Defense & National Security

Waterboarding: A SERE-ing Experience for Tens of Thousands of US Military Personnel

[Editor’s Note: Because of Sens. Schumer and Feinstein’s decision to vote for him. the nomination of Judge Michael Mukasey to the post of Attorney General is no longer in danger. Judge Mukasey’s nomination was threatened because of his refusal to describe the harsh interrogation technique of water-boarding as torture. Still, Democrats and some Republicans continue to demand that water-boarding should be statutorily defined to be torture and thus outlawed. We believe this would be a terrible mistake.

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.

“Spig” Wead is the pseudonym of a retired Naval aviator who served in the post-Vietnam era.]

“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.

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  • smorgassbored

    I underwent SERE at Warner Springs in 1975.  It was training. No doubt about it.  But it wasn’t for those of us supposedly being trained.  What a crock! It was training the “instructors” to become the interrogators of today.  I have spoken to numerous psychiatrists about my SERE experience. I have yet to see a psyc eval even recognizing the fact I was ever there.  I wonder why? 

  • disqus_L9Cm09pHcZ

    Way to void the NDA you signed

  • dyno2

    Intelligent men and women do not have to be tortured to appreciate what being captive can mean to you. They already know via training tapes and visuals. If more time were spent on evasive techniques then I think that the methodologies of torture could be eliminated. How is it that in todays world that technologies such as thermography, acoustic emmissions monitoring, ground vibration are not employed in tactical units. I wonder if it is we can sacrifice our men and women but the hell with equipping them with the tools they need to survive. I don’t believe in torture. I believe in putting your enemy down for good.

  • Ralph E Kelley

    @1SteverNorgan:disqus wwead
    You have written a surprisingly accurate description of the SERE
    training course. Most of the time all I hear about their SERE training from ‘vets’ is so wildly different from my experience, that I wonder if I went to the kiddy course. I noticed you left things out, but I suspect each class has differences based on the psych profiles of the attendees, which SERE course type you are participating in and the length of the course.

  • Frank Knottyfor

    “…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.””
    That was in the post-VietNam ear but that was that and now is now. Want to guess how many servicemen have been captured or captured and lived to return with Honor om the past 3 years? None. Not one.
    Times change. Needs change. SERE Interrogation is now Maginot Line thinking but DOD continues to have servicemen “interrogated” (i.e., thrown around, smacked around, starved, kept in very confined spaces, and hosed down in the cold to the taunts of a woman Interrogator [wonder where they ever got her???]).

  • dyno2

    Waterboarding is torture!!! In the hands of mentally disturbed it can be deadly!!!

    I was tied up between two posts had them wrap a number of turns of wire around my wrists and ankles and then hooked up to a field telephone generator. I was shocked and screamed for what seemed like an eternity to me. They burnt the hairs off of both arms from wrists to shoulders.

    After that they drug me over to a post wrapped my ankles to the top of the post tied my hands behind my back and threw me to the ground putting my legs and spine in tremendous pain. Then one of their SF goons poured water down my mouth, held it shut and then started pouring a canteen of water up my nose. They then started to kick me in the lower back.

    I know about torture and I know about abuse

  • Allen Wilkins

    Yeh Frank. Let’s wait until a few get captured before we provide training on what to do it you’re captured. Capital idea.

  • dbarak

    Hey gang, I realize I’m a few years late to the party, but I figured I’d chime in for posterity’s sake.

    I atteneded SERE in Warner Springs, California in January of 1984, so I’m passing along my abbreviated comments with thirty years of hindsight. Anyway, I realized during the whole thing that it wasn’t real and that I wasn’t going to be (intentionally) killed. I figured I’d get the snot beat out of me, which was daunting enough, but that didn’t happen.

    The lack of food, lack of sleep, and in my case, cold weather at night contributed to mental and emotional stress… or weakness if you want to call it that. I did find during SERE school that I was capable of more mental stubbornness than I thought, but not as much as I would have liked.

    I believe everyone was waterboarded, and from what I understand, what we went through was a picnic in the park compared to what the real “subjects” of waterboarding were put through. I’d guess that I actually had water flowing onto my face for, in total, less than two minutes. That was enough for me to give them a piece of innocuous information, which was good enough for them to let me go. Waterboarding was the worst part, by far. Yes, it’s torture, at least for those that are undergoing it at its full intensity. Senator McCain, who I disagree with politically on many things, seems to share my opinion on this.

    I won’t discuss the climax of the event here in detail, but I will say that it was one of the most positive emotional experiences I’ve ever had. I would assume that can also be, at least partly, ascribed to the hunger and fatigue that made the rest of the experience… well, less than pleasant. (Aside from the waterboarding, I wouldn’t mind going through it again to see how I’d handle things now.)

    If you want see SERE school for yourself, try these coordinates in Google Earth:



    You’ll see a couple of lines of white “things,” which are each somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 to 18 cubic feet. Those were our homes for several hours, and I believe mine, rented under the name “War Criminal 13,” is the second one down from the open end of the shorter side of the V-shaped area.

  • Dark_Space

    SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape. The first point is to avoid capture, so maybe its working?

    The only dishonorable one in recent memory is Bergdahl, and he certainly did not go through SERE.

    Also, SERE today is very different from the scenario the author describes, perhaps to your point. The whole theory that you can only give name, rank, and serial number is the antithesis of today’s SERE training, because they realized early on that only resulted in dead POWs.

  • Dark_Space

    There are different levels, and the school today is very different from the Vietnam and 80s version. For instance, you’re not taught to Rambo-up and only give name, rank, and serial number any more. Better to humanize yourself, live another day.

  • Jerry Hart

    Officers got it worse in my SERE class and I was enlisted. You are the typical low man on the totem pole whiner.

  • Jerry Hart

    If you realized it wasn’t real, your instructors failed.

  • Jerry Hart

    Bergdal wasn’t captured. He joined the enemy and converted to Islam.

  • Jerry Hart

    Some would call “live another day” treason. Pansy

  • Dark_Space

    I’m just telling you what they currently teach in the SERE program. You go ahead and head over there and call some of those young men with green beanies pansies, though.

  • Dark_Space

    You have a little reading comprehension disability, don’t you?