Been there, done that . . . . And I have multiple copies of my “Certificate of Completion” to prove it . . . . Mine was Jan 1972.

This was posted recently on a “Fighter Pilot” board. It will be very familar to a lot of us that have been to Warner Springs.

A SERE-ing Experience for Tens of Thousands of US Military Personnel by Cdr. Frank ‘Spig’ Wead [“Spig” Wead is the pseudonym of a retired Naval aviator who served in the post-Vietnam era.]

Water-boarding, like many other interrogation techniques, could be torture in the hands of a sadist. But — as the following article demonstrates — it can be an effective interrogation technique and an essential tool of training, as it has been for US Navy and Air Force pilots.

“Train like you Fight, Fight like you Train” is the motto of the world’s most elite pilots, the US Navy’s. Based on lessons learned from survivors of the brutal North Korean and North Vietnam torture of US military prisoners of war, the Department of Defense ordered all branches of the services to implement comprehensive Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (S.E.R.E.) training programs. Every member of Congress should be extremely well versed on the military S.E.R.E. programs since they have had direct oversight and funding of these programs for over 40 years. Viewing the most recent Congressional hearing, one must assume that they are ignorant of or intentionally misrepresent the very programs that they fund and support.

My personal experience with S.E.R.E. training came as a junior pilot flying the F-14A “Tomcat” at NAS Miramar, California. The US Navy S.E.R.E. program requires all Aircrew Members and members of Special Operation Teams (SOF) to undergo both classroom and field experience in these vital techniques. Classroom and field training was accomplished by a cadre of highly trained and disciplined personnel, many of whom had been held as POW’s and tortured by the North Vietnamese.

What actually happens in S.E.R.E. in the field? Classes of 40 or more “students” are put through beach and water (swimming) survival techniques, similar to the TV show “Survivor” but without the rewards challenges. The class is then moved to a remote location to survive and evade prior to entering the US Navy run POW camp. The operation of the evasion complex is based on the trainee being briefed on the enemy position and the location of friendly forces. The object, “to make like a bush”, be patient and deliberate and use all your new taught skills to evade a large contingent of simulated enemy combatants in uniform. They speak like the enemy, act like the enemy, and most importantly train you on how to react to the enemy. While they fire AK-47’s over your head, and search for the ugly “American War Criminals” (thanks Jane), you spend agonizing hours crawling and hiding in an attempt to reach safety.

As in real life, few if any make it to safety when behind enemy lines.
When captured you are brought to an initial holding facility. Hands and feet bound and hooded you are thrown into a barbed wire holding cell. As a former football player and wrestler I felt confident that I had that “John Wayne” attitude, Name, Rank and Serial Number….nothing more.

Life and the Navy were about to teach this million dollar trained, blond headed, college, Fly Boy a new and most important lesson.

When brought into the first “interrogation”, hooded and hands bound, I was asked the basic questions, no problems…then I was asked a question
— the first among many not permitted under the Geneva Convention.
Congress, the media and some of the public have forgotten a very basic and important tenant of the Geneva Convention. Terrorists, insurgents, IED Specialists, Suicide Bombers and all those not wearing a uniform in war are not in any form protected by the Geneva Convention. I did not answer the interrogators’ questions: then the fun and games began.

Carefully using a technique of grabbing your shirt at the pockets and wrapping his fists so that his knuckles pressed into the muscles of my breast plate, the instructor flung me across the room karate style and into a corrugated wall. No more questions; around and around the room I flew, a dance which while blind folded and hooded made me feel like “Raggedy Andy” in a tug of war with two bullying kids. Following the first interrogation we were loaded into trucks, bound and hooded, head to who knows were…for the first time real fear starts to set in and you look for inner strength in your heart, training and comrades.

Arriving at the POW Camp I was kept hooded and placed in a small box, 2 feet wide, 3 feet long and maybe 3 feet high. I was left the fetal position, sitting on my butt, stripped nearly naked (just week old BVD’s) and left sealed with your defecation can inside your box. Heat, cold, isolation, no communications, and constant noise, music, propaganda, coupled with verbal abuse by your captors is the norm, 24/7.

Every twenty minutes or so the guards come by your box and rattle it, sneaking up and demanding to hear your War Criminal Number (thanks again, Jane, for the classification). No more name, rank or serial number, they want some real answers to real security questions. You agonize in your isolation as your hear other members of your group being pulled out for more “personal one on one interrogation”. Then it’s your turn. Pulled from your box you are again brought in for questioning. If unhappy with your answers or no answers, the “Raggedy Andy” dance began again with vigor in the cold night air.

Then it was time for the dreaded waterboard. What I didn’t know then, but I do now, is that as in all interrogations, both for real world hostile terrorists (non-uniformed combatants) and in S.E.R.E. a highly trained group of doctors, psychologists, interrogators, and strap-in and strap-out rescue teams are always present. My first experience on the “waterboard” was to be laying on my back, on a board with my body at a 30 degree slope, feet in the air, head down, face-up. The straps are all-confining, with the only movement of your body that of the ability to move your head. Slowly water is poured in your face, up your nose, and some in your mouth. The questions from interrogators and amounts of water increase with each unsuccessful response. Soon they have your complete attention as you begin to believe you are going to drown.

Scared, alone, cold and in total lack of control, you learn to “cooperate” to the best of your ability to protect your life. For each person that level of cooperation or resistance is different. You must be tested and trained to know how to respond in the real combat world.

Escape was the key to freedom and reward.

Those students escaping would be rewarded with a meal (apple, and PB&J
sandwich) was what we had been told by our instructors. On my next journey to interrogation I saw an opportunity to escape. I fled into the woods, naked and cold, and hid. My captors came searching with AK-47’s blazing, and calls to “kill the American War Criminal” in broken English. After an hour of successfully evading, the voices called out in perfect English. “O.K., problem’s over…you escaped, come in for your sandwich.” When I stood up and revealed my position I was met by a crowd of angry enemy guards, “stupid American Criminal”! Back to the Waterboard I went.

This time we went right to the water hose in the face, and a wet towel held tightly on my forehead so that I could not move my head. I had embarrassed my captors and they would now show me that they had total control. The most agonizing and frightful moments are when the wet towel is placed over your nose and mouth and the water hose is placed directly over your mouth. Holding your breath, bucking at the straps, straining to remain conscious, you believe with all your heart that, that, you are going to die.

S.E.R.E. training is not pleasant, but it is critical to properly prepare our most endangered combat forces for the reality of enemy capture. Was I “tortured” by the US military? No. Was I trained in an effort to protect my life and the lives of other American fighting men?

Yes! Freedom is not Free, nor does it come without sacrifice. Every good American understands this basic principle of our country and prays for the young men and women who have sacrificed and are out on the front lines protecting us today.

Now, let’s see Congress: Maybe forty or so students per week, let’s say 100 minimum per month, 1,200 per year for over twenty or thirty years?
It could be as many as 40,000 students trained in S.E.R.E. and “tortured” at the direction of, and under the watchful eye of the Congressional Majorities on both sides of the aisle. Be careful that the 40,000 of us who you have “tortured” don’t come after you today with tort claims. I heard it pays about $3 million per claim.

Congress, you need to get the politics out of the war zone and focus on your job. Gaining information in non-lethal interrogations against non-uniformed terrorists is what is protecting our country today. If you had done your job the past twenty years perhaps one of my favorite wingmen in the F-14A would be alive today.

Lt Tom “Stout” McGuinness of the VF-21 “Freelancers” went through S.E.R.E. training during my tenure. But when it came down to the crisis moment, his “interrogators” did not give him the waterboard. They merely went into the cockpit of American Airlines Flight 11, slashed Tom’s throat, and flew the first aircraft into the North Tower of World Trade Center on 9/11.
Congress, let me ask you a very simple question about your leadership and your sworn responsibility. It is a yes or no question, and you have a personal choice to make.

Would you endorse the use of a waterboard interrogation technique against a terrorist like Mohamed Atta al Sayed, the leader of the highjacking of American Airlines Flight 11 or not. The answer for me is simple: “turn on the hose.” If you answer anything else, then God help America because Tom died in vain.

On a personal note- When they raised the American Flag on the 5th and final day, 30+ grown men stood there shivering and crying like babies at the sight of the Stars and Stripes. Even today, 35 years later, I am tearing up as I write this, remembering that day…


Waterboarding — 10 Comments

  1. Sir:

    There exists somewhere online related to a documentary completed on SERE school an image of the flag-raising that you speak of. A friend of mine (SF-Qualified, 18 series individual) saw that picture the same day I did. I saw a grown man whom I had always admired as a “bad ass” quiver ever so genuinely. He told me as much as he could of SERE school. It had a huge effect on him; his stories affected me.

    IMAGE HERE: http://www.training.sfahq.com/survival_training.htm

    That’s simply a sidenote. The point of the original poster here should not go ignored. I waver between stances. I like that Senator McCain suggests that we can win the war on terrorism by obtaining the moral high ground. And then I read something like this and I remember the lives that we are saving when we quit subjecting reality to the whims of some unobtainable utopian world where real time intelligence isn’t an essential need.

    Thanks for this piece; extremely mind-opening. I would like to see how those that have not “been there, done that” attempt to respond in opposition.

  2. Thanks Steve. Your point is well made. In the utopian world, there is NO requirment for any punishment/’torture’/anything else, because there is no war… Last time I looked, we aren’t there, we are here and now.

  3. Jim, I believe I mentioned somewhere else that I was one of those “torture-er’s” only based at NAS Brunswick ME SERE. We ran the same school only with the extra added attraction of thrashing through snow and ice for a three meek period.Being up there we used another technique in the winter. While standing naked out side the search shed,( I was for a while the “search sgt.” phew, stinky job!) wearing only your boots and holding your clothes at arms length, you were given a nice shower using an H2O hand pumped fire extinguisher! If you could get them to stop their teeth chattering, you could wheedle some info from them.This was our least intrusive method of interrogation. As you say it got worse from there.
    Out at the USAF SERE school at stead AFB in Reno they had their own version. You stood in a hole in the ground fully clothed with de rigeur bag over your head while the hole was filled with water. They pulled you up on your toes till the water was right up under your nose then let go. So you can’t open your mouth or in goes the water and the heavy clothes are trying to pull you down.The arches of your feet and leg muscles begin to cramp up in short order and you become absolutely convinced you are going to drown. Hands cuffed together prevent you from “swimming”. I kept telling myself that I was in a US military school and they wouldn’t let me drown,but after about 30 t0 40 minutes that conviction melted away down my leg along with a few other bodily fluids!
    At the end of every class, we tried to get the “group” to rush the gate in an attempt to escape to show what would happen in the event it ever did come to pass in a real situation. At that time we would unload about 100 rounds of .30 cal machine gun fire over them while playing the Star Spangled Banner and un-rolling a huge flag from one of the guard towers. On more than one occassion it was all that kept those guys from tearing us apart with their bare hands! And yes there were lots of tears shed by all concerned, both Them and Us!! Hadn’t though of this in years, Thanks Jim!

  4. RT & Jeffro, we were just going through the training, very realistic training I might add.

    Ev, I remember us talking about that. I think it was harder on y’all than on us. Our chief instructor was Master Chief Laws, who was on the Pueblo.

  5. The recent debate about waterboarding not being torture is the rationalization that we, the righteous, do not torture. The arguments convolute two separate points.

    First, they say that waterboarding is not torture and in the next breath they defend its use. “Cdr. Spig’s argument falls apart in the first sentence. “Water-boarding… could be torture in the hands of a sadist.” In the field, in secret prisons, who do you think gets the job. The one who wants it i.e. the sadist. Why do you think tapes depicting its use were destroyed. If they were aired on CNN there would be no debate about weather or not waterboarding is torture.

    All the talk about SERE training is nice but it is not the same thing. As a former Airborne Ranger Infantry officer. I know that training, however realistic, is still training. Being shot at, on a controlled range or with blanks is simply not the same as being shot at when someone is trying to kill you. There is no one wishing you harm and there is no real animosity or hatred, and any real danger is carefully calculated. Being waterboarded by professional trainers cannot be compared to its actual use. The pyscological aspect is removed—deep inside the trainee knows this is simply a rite of passage and that when its all over they will all be toasting to each other in the Officer’s club. We already acknowledge that other non-lethal forms of “interrogation techniques,” are torture. False executions may incorporate no pain at all yet they are clearly torture.

    Ask someone who has been tortured, John McCain for instance. He will agree with me.

    By defending the use of torture we are surrendering the moral high ground. If there is some day when a suspected terrorist actually knows of an imminent plot and we have the ability to extract the information there will be someone to step forward to do what ever is necessary to get the information. This will happen regardless of policy and that person will be judged afterwards by his peers. But to first pretend waterboarding is not torture and defend its systematic use should be repugnant to a cilvilized nation.

    I registered for the draft on my eighteenth birthday, joined the infantry as a private after graduation from high school, was accepted at West Point with a nomination from President Regan and graduated in 1989 and served in the Infantry for five years afterwards, when I resigned as a Captain. I believed our country, the United States of America, was morally superior to the nations with which we were at odds. I may have been naïve, but I would like to believe that others like the Original Spig, USNA ’17, would be outraged by these recent arguments.

    D. Greg Henderson USMA ‘89