"As of right now, the only reason I would probably do pararescue or combat controller would be to prove a point," she said. "I wouldn't want to do it for that reason."
If the Defense Department is looking for a gender-neutral model for fitness standards and how to apply them, Air Force SERE could be it. All the physical and training standards are the same for men and women in the career field that requires airmen to adapt and overcome any environment and obstacles they might face behind enemy lines. They in turn teach those tactics to special operators like PJs, combat controllers and tactical air control party airmen.
All SERE candidates are required to meet at minimum a 10-minute 200-meter swim using the freestyle, breaststroke and sidestroke; a 1.5-mile run in less than 11 minutes; eight pullups in one minute; 47 situps in two minutes; and 48 pushups in two minutes.
If they make the cut as SERE airmen, both men and women have to maintain the same standards of fitness. They take an annual test that consists of two minutes of pushups and four minutes of situps, with max points being achieved once they hit 85 repetitions; two minutes of pull ups, with airmen achieving maximum points at 16; and a two-mile run that must be completed in no more than 16 minutes for specialists under 30, 16.5 minutes for specialists 30 to 39, and 17 minutes for specialists 40 and up. This assessment is separate from the Air Force PT test, which SERE airmen also take.
The washout rate for SERE is high, at 54 percent at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash. Zaloudek started out in a class of 150 that whittled down to 45 people in six months. She and 28 other airmen managed to stick it out and graduate after their training up at Fairchild. She is one of five women in SERE today.
Zaloudek said when she was in school after a long day of pushups and pullups, instructors often made SERE students carry each other fireman-style about 100 meters. Just for kicks, they made her carry the heaviest man they could find — an airman who was 230 pounds of pure muscle. Her instructors and classmates didn't think she could do it. But she did, with the airman apologizing the entire way.
Having the exact same standards and having the chance to meet or exceed expectations is important, and it keeps you in good shape, Zaloudek said.
"In SERE, it helps to 100 percent have the same standards," she said. "Not once can a guy use the excuse, ‘She had to do fewer push-ups, run less, carry less,' because we have the same standards. They can rely on me as much as they rely on the rest of the guys."
Getting mentally, physically fit
It will be up to the Defense Department to determine any changes to the standards, said Col. Eric Ray, vice commander of the 24th Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, Fla.
Ray said the rigorous fitness standards that special operations airmen adhere to grew out of joint school training with sister services like the Army.
"That kind of drove the standards that we have, and historically those standards have resulted in the success we see today."
While the physical fitness aspect of being a special operator is important, there are other factors that are weighed heavily for anyone hoping to break into any of those career fields, he said.
"The physical capability provides them the physical armor they need to handle the high stress and the high endurance that is going to be expected of them in a combat environment," Ray said. "But really we're looking for these folks to be able to shoot, move and communicate — to think quickly and adapt their plan to an ever-changing environment. The more physically fit you are, the better you'll be able to handle those kinds of stressors."
And training for such duties is stressful. The attrition rate for combat control is around 70 percent, while the failure rate for PJs is as high as 80 percent, Ray said.
While it might seem that airmen — male or female — coming out of career fields such as SERE and explosive ordnance disposal would have a leg up on new recruits vying for combat jobs, Ray said what matters most is one's mindset.
"It really comes down to the individual, their dedication and how much time they want to invest into it," he said. "Obviously the physical fitness part is important, but even more so is the determination — the ‘I'm not going to quit attitude' through the training, as well as the mental maturity."
Ray said airmen who are successful in breaking into such a high-stress, fast-paced area must be mentally mature and intelligent to function in a joint environment.
"Some folks just don't do well when things change from what they thought was planned," he said.
Only the best
Zaloudek is deployed to Afghanistan and working with a combat rescue officer who is encouraging her to cross-train for one of the combat positions.
She's listening, but she's not made any decisions. Zaloudek re-enlisted for four more years about a year ago and said whatever she eventually decides about her career, she's looking forward to seeing some women try to succeed in combat positions even if she's not among them.
She said her female predecessors in SERE were in the forefront of pushing for female airmen to get combat jobs. What she knows for sure is that there is likely a small number of women out there eager for at least the opportunity to compete for those jobs. They will try, and many of them will probably fail, she said.
"But the ones who make it will be the best damn PJs and combat controllers that there is, because they've exceeded the standards and performed with the men and will have deserved to have that job just as much," she said. "I'm actually excited to see what females make a good impact on those jobs."