I was listening to Fresh Air on National Public Radio this morning while driving between clients and they were discussing the Spanish Court’s investigation of the Bush Administration’s role in the torture of prisoners detained at Guantanamo Bay. What caught my attention was the discussion of SERE School (Survival Escape Resistance and Evasion) having been used as justification for approval of torture. As a SERE graduate, I found what I heard somewhat disturbing and perhaps a bit misleading.

It was 1984 when I went through the US Navy’s SERE School as an Ensign, just prior to reporting to Patrol Squadron Forty as a Naval Flight Officer. At the time, all Navy Aircrewmen were required to go through SERE School to prepare them for the harsh conditions we were likely to face if captured by the enemy. The training was modeled after experiences that Prisoners of War (POWs) experienced in both Korea and Vietnam.

During this time, I remember how the North Vietnamese and Korean prisoner of war camps were portrayed. I can without a doubt say that the vast majority of naval officers felt that the techniques that were utilized on captured US military personnel were barbaric.

SERE School was not something you wanted to go through twice. It was a joke amongst Naval Aviators that our SERE School diploma was the only training document that we kept multiple copies of, to ensure that we could always prove that we had been through it so we wouldn’t have to go through it again.

SERE School was a week of intense training and included classroom activities as well as field exercises. The last part of the training was a survival and resistance exercise in the field. During the final 24 hours of this exercise, we were held in a mock POW camp. I say “mock”, but the line between reality and training was blurred pretty well.

Before I get into any specifics, I want to make it very clear that while intense, this was some of the best training I  received while in the Navy. The instructors, while intimidating, were consummate professionals. There were checks and balances throughout the program to ensure that while were we being tested, that we were in no way going to go through something we wouldn’t survive.

As part of the training, we had eaten very little and endured being in the field for a few days before being placed in the POW camp. We were tired, hungry, sore and of course filthy. The last 24 hours started off with a simulated plane crash and our release into the woods to practice our evasion techniques. If we were able to reach certain checkpoints undetected we were rewarded with a peanut butter sandwich.

Eventually, everyone entered captivity. If you were fortunate enough to escape the search parties who were firing weapons (blanks of course) and walking German Shepherds around the exercise area, you still had to surrender when the “all clear” siren sounded. Upon our capture, we were blindfolded and unceremoniously tossed into the back of a cramped truck which took us to the POW compound. Upon arrival, we were given War Criminal Numbers (I was War Criminal 62), and shoved into our little “spaces” (about the size of a dog house) which would be home for the next 24 hours. During our brief stay there we were interrogated and subjected to different kinds of simulated torture.

I don’t know what portions of the training have been declassified, so will stick to waterboarding as it has been in the news so much that it is basically common knowledge. Yes, we faced waterboarding in SERE School. Not everyone thankfully. But some did. During my class, one of our students was scheduled to become a SERE Instructor. He was subjected to much harsher treatment than the rest of us. Not as a right of initiation, but to ensure that he knew all aspects of the training and could relate to what the students were going to experience. I still remember watching him being placed on a board, strapped down, a washcloth placed over his mouth and water poured over his face till he was gasping for air. All I could think of was, “I hope I’m not next!” Thankfully, most of us were spared the waterboard.

While waterboarding in training may seem barbaric to some of you, let me remind you that back in the 1980s, the memory of torture of POWs in Vietnam and Korea was still very much alive. To think that we would be spared this kind of treatment if captured, was just a bit altruistic. The world can be a very nasty place. This training helped prepare us mentally if we were ever unfortunate enough to be captured.

What saddens me though, is how the US has now become like so many of our enemies of the past. This is going to upset you fans of 24, but I can’t stand that show because it advocates the use of torture to gain information, or to achieve a “higher” purpose. We need to be very careful in what we begin to believe is an acceptable course of action to achieve a purpose, no matter how honorable we might think it to be.

I remember watching the Hanoi Hilton (a film about the POW experience in Vietnam) and cringing at the torture that was dished out. It made me proud to wear the uniform of a US Naval Officer. Why? Because we were different. We were the ones being tortured and not the ones dishing it out. On a positive note, I was elated to here that all branches of the military advised the Bush Administration against the use of torture in Guantanamo Bay. The military knows it is a Pandora’s box. If we torture others, our servicemen and women will also face torture.

I know, there is the ultimate question. “Would you torture a terrorist or criminal if they knew the whereabouts of a nuclear bomb that was set to go off?” That is a tough question. However, I will say that research has proven that information gained under torture, is usually unreliable. How do we ever know when someone is telling the truth? My guess is that if someone was stupid enough to plant a nuclear device somewhere, that they would be insane enough to resist telling the truth. At least until it didn’t matter.

What I found disturbing in the NPR broadcast, was that SERE school was used as justification for using torture on the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. That it portrayed the torture methods used during the training as safe. That US personnel had survived it. What we faced at SERE School was a simulation. Yes it was harsh, but it was safe. However, I don’t know how I would have fared, if SERE School had lasted a year, and I was in a very different state of mind because my captors were real, instead of trained instructors. Going through one week of SERE School was bad enough – a year without constraints… a different animal.

Can we as man, not even agree that torture is always wrong??

All the best,
All the time,
JT