"We've just been overrun!" Reggie Bennett, a burly 41-year-old in full-body camouflage, shouted to the four young men behind him. "Our plane is down. We're going to our hole-up site!"
One by one they followed his signal to move forward, crouching behind trees, navigating through the brush, quickening their pace as they heard threats screamed behind them: "I see you, GI! You think you're crafty, GI, but I gonna put you in a cage so you can't get out!" They paused in a dried-up creek bed, Bennett bringing up the rear. "Keep quiet. There are land mines, B-52s and burnt craters all around us," he warned. "This is what a war zone looks -- "
He was interrupted by a ringing cell phone. "You're going to my voice mail," he said, as he checked the incoming number. "I'm evading now!" But he was not getting cell phone reception mid-battle in Fallujah, Iraq. He was teaching his signature Hidden Pursuit escape and evasion class to college seniors who had forgone the wet T-shirt contests and beer bongs of Cancun, Mexico, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for the chance to dodge simulated gunshots and explosions at Mountain Shepherd Wilderness Survival School here.
Survival and wilderness schools where students learn team-building and leadership skills through building fires and foraging for food have been around for decades, but Bennett's course is one of a handful of new offerings around the country that feature a more extreme kind of challenge. For fees that range from a few hundred US dollars for a two-day class to a few thousand US dollars for adventures that can be four weeks long, the willing can pay to be pursued by make-believe assailants, survive hypothetical plane crashes and hunt down guerrillas.
Survival courses are listed as co-ed but filled mostly by men.
Though it would seem that the desire to dress up in fatigues, cover your face with greasepaint and subsist on Meals Ready to Eat would be the result of some curiosity about or identification with the soldiers in Iraq, those who work in survival schools say the war has little to do with interest in these new classes.
"They want to pretend they're on Lost," Bennett said, referring to the hit drama on ABC about a group of plane crash survivors trying to hack it on a remote island. "They watch those shows and think, `Hey, that looks pretty cool.'"
A former instructor of survival, evasion, resistance and escape in the air force, he started Hidden Pursuit last year after students, retired radiologists and Google executives, asked for a more extreme challenge. Now it is one of his most requested classes.
Michelle Barnes, the vice president for marketing for the Outdoor Industry Association said interest in wilderness and survival schools was piqued when Survivor became a hit show in 2000. (The schools are unaccredited so there is no official count.) Then, she said, participation leveled off, but the success of Lost has reignited it, and schools are creating ever-more-extreme and far-fetched experiences.
"It's consumer marketing," she said. "People watch TV shows that show extreme adventure racing and extreme survival, and so schools are trying to add that twist to their programming."
Huddled under gnarled tree branches in the Virginia backwoods, Bennett and company arrived at a temporary "hole up," where they could apply camouflage makeup. "First assess your medical problems -- take care of massive bleeding," he commanded his troops, who nodded earnestly, even though none appeared to have a scratch. "Now we restore fluids and apply camouflage."