Survival in Utah’s elite special forces isn’t a game. But it can be for civilians.

Camp participants learn how to navigate, how to erect an emergency shelter and how to escape a hostage situation.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Attendees of the Utah National Guard Special Forces Survival Training Experience, August 10-12 at Camp Williams receive direction from Sgt. Major Gerhauser.

Camp Williams • Cody Fitzgerald has long dreamed of joining the Army’s Special Forces, but life took the Colorado resident in other directions.

He served as an airplane mechanic in the Air Force after high school, then he got a history degree. He’s got three kids.

“I’m 30 years old, so this is like my last chance here,” Fitzgerald said Thursday, a fake rifle known as a “rubber ducky” slung over his shoulder.

Fitzgerald was one of about 40 men and two women who gathered Thursday afternoon at this remote outpost for a training camp dubbed the Special Forces Survival Experience. They came from across the West and as far as Tennessee to learn skills such as wilderness first aid and how to escape a hostage situation.

Like Fitzgerald, most of the under-30-year-old participants hope to join the Utah-based 19th Special Forces Group, an elite division of the Army National Guard. The survival camp, in its second year, is a recruiting effort designed to offer a little taste of what’s to come for those hoping to make the cut, said Staff Sgt. Marty Grant, a National Guard recruiter who first organized the camp last summer.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) CW4 Stu Smith with the 1st Battalion of the 211th Aviation Regiment gives details about his training, what it's like to fly an Apache and details about the helicopter at the Utah National Guard Special Forces Survival Training Experience, August 10-12, 2017 at Camp Williams.

Attendees learn mapping and navigation techniques and how to find food and water in the wilderness. They acquire skills to erect an emergency shelter and start a fire. Then, they break into groups and test their skills against each other in competition, Grant said.

“It’s like getting information from a fire hose,” he said of the three-day, two-night event, which takes place in a remote area near the border of Salt Lake and Utah counties.

On Thursday afternoon, the group checked out an AH-64 Apache helicopter that landed nearby. Pilot Stu Smith, with the Utah National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 211th Aviation Regiment, hopped out and addressed a captive audience that peppered him with questions.

“Have you ever been hit?” attendees asked. “What was your favorite mission?” “How much does the helicopter cost?”

Smith was ready with some compelling answers: He’s never been shot — but he’s heard bullets fly by the cockpit. He got a kick out of an Afghanistan mission during which he opened fire from the air to halt men riding on motorcycles. (He didn’t kill them.) And the chopper’s price tag? About $28 million.

“One of the participants may say, Hey, I want to be a helicopter pilot, and that’s great,” said Colin Harper, a public affairs specialist for the 19th Special Forces Group, adding that the camp is designed to teach backcountry skills that would be useful outside a military setting.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cody Fitzgerald, 30, from Aurora, CO served as an E-4 in the Air Force and admitted that he has been thinking of joining the Special Forces team. Fitzgerald and other attendees learn about a AH-64 Apache Attack helicopter from the 211th Aviation Group during the Utah National Guard Special Forces Survival Training Experience, August 10-12 at Camp Williams.

Charles Benally, 32, is a nurse who lives in West Jordan. He said he recently started talking to a National Guard recruiter, who told him about the survival camp. 

“I’ve always wanted to serve, but I wasn’t sure if I’d waited too long,” he said, adding that he hoped the camp would give him a sense for the challenge ahead if he tries to reach the Special Forces.

Fitzgerald, too, is making a last-ditch effort to make the elite group, starting with three days of survival skills.

“I need a goal, or I’ll lose my mind,” he said.