Monday, November 06, 2006

What is water-boarding? A first hand account.

I see that one of the latest crazes in the news these days has to do with Americans using torture techniques such as water-boarding on terror suspects like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. I can testify first that hand water-boarding is a very scary thing. I’ve first hand experience with this method of interrogation.

The U.S. Military has been using water-boarding while training U.S. military personnel for decades. Countless thousands of American soldiers, sailors and Marines have gone through S.E.R.E. (an acronym for Survival-Evasion-Resistance-Escape) training and one of the final stages of S.E.R.E. school is enduring life in a mock P.O. W. camp.

In 1979 I was training to be a U.S. Navy Air Crewman. Part of my training, and that of all U.S. Navy aviators, was S.E.R.E school. S.E.R.E. school was actually run by Department of Defense. When I went through the school, as we found out after the fact that many of our instructors were P.O.W. survivors from the Vietnam War. One of my own interrogators was Doug Hegdahl, the only enlisted man held prisoner at the Hanoi Hilton.

During the “evasion” part of our training I was captured, had my hands tied behind my back, and a hood placed over my head. I was then loaded into a truck and driven to a holding compound. There we unloaded from the truck amid shooting, shouting and screaming. We were then made to lay face down in the high desert of Warner Springs, Ca.

My first introduction to water-boarding or, as our captors referred to it “the Device,” was that morning. An officer, another enlisted man and I were made to kneel and watch as a fellow sailor was made to sit on this inclined board and untie his flight boots. Then he was made to lie down on the inclined board, which placed his head blow his feet. He was then strapped to the board so that he could not move anything but his head. At that point one of the interrogators took a rag and held his forehead fast to the board, so that it could not move.

I don’t remember exactly what happened next, but I do remember that I left the holding compound very scared of being placed on the device.

My next encounter with the device was some time late, during one of my interrogations. During the interrogation I was slapped, beat against a wall and placed in stocks. In the stocks your neck and hands are set below your waste, while your knees remain straight. This is painful and when I was taken from the stocks I collapsed and could not walk for some time. When I was able to stand on my own power, they replaced my hood and guided me away. I was stopped, the hood was removed and the device was there in front of me. I was then asked if I knew what it was. I said I did. I was again asked to reveal things I that I was not allowed to reveal (i.e My squadron). I refused. At that point I was informed that if I did not cooperate I would be placed on “the Device.” My heart sank. I was truly scared.

I would not talk so I was made to sit on the edge of the water-board and untie my flight boots. Then I was laid back and strapped down. I could move neither my arms nor legs. I was again asked the questions and again I would not talk. A man took a wet, white rag and laid it across my forehead and held my head tightly to the board. I couldn't move at all. Then one or two men began pouring water into my face while another man was asking me questions.

I had to constantly spit and swallow while struggling to breathe through the steady stream of water. When I still refused to answer their questions, the man at my head took the rag and threw it over my mouth and nose. I could breathe nothing but water. I felt like I was drowning. My body began to shake and convulse and I thought I was going to pass out, then as I began to black out, the rag was removed from my nose and mouth and I got a breath, but the water never stopped.

Again I refused to answer their questions as the water continued to pour into my nose and mouth and I struggled to breathe air and not water. Once more the rag was thrown over my face and once more I believed I was drowning. Again, after a short time, I could feel my body begin to convulse and once more I thought I was going to pass out. Then another breath, the rag was removed and air entered my lungs as the water continued to pour onto my face and into my nose and mouth.

Once more I did not answer and again the rag covered my face. I felt as though I were drowning and my body was convulsing for lack of air. This time when the rag was removed I told them the answer to the question they had been asking. I told them what squadron I was in. I felt great anger for telling them, but I found out later that they want you to be able to bend, a little bit, and bounce back. The Navy doesn't want you to break or get yourself killed.

S.E.R.E. training was one of the hardest things I have gone through, but it taught me a lot. I have always valued it as the most important training I ever received in the military.

Tens of thousand of American servicemen have made it through S.E.R.E. school and many thousands of sailors, soldiers and marines have had to endure “the Device” or as we called it, the water-board. 

It is scary, you do believe you are going to die, but is it torture? Waterboarding is a very good tool to get information out of someone who does not want to talk, because you give them a very powerful feeling that they are about to die. But the reality is that they are not being harmed at all.

The water-board is not fun; it is a very frightening experience. It was preformed on me by Americans who were on my side, and even though I knew that in my mind, at the moment it was happening I really believed I was going to die. I can understand that a murderous criminal like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, might be convinced to talk using this method of interrogation.

The water board is a very affective interrogation tool, but I do not believe that it qualifies as torture. The U.S. Military does hard training. The training is often dangerous and uncomfortable, but the military does not use torture when training its own people, but it does use the water-board.

If we use water-boarding to train our sailors, soldiers and marines, then how can it be considered torture when used on terrorists?

Deo Vindice,

Ps: I know of one death that has occured at S.E.R.E. school. The death took place many years before I attended the school, and the water-board was not involved in that situation.


Scotty J. Williams said...

Brother it is good to see Reformed Cajuns boldly representing. As for me I'm a Reformed Creole/native Louisianian and I'm trying to get our people on board. Keep up with the good work and be encouraged.

Scotty (The Black Creole Reformer)

traveler said...

It was interesting to read a first hand account of water boarding. Thank you for posting it. I hope that you won't mind my comments. I don't agree with your premise that it is not torture if, as you admitted many times, you felt like you might die. It may not be as physical as a medievil iron maiden, but it still seems to be a form of physical/psychological torture. It seems to me you were being trained in resisting torture, by recieving a controlled dose yourself.

I think we need to be honest about that as a country and define our boundaries. I do think we need to keep in mind that we are dealing with enemies of the state and that inviting them to confess over tea and cookies probably is not the solution either. I admitt I don't have all the answers, but I do think that this is an issue we need to decide as a nation.

Moving on, I enjoy your blog. I appreciate your discussion of attending more than one church. I think it's important for people of faith to try not to judge each other as we all try to do our best. I am Catholic myself, but I often struggle with sides of the Church that I find irreconcilable with my own deep feelings. One of the most difficult things for me to see, is the condemnation of one religious group by another when one of the principle teachings of Jesus was not to judge. It's sort of heart breaking to me. But I've said enough! Thank you for such a thought provoking blog.

JohnBoy said...

As a former student and instructor at SERE Warner Springs, I had to endure Water Boarding and I had to administer it on rare occassions.

Was it torture? I think that depends on what end of the water boarding you happen to be situated. Some people, like Navy Seals might not mind it a bit.

I was taught to suck the water out of the cloth and grab some breaths to endure the treatment. It worked fine and allowed me to pass. I remembered that and passed it on to students who were having a problem with it. Most times it helped, some times it didnt.

This was a long time ago, back in the late 60's, so things may have changed a bit, but the water boarding sounds very familiar.

John said...

I completed SERE on June 15, 1969 in Warner Springs. I was water-boarded and I can only laugh at those who question whether or not it is torture.

I wish I had known about johnboy's technique of sucking the water out of the cloth then grabbing a breath, but the cloth was so far down my throat and the water so profuse that I doubt it would have worked for me.

During the experience, when I thought I was going to die and things couldn't possibly get any worse, my adrenaline pumped body ripped my right arm out of its restraint and I smacked my interrogator in the face as hard as I could, knocking him back about ten feet. Blood streamed out of his nose.

The satisfaction I felt was fleeting. Things did get much worse after that.