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Casey: Expert teaches ABCs of surviving in the wild

Casey: Expert teaches ABCs of surviving in the wild

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There’s a catchphrase students learn at Mountain Shepherd Wilderness Survival School in Craig County. As they move on in their lives, they can employ it as a kind of code to signal each other, like a special handshake in a secret society.

“I can build a fire in the rain — can you?”

The founder/proprietor of the 11-year-old school is Reggie Bennett, 49, a decorated veteran who in his Air Force days taught survival-in-the-wild to hundreds of pilots and scores of the world’s fiercest military commandos.

These days, he offers similar instruction to average-Joe students from around the globe. And Bennett’s profile is clearly on the rise.

That’s partly because of a new crime thriller novel, “Those Who Wish Me Dead” by bestselling author Michael Koryta. Published by Little Brown, it hit the bookstores in June. A major Hollywood studio has optioned it for a movie.

The central character, Ethan Serbin, shares a number of hard-to-overlook characteristics with Bennett.

  • Both are Air Force veterans and former instructors in that service’s famed SERE program (the initials stand for survival, evasion, resistance and escape) who earn their living running multiday survival training courses.
  • Both Bennett’s father and the fictional Serbin’s were Marines.
  • Each teaches an identical, prioritized seven basic principles of survival, the first of which is positive mental attitude.
  • Each operates a school with his wife — in Bennett’s case, that’s Dina Bennett. They’ve been married for eight years.
  • Each can improvise a waterproof backwoods shelter out of a $3 plastic painter’s drop cloth — and build a fire in the rain.

There are many more similarities between the living, breathing Bennett and Koryta’s character, but you get the drift. In a phone interview last week, Koryta told me that’s hardly a coincidence. A little more than two years ago, the author attended a four-day course at Mountain Shepherd while researching the book, his 10th novel.

But he hesitates to say he modeled his character after Bennett.

“With that said, the skill set, thought process and some of the life experience is very similar,” Koryta told me. “There are some character traits that are certainly modeled after [Bennett], but not the character himself. To me that’s always dangerous ground.”

The novel is set in the mountains of southern Montana. A 14-year-old boy who accidentally witnesses two murders in Indiana is whisked west to Ethan Serbin’s survival school to keep him hidden from two hired assassins who want to eliminate him. That doesn’t throw them off the scent, however, and the story takes off from there. It’s fast-paced and always keeps the reader guessing.

I wanted to meet the inspiration for Serbin, so I dropped by Mountain Shepherd last week. With regard to Bennett, I didn’t know what to expect. Would he be a combination of Rambo and Bear Grylls, star of the Discovery Channel show, “Man vs. Wild?”

The answer is definitely not. He’s an average-sized guy with a genial smile who has a passion for the outdoors and teaching people how to stay alive there. He’s soft-spoken, friendly, and he can recount survival-adventure tales that will curl your toes.

“He’s very humble,” Dina Bennett said. “He’s not that I-know-everything, you-need-to-learn-from-me type of guy.”

Bennett hails from Norfolk and was working as an electrician when he joined the Air Force as a young man. His initial idea was to come out of the military with the skills and knowledge necessary to work on high-tech electronics.

He dropped that plan during basic training, when he was recruited into the Air Force’s famed SERE instructor’s school. Over the next six months, the military spent about $1 million training Bennett on survival tactics in every kind of climate and terrain imaginable, including steamy jungles, the open sea, the freezing Arctic and blazing hot deserts.

He in turn trained about 1,400 pilots and commandos, mostly U.S. armed forces members, but also some in the military from other nations.

“The Air Force has the greatest survival school in the world, hands down,” Bennett told me.

Bennett left the Air Force after four years and went back to working as an electrician. Then another ex-SERE instructor persuaded him to become his partner in a survival training school in Amherst, which is where Mountain Shepherd got its start. Bennett bought the partner out two years later. Around then is when he met Dina — via Match.com. Then a divorced mom of one, she was living in Charlottesville, but she grew up in Roanoke.

Five years ago the couple purchased 100 acres in Craig County that abuts national forest land. Since then, they’ve been operating Mountain Shepherd here, while slowly expanding.

Improvements on the property have grown from a single small cabin to an extensive lodge complex, with classrooms, a large kitchen/pub building and lodging for 46 in shared bunkrooms. The training courses happen on weekends but during the week Mountain Shepherd rents beds to groups traveling through our area or for corporate retreats and team-building events.

Between 750 and 1,000 students annually sign up for a range of the weekend courses, which last two to four days depending on the course. Two days costs $295; four days of instruction is $550. Reggie Bennett teaches most of those, but will bring on an adjunct instructor when groups number more than 10 students. Dina Bennett teaches Survival 101 for women.

Their students have ranged from clients at a battered women’s shelter to coal barons and high-tech billionaires. One of the latter has provided the loans for the school’s expansion.

The course Koryta chose was the four-day Humble Thunder, the school’s most challenging yet popular course.

In it, students learn compass and navigation skills, how to camp in the wild in improvised shelters, how to build a campfire without matches, and how to increase their chances for rescue in a real-life survival situation. And Koryta uses all of those techniques in his novel.

That includes some instruction that, at first, seems counter-intuitive but makes a lot of sense when you listen to Bennett explain. For example: most people lost in the mountains tend to walk downhill. That’s the wrong direction to go.

Climbing to high points gives you a better chance to get your bearings, and is the best spot from which to signal any rescuers who are looking for you, because you’re more visible.

When he goes into the wild, Bennett carries with him a survival pack that includes a flint/steel instrument for fire-starting, first aid gear, a mirror, a large orange trash bag and water purification tablets. He sells such kits, which weigh 15 ounces, for $69. But the most important survival tool sits right between your ears, Bennett emphasized.

Fear can doom a hiker lost in the woods even before he or she runs out of water or food. A chief goal of his training is to stanch such panic, by encouraging students to analyze the situation they’re in and follow the principles he teaches.

“Your survival episode is a play,” Bennett told me. “Unless you can step out and watch yourself, and ask yourself, ‘How am I doing?’ the physical stress and psychological stress can saturate you and you’ll make bad decisions.”

And that has applications far beyond getting lost in the woods.

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Dan Casey knows a little bit about a lot of things but not a heck of a lot about most things. That doesn't keep him from writing about them, however. So keep him honest!

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