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Hostage-Taking Creates Growing Demand for Survival Training

Hostage-taking is on the rise worldwide, most visibly in Iraq. That's creating a growing demand for hostage survival training. One Northwest company is taking the lead in this emerging field.

Military experts call hostage-taking a weapon of mass impact, because the plight of the victim like that of Britain's Kenneth Bigley has the power to grip television viewers throughout the world. Especially when the victim is a vulnerable civilian, just like them.

"The folks you're seeing on television that are being shown in front of the media and sometimes assassinated are truck drivers - they're support-type people," explains Retired US Air Force Colonel Roger Aldrich.

Colonel Aldrich has taught pilots what to do if they're shot down behind enemy lines. Now he directs classes for civilians at the new National Hostage Survival Training Center in Spokane, Washington. He says training requirements are different now that terrorists and militants, not armies, are doing the hostage-taking.

"They're not capturing the Air Force pilot or the Navy Seal or the Special Forces folks who we've historically given this preparation to," Colonel Aldrich says. "So that turns the training world upside down."

The Spokane training center was founded by Air Force Reserve Major Randy Spivey. He says most hostages survive their ordeal; his training helps civilians learn how to improve their chances if they become a victim.

"We say there are two primary objectives," Major Spivey explains. "One is to maximize survivability. We don't say ensure survivability, because there's no guarantees. But there are principles that you can be trained on and provided with, that will increase your odds. The second is to minimize the exploitability of the individual, the organization, and honestly, the United States government."

International organizations have recognized the need for hostage training for some time. Mercy Corps has humanitarian workers posted throughout the world.

"Security has always been an issue. It's a fairly recent occurrence that we're seeing aid workers as targets. We're often referred to as soft targets because we're not armed which makes us easier targets," says Mercy Corps spokesman Erik Block. He says his organization's field manual offers tips on what workers should do if taken hostage. For example, eat whatever food you're given to stay healthy. Don't try to escape. And don't talk to your captors about politics or religion.

"The global atmosphere for groups like Mercy Corps that send people into these dangerous situations is certainly more challenging now than it has been in the past," Mr. Block admits.

And it requires more than reading a field manual. So the National Hostage Survival Training Center takes teaching to a more visceral level. Students are blindfolded and muscled into an interrogation room at gunpoint, while classmates watch on closed circuit TV. Military and security experts say there's a growing market for this kind of hands-on training.

The lack of it has been recognized by Pentagon planners, like Air Force Colonel John Hobble, who says there is a need to improve training for soldiers, and expand it for civilians.

"The process is in its infancy, if you will," he says. "But we are making strides to come to grips with the types of training and how is the best way to execute that training to such a large population."

A basic hostage survival training course lasts at least two to three days. Full training for classified military personnel can take weeks. Those taking classes at the National Hostage Survival Training Center range from corporate executives to government agents and members of the National Guard.