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Meet Jessica Krebs of SERE Training in Greater Denver/Boulder

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jessica Krebs.

Jessica, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
My earliest memories are of infant and childhood sexual abuse by my grandmother’s second husband (a pedophile). I was raised by my mother mostly in various small-towns and rural areas in Michigan though we lived in a poorer neighborhood in Lansing when I was about 7-9 years old. My mom is an avid outdoor woman who especially loves fishing. We could head out on a fishing trip and mom is very outgoing so she’d ask other folks she’d pass on the shore how the fish were biting and even if no one had caught anything for a few hours and was about to go home, she’d put out a few lines and be pulling them in like crazy within ten minutes. I wasn’t as into fishing (hated hurting the worms and the fish though I’d help clean them and eat them quickly enough once they were dead), so while she’d fish, I’d play on the shore climbing trees, catching frogs and insects, picking apart scat, and generally acting like a tomboy. Thusly, the outdoors, especially trees, became my safe zone. Vern (grandma’s second husband) left her when I got to be too old for him and there weren’t any other children for him to get ahold of when I was maybe seven? I’m not sure how old I was, but still a kid, so I shoved the memories away and locked them up tight.

Then, when I was maybe 12? 14? somewhere in there mom and I went to visit him. I’d hadn’t told her of the abuse and the family loved Vern. He was a very outgoing, gregarious fellow that loved adventure and parties. His health was failing and his liver was shot. Mom wanted to pay him a visit, my grandmother is a classic narcissist and no one blamed him for leaving her, they couldn’t believe he’d stayed with her as long as he had, obviously not knowing about his pedophilia. He’d moved to his ex-wife’s house after leaving grandma and was living in a trailer in her yard. When we got out of the car, I remember seeing four or five little kids playing in the yard. Long story short, that was the first time I’d seen him in years and when mom stepped out to go to the bathroom, he made a gesture at me, and I freaked out, ran out of the trailer, and climbed a tree. I stayed up there until mom was ready to go. After that, I started having nightmares and flashbacks, after which I would often sneak out of the house and climb a tree in the backyard. The house and beds didn’t feel safe, so I’d sometimes fall asleep in the tree instead. All of this is just to show that I felt safe in the outdoors. I would talk to the wind, water, and moon; I gave them names and shared with them like they were old friends and really felt they comforted and responded to me.

Mom (Cheryl) and dad (Mike) had divorced when I was about five so I visited him usually every other weekend growing up. When I was 10, I found a photo album in the living room and saw some pictures of mom looking cozy with another guy in high school and asked her about him. She said he was my dad and I was confused since he didn’t look much like Mike. She told me that he was my biological father (Nolan) that had been her high school sweetheart and she’d gotten pregnant when she was 19. They decided to get married and put out the wedding invitations when mom found out he was cheating on her with another girl from school (Sherrie), so the wedding was off and mom married my step-dad (Mike) when I was still a baby and he adopted me a year or two later.

My first conscious meeting with Nolan (apparently he’d happened to bump into Mom and I a couple of times when I was young and didn’t know who he was) was when I was ten after I’d found the photo and Mom told me about him. She contacted him and had some stipulations but told him I’d like to meet him. It didn’t go well, but I did eventually figure out that the other girl he took me with him to go pick up that day who was about my age was my half-sister Nola (Sherrie’s Daughter) who is about 10 months younger than I. I also met Danny and Wendy that are my half-siblings through Nolan’s second wife Doreen. Over the next eight years or so and usually around major holidays, I’d do a round robin of visiting Mike’s side of the family, Mom’s side, and Nolan’s side, shuffling between relatives.

So, overall, childhood wasn’t the greatest for me. I was a shy kid that barely spoke and socially felt most comfortable with a group of adults, most uncomfortable if I were alone with one male adult. Kids and social situations, in general, confused me, I didn’t fit in well and generally preferred to be alone in the woods somewhere.

Mom took me on a 12-week trip to Europe when I was twelve and for the most part, I really loved it. We visited France, Germany, Denmark, Italy, Greece, Switzerland, etc. Mom loves to travel and adventure. She has a real love of life and learning and is very social and open about everything. She wouldn’t let me hide behind her most of the time. She’d push me to ask strangers questions, order food (even if I couldn’t speak the language), ask directions and so on. I hated it, but it was good for me to do.

Mom expected me to go to college. She was the first to get a degree in her family, putting herself through while I was little and receiving her Masters in Social Work. She was a hard-working single mom raising me, working, and taking classes. The trip to Europe had been part of a scholarship she’d won to work on her thesis comparing the social system of Michigan and Denmark. Her flight and expenses had been paid for by that, so she’d only had to come up with the money for mine which made it possible. She’d made it clear that college was in my future, and she wouldn’t be able to afford it so it was on me. In her mind, she’d done it, therefore so could I. I joined the military.

The Air Force seemed the answer to everything when I was 18 in 1990. The start of a new life in a new place away from the traumas of childhood. I scored high in the mechanical ability for a woman so they wanted to put me in vehicle maintenance and I figured as long as I didn’t get a desk job, great! Both of my dads were mechanics so I’d just follow in their footsteps. However, on the 15th day of training, they showed specialty fields, one of which was SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) with a little promotional video of what you would do as a SERE instructor and it was all outside. With my affinity with the woods, this drew me on a primal level. Forget vehicle maintenance! So, I became one of the very few female SERE instructors. The training was a year-long: six months of training in multiple environments and about another six months of OJT (on the job training) with a mentor instructor before we could teach groups solo. I did a lot of growing through my time in the military. By the end of the training, I stood up straight, was no longer pigeon-toed, and spoke out loud and confidently. I was the sole female in my flight for the four years I was in, working with 30 men. There was the usual for women back then (late 80’s-early 90’s) both before and during my time in the military. I’d been raped by an older boy at a camp in my teens, one of my mother’s boyfriends made a pass at me when I was 16, I was almost raped and hit on numerous times in the military. Needless to say, I had some issues built up around men in general!

I married a mechanic (Keith Krebs) in 1993 who worked on the vehicles we used in the field at SERE. He’s a very sweet guy, loyal and loving. He was stationed in Italy and left a couple of weeks after we married to spend some time with his family in Wisconsin before meeting me in Michigan to have a big wedding and then go on his tour. We’d eloped so no one knew we were already married. I joined him in Italy in 1994 where we lived for two more years, then moved to Germany for three before coming back to the states where he was stationed at McGuire AFB in Jersey. By then, we’d started having trouble. Mostly, I think I was hard to live with. I’d never dealt with my trauma and was a huge control freak. He couldn’t do anything right. He also wanted more of a housewife like his mom, someone to take care of the house and dote on him. That just wasn’t me and I felt more and more trapped by the relationship.

I left him in late 1999 and got a job working as the ropes/challenge course director at a YMCA camp in Medford Lakes, NJ where I also was able to stay/live in a little cabin on the 600-acre camp. I’d worked in MWR (morale, welfare, and recreation) for the Air Force after getting out in ‘94 in Germany as both the program director and challenge course director so it was a good fit. I worked there for a couple of years facilitating and running the teambuilding activities for the camp.

We eventually divorced several years later (we signed divorce papers three times and he kept getting deployed and the lawyer was a jerk looking for more money so we kept having to start over though it was a no-contest divorce). By then, I was living in New Jersey facilitating for the ropes course at UVM, working at a climbing gym, and living with a new boyfriend. His name is Jobi and we moved to Chinle, Arizona in 2003 where he got a job as a flight paramedic serving Eagle Air which had a contract with IHS (Indian Health Services). We spent four years there living in the heart of the Navajo reservation. I worked for a couple of years teaching at the local high school and then found a job in Wilderness Therapy.

That started a new phase of life for me. I’d felt like I was in limbo after the military, flowing from one thing into another without any particular purpose. I was captivated from the beginning. During the 9-day training given to potential future wilderness guide trainees, issues came up for me around my abuse and defensive behaviors. I was offered a job as a guide after training and the next couple of years, I spent more time in the Utah desert working than out in my “life.” I spent the next 11 years working for two different Wilderness Therapy companies and finally getting my own therapy by helping others get what they needed.

By the time I’d had enough, I was a much different person from when I’d started. I’d shut out feelings and been functioning mostly like a robot for most of my life. Adapting to whatever situation, I found myself in and just surviving emotionally. Finally, at age 41, I began to live. Jobi and I had broken up four years earlier after a rocky ten years together. He’d been as damaged as I in childhood, but while I was moving forward and healing, he was adamant to stay stuck. He and I had bought some land in Pagosa Springs by then and had poured the foundation sono tubes for a small house I’d designed. When he left, I kept working in wilderness therapy and threw myself into it as well as working on building the house.

I’d gotten pretty burned out on wilderness therapy by then, feeling like I’d finally worked through most of my immediate issues. A friend in Vermont sent me a casting call for a National Geographic reality show he thought I might be interested in. I made it through the casting process and did the show (“Mygrations”) which did poorly in the US and I personally don’t think it was edited very well but did better overseas. About six months before I’d also met Blake, a pretty awesome guy with a masters in nuclear engineering and passion for dance. He supported my going on the show which was a big check in his favor and a sign to me that I’d finally healed enough to be drawn to someone that wasn’t codependent and controlling.

During “Mygrations,” I met some pretty awesome folks, including Daniel Baird who had started the California Survival School about five years prior. He’d had some good primitive skills instructors as mentors growing up and followed his passion. About a year after we got back from Tanzania, he approached me about starting a survival school. I said “hell, no!” at first. I have no interest in running a business. I REALLY dislike paperwork and bureaucracy, liability insurance, marketing, etc. I just like to teach. He then explained that he already had most of that in place and his idea was for me to run a satellite school under his umbrella. So, SERE Training School was born. He was hoping to tap into the more military-minded folks that may not go for a primitive living school like his as much but would be attracted to SERE.

We started the school about two years ago (2017 with a first class/client in November of that year) and have been slowly building it up. I’ve been the only active instructor since it started though I have two former SERE instructors that have offered to work as staff for me as the school grows.

Dan and I realized quickly that we had different visions for the school. He wants the more military feel, while I bend toward almost a polar opposite. My passion is teaching women and marginalized demographics, those that don’t think survival skills are something they can learn or be good at due to our culture’s influence and patriarchal programming. There is a different dynamic and powerful feeling of comradery and support when women come together to learn and grow with each other. Learning the skills can be very empowering as well. I like to foster an environment of vulnerability and openness in my classes and often during breaks or at night eating supper around the fire the dialogue turns to the heartache and pain we’ve gone through in life and how we’ve come through it. So, Dan and I have discussed starting another brand that focuses more on teaching those demographics and I would hand off SERE Training to another former SERE instructor that enjoys that military feels more than I.

Until then, I run a Meetup group called “Survival Sisters” in Boulder where we meet twice a month to learn a different survival skill and sometimes an extra meeting is thrown in to talk instead about emotional issues and how we are faring in life currently. I’ve had it for over a year now and it’s beginning to feel like a wonderful little community of women. I also run women’s only programs through SERE Training around Colorado, Women’s Wilderness in Boulder, Coyle Outside in Oregon, and VOGA (Vermont Outdoor Guide Association) in Vermont.

Has it been a smooth road?
To summarize: childhood trauma and abandonment by dads. For the business itself, I’m not much into the bureaucracy and struggle with the marketing and paperwork parts of the business.

Please tell us more about your work, what you are currently focused on and most proud of.
I think in addition to being a female SERE instructor (we are very rare, approximately 3% of SERE instructors are women), as the main/head instructor I’ve had other experiences and gained skills since SERE that give a different feel to SERE Training. I was trained as a ropes course/team building facilitator and have directed two different challenge courses as well as facilitated at others.

I also spent 11 years working in wilderness therapy for two different companies (Wilderness Quest in Utah and Open Sky in Durango, Colorado) as a field guide helping clients with a wide range of emotional, chemical, and mental challenges get their life back on track.

I am a wilderness first responder, have a BA in educational Psych, and am all around professional and engaging as an instructor. I’ve done a few bits here and there on reality tv and enjoy going on personal wilderness solo adventures to learn, play, and test my skills in the outdoors. I also really love to teach, in general, however, I am especially passionate about teaching survival skills to women and other demographics that have not been traditionally included in outdoor activities.

I come from a concepts base model. Many survival instructors will give “the sacred order” and have a very cookie cutter approach to survival (eg: do A then B then C). At SERE, this was never the case. We relied on a certain level of intelligence and discernment in our students and gave them concepts that can be adapted to any situation. For example, the “sacred order” is usually something like “shelter, water, fire, food.” First this is missing several needs (health, both emotional and physical; travel and movement techniques (how to scout without getting lost, how to use a map and compass, how to move safely in different environments); signaling (do this well and correctly and you are out of the situation and sitting back home!); clothing concepts (how can I improve the clothing I have to make it more effective); and so on), and second every situation is different. If I fell down a cliff and am lying in a heap at the bottom, I’ll want shelter soon sure, but how about taking care of medical needs (health) first and then improvising a way to help me move around (travel techniques) before working on that shelter? If I’m lost and can’t find the trail, how about knowing a scouting technique to find it? Perhaps blowing a whistle in patterns of three which is a universal sign of distress so someone on the trail may help me get back?

Then, as well as teaching a variety of skills because we are a SERE-based model we also teach global skills. Many schools focus on one or perhaps two particular types of environments and do not teach on a global scale. However, how I meet my five basic needs changes significantly based on what environment I find myself in. We can take just one of the basic needs as a quick example. Travel techniques: in a desert only move when temperatures are cooler and perhaps use a walking stick with a snake V on the end to deal with snakes. If your clothes are dark colored and it is hot out, turn dark materials inside out or cover them with light colored material (like if you have white socks and black boots, perhaps cut off the top of a sock and affix it over the outside of the boot to keep your feet cooler). In the Arctic: you may want to improvise snowshoes and trekking poles if you’re in Timberline and the snow is deep and soft. On glaciers and featureless snowscapes: use poles to test the snow for “bridges” in front of you and tie yourself to others if possible to prevent falling in crevasses. To stay on a straight heading using each other as references to make snow piles to create reference points. Snow blindness is a threat especially when traveling so improvise a sunshade and some material that you can see through but blocks most of the sun. In rainforest: have a walking stick and check the ground in front of you for false floors (where vegetation may be so dense you think you’re walking on the ground when you are actually several feet above it). Also, know that sometimes, the easiest way to travel in a rainforest is by the waterways so knowing how to improvise a raft or bowl boat and paddle or pole to move it may be useful. This continues on for other environments: mountain terrain, tundra, swamp, open ocean, coastal areas, and so on…

So, to summarize, I think as a school we are friendly, welcoming to people of all demographics and walks of life, practical, conceptual, global, and authentic with instructors that have a lot of experience in backcountry places worldwide. We create a welcoming and fun environment for folks that is not showy and overly dramatic. Just solid practical skills that anyone can learn.

How do you think the industry will change over the next decade?
Unfortunately, I think it will continue to go the way it already is. So many camping and outdoor products flood the market that are gimmicks sold with the promise of saving lives or making things easier when things go wrong. There is a lot of junk being sold. We live in a fast-paced society and most folks don’t feel they have the time to take courses and learn some basic skills and concepts that can make a huge difference in survival if something goes wrong. Gear is nice, but unless someone knows concepts and how to use what they do have, it does little good. People have died of dehydration with water still in their canteens, of hypothermia because they think a fire is more important than shelter in cold weather, of being lost and wandering instead of sitting still and signaling.

My hope is that people hear the news stories of mishaps and tragedy and take even a one day or few hours course to get at least a basic understanding of what will help keep them alive when things go wrong.

I also hope (though the difficulties are significant) that we could have some kind of standardized method for customers to find solid survival skill instruction. There is no such system right now and there are a lot of schools out there that are showy and dramatic teaching “survival” techniques that are more likely to kill people than save them.

It would be nice if “reality” survival shows did more fact-checking as well and took responsibility for informing the public in concepts that are true and practical methods versus feeding into falsities that get lots of views. Drinking urine is a classic example (25 years ago, we taught that people survive in SPITE of drinking urine, not because of it, yet it’s still shown on reality shows as a “good” thing to do if you’re dehydrated).

There are more and more primitive skills gatherings cropping up around the country though and more and more people attending. So, there seems to be a building movement of people that enjoy learning the basics and getting away from the rat race for a bit.

Pricing:

  • We do courses that range from 1-7 days and generally cost between 100 and 165 dollars a day.
  • Courses that are two or more days in length include dinners.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Graydon B. Stevens of VOGA, Leslie Reinecker, Jessie Krebs

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