• Training for the worst

The Navy version of the training described in a recent Newsweek article is conducted at Warner Springs near San Diego, the home of the West Coast SERE (Survival, Escape, Resistance and Evasion) school.

After a three day classroom seminar with instructors such as Chuck Law, the Quartermaster on the USS Pueblo who had been a POW in North Korea and subject to grotesque torture, we spent a week on the beach and in the mountains eating only what you could scrounge from nature. There wasn't much to be had given that for years bi-weekly courses of 50 guys had been doing the same thing in the same area. A few snails and one tiny prickly pear from a cactus wasn't enough for me, and by the end of the week I was weak enough that just walking around was a huge effort. Sleep depravation was easy given cold mountain nights, hard ground, and no protection except a few pieces of parachute silk.



Then you go through an evasion course where 'enemy' soldiers are on on patrol, and machine guns pepper the area with fake bullets. Weak or not you find the energy to run. A favorite trick was to yell, "I see you Yankee. Stand up or I'll shoot. " And often a well hidden and unseen flyer would stand up.

But by definition you don't succeed in your evasion attempts and you don't escape. Captured was violent. They used the now infamous waterboard treatment on us (all the more effective when they do it to your buddy and make you answer questions while he gasps, drowning, and throws up). I was even knocked out once after being slammed up against a wall. They take all your clothes away except undershorts, a jacket, and your boots, cover your head with a canvas bag, and put you in a dog house size enclosure, no bigger than the hole under a desk where you can't sit up straight or stretch out.



Periodically the guards would come and bang on the cages just to keep you awake with your heart rate off the scale, and you're subjected to several interrogations. I stuck to my story that I was a new trainee and didn't know anything about the EA-6B's secrets. But they use every trick in the book. Southern boys were interrogated by black instructors, for example. And there was a bogus United Nations representative, with a French accent, that was your friend and offered food if you'd tell how you were doing (as if he cared) and what you knew (he cared far more). Spray from a hose in 36º temps is effective too, when your teeth are already chattering from cold and an over dose of adrenalin. Periodically we'd all have to form up for a 'Red Cross' inspection, really Navy medics making sure we weren't being harmed—at least physically.

And they do get inside you head. Spent a fair amount of time at one point trying to figure out how to communicate, in a "confession" letter we were supposed to write, that I was okay and who else was with me. Then I remembered that we would all be "rescued" within 24 hours.

Our senior officer present was doing such a good job as a leader they finally had to remove him from the course. He was shot, in front of us, in a very realistic way. Many of us, including myself, had a hard time not believing that some instructor had run amuck and over stepped the rules of the 'game' because the other instructors all acted horrified and dragged him away as our leader lay in a heap.

At sunrise the next day, oatmeal and the star-spangled banner were never so good. The memories, to this day 35 years later, less so. Yet, rationalization or reality, I did feel better prepared if I'd had to play the game for real. How you physically, and more important, mentally, survive seven years of such treatment, none of it simulated, is an amazing testament to human resilience. What they've learned about our chemistry that lets us survive and even excel in such an environment, as described in the Newsweek article, is fascinating.

This pictures was taken at NAS North Island, about two hours after we were released, and after we'd had a chance to clean up a little, if not shave. Made the mistake of wolfing down and donut and coffee and regretted it for hours.



Some comments from others who went through the school:


I went through Navy SERE level D at Warner Springs near North Island...during Vietnam. I can tell you this. It is an extremely brutal no bullshit course and it has to be. The enemy is typically brutal so you must be trained to Survive, Evade, Resist and Escape. They use the waterboard..beatings, not love taps...real *** beatings.. solitary confinement..interegation...sleep depravation..starvation..etc etc. to bring out your worst fears..break you down mentally and physically to where you are basically withdrawn internally so your no longer aware of anything beyond your current situation. At this point the intensity increases to a breaking point level...you may actually believe that your a POW at some point...that being in training is a mistaken illusion. This is where you pass or fail...You will leave SERE knowing who you really are and or are not. While I cant say I or anyone every enjoyed the experience I can say that I am a stronger person due to SERE training. My final statement during the after action review was..."This I now know! The Enemy will not take me alive...the last bullet will be mine."

During training I escaped three times and burned down the bamboo interegation hut...they kicked my *** six ways from Sunday for that but my response was.."My mother beat me harder" From that point the beatings never stopped..

LAst memory in POW training was absolute madness surrounding me...next thing I know is we are debriefing in San Diego..and eating at the chow hall like a starved pig....

SERE nowadays is probably much more Politically Correct which in my opinion does nothing but leave the soldier unprepared for what to really expect.

There is no training in the military more extreme than SERE...only the enemy can offer you more...

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My son went last year. He said if he was Ever faced with the choice of going through SERE again and his career in flying, he would not fly again. He said there was a point he truly did not know that he was in the US. He was also pretty beat up/bruised. Nothing he experienced indicated "political correctness".

31 comments:

  1. I too went through Warner Springs in 1970 during Vietnam. For any persons reading this that are about to attend this course, listen and learn well. In 1970 it was a brutal, "hands on" kind of deal. No politically correctness. I was struck with a closed fist, waterboarded, and jammed into a box so small that they had to sit on the lid to close it (and I was a small guy). I remember standing in the rain in the cold with a gunny sack over my head in my underwear for several hours.

    When I left, I knew my limits and how to tell when I was appoaching them.

    My first mess hall meal after being released was a pile of eggs, hashbrowns, pancakes, two slices of ham and some bacon. I ate two bites of eggs, a strip of bacon, then threw it up. Never been that hungry and not able to stomach food.

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  2. I went through S.E.R.E. in 1967 prior to going to Vietnam. Upon entering the P.O.W. camp we were forced to strip completely naked and throw our clothes into a pile. We were than pushed into a water trough that we observed some of the guards urinating into and than rolled in the sand. Then we were told to get dressed in which we had to just find clothes that would fit. After that initial greeting thats when the fun began. They did not have the cage that some of you have mentioned but had the small wooden box that they would have you cross your legs and bend down forward and they would close the lid that two of the guards had to stand on to compresss you into the box while another closed the hasp. The box has a very small hole that you had to put your nose up against to get air to breath. After they opened the box and let you out, you could not walk as your legs had no feelings. They tried to force you to walk by kicking and hitting you. During the course I had been put into the box six times. When I went through the camp there were no inspections by the Red Cross or anyone else. If you completely crapped out then they would drag you out, nurse you back to health and re-assign you to other than Vietnam. We took a lot of kicking and beating and our tongues swelled up from lack of water. After it was over we returned to Coronado Island, showered for about an hour and hit the smorgasborg in San Diego and ate for about two hours. All in all I am glad that I went through it, but I believe if I were caught by the enemy it would not have been any worse.

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    1. I went through this school at the end of P2V-7 aircrew training at North Island in late October 1966. The "evasion" was across this large field, all of us in orange flight suits so everyone was quickly captures. Stipped totally naked, blind folded and thrown in the back of a duece and a half and drivin around for about an hour. Off the truck and crawled on our backs under barbed wire. Nothing to eat, just water. The pilots were waterboarded, one was buried in a coffin with dirt thrown on top, lots of yelling in those flimsy interrogation huts with a 45 at my head, and very cold and sleep deprived. They quickly got real confessions from career Navy pilots. And you're right about getting to the chow hall afterwards. Ate like pigs.

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  3. i understand what you said and can remember 1967- what a fucked up place it was- i truley believe that cong couldnt have done anymore to us then sere camp- and yes the last bullet was mine- anything you can remember after 40 years paints the picture of camp crap- brownwater navy forever

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  4. I believe being captured by the cong would be much better than sere. 45 years later I am still suffering from the torture received at Warner Springs. Pretty bad when you get PTSD before Vietnam. Ha Not to mention the damage they done to my legs from kicking them out from under me every 5 minutes.

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  5. I WAS A TEACHER AT THE SERE SCHOOL IN 1982 UNTIL 1985 IS THERE ANY ONE WHO WAS THERE DURING THAT TIME. WHO WOULD LIKE TO REMEMMBER THOSE TIMES. PLASE LET ME KNOW THANKS

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    1. Hello,

      I was in SERE school in 1982, us navy in maine.

      Would be interested in talking.

      How do i get in contact with you?

      Mike

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    2. I was there.... Most brutal times of the school. Can't help but smile a bit from this original article that lead me here. The time period in the late 80's had to be the best and worst for the school. Out of our 50 I'm sure there are some seriously f'd up men coaching soccer right now (the ones who failed) and those of us who passed? Thank you instructors... I don't envy what you did for us... but hope beyond hope you are all doing great.

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    3. I went through Warner Springs in March of 82, honor student.

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    4. I went through SERE in July 1983, and in my class we had to two future SERE instructors that I recall...Our SRO was a LCDR P-3 pilot. Poor guy...

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    5. I was there in 1983 around August I believe, still here in San Diego working the jets at the depot.

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    6. I went through Dec 1979 as Support personnel for FASO, and was treated with special attention. Greatest learning experience ever. No John Wayne here.

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  6. You were there 10 years after me, but I'd loved to know more about the process from your side of the experience. Drop me a line at tailspintommy at google mail dot com?

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  7. Did anyone end up with diagnosed PTSD from the waterboard?
    I did.

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    1. Yup. You're not alone in that one, brother. Trust me. Drop a line if you want.

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  8. Went through Warner Springs in Sept. 1963 prior to deployment to SEA. I received a brief from shipmates who went through before me, so I knew pretty much what to expect. They gave me the straight skinny and no BS. It did not seem that bad to me except for the severity of some personnel encounters, ie my first knuckle sandwich which came as a surprise. It was during an interrogation and I was unable to see my interrogator due to the lights in my eyes. The interrogator did not like an answer to a question and showed his dislike with a genuine haymaker and I never saw it coming. Things just went downhill after that, but all in all, as I said, not that bad. Glad I went through I learned some good stuff that was a help later in my service time and beyond.

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  9. Bob Williams Navy Petty OfficerMarch 23, 2013 at 3:03 PM

    Interrigation is where I got my ass in a bind. I failed to keep my promise that I would not hit back. Ha ha. After that little incident I was rewarded with more brutality .

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    1. Striking an instructor was an automatic fail in 1977.

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  10. In 1969 I attended ET"A" School with a guy named Hegdal. After about 6 months into the school, he became extremely happy because his brother had just been released from the North Vietnam POW camp. His brother then toured the POW camp at Warner Springs and changes were then made to reflect the real Vietnamese POW camp. Ironically, 2 years later I wound up going through the Warner Springs camp. Have to concur with all the other comments about it, especially sitting in that damn little box freezing my butt off while dying of thirst. Check out the story about Hagdal, he was called the "Incredible Stupid One" by the Viet Cong captors due to his role playing, it is quit a story...

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  11. Doug Hegdahl was an instructor at Warner Springs when I went through in '91. He was a very impressive individual. The first hand insight provided by him and the other former POWs was by far the most valuable part of the course.

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  12. My son is in sere school right now as I am writing this. I am anxious for it to be over for him. He should complete the training this Thursday. I don't know if reading this blog helped my anxiety or worsened it. However, I think I am trying to wrap my head around the necessity of it. I am so proud of him and my heart aches for him to be safe in all situations. So train him a nd teach him to survive. Right or wrong I want him in the end ALIVE!

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  13. Went thru in 1964 before going to NAM and being assigned to SOG Vietnam. I remember the black box well as they buried you in the ground, could not walk after they let me out. Remember the interrogation guys who put you in a casket for awhile in the room, banged on walls to scare others, shot at you with machine guns. I made it to freedom village, but no use, they captured me anyways. Always remember that torture course to this day. Wonder if my leg problems now were caused by that brutal treatment at Warnter Springs will ask them about that. 75 now and legs want work good.

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  14. Went through SERE at Whidby Island Washington ..1967.Week at Coronado..a week at Pendleton..Then Whidby Island.
    Remember well the stripping and cold water..The big box..The little box..The interrogation..The beatings ..The fifty five gallon drums welded together that were half full of water and being submerged in them until I choked and then pulled out of and questioned and when they didn't get the answer they wanted submerged again.But what still bothers me as much as anything was the Russians manning the concentration camp..VN..Russians ? I am still waiting for someone saying something to me in Russian and then freaking out violently..
    Anyone been there ..done that ?

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  15. I went through SERE in '82. I remember the water board well, the corrugated tin walls that made so much noise when you were thrown against them, good cop, bad cop interrogations, and my box and my tin can. As the junior enlisted member, I was subject to certain 'special' treatment. Like on cold night, being taken from my box, stripped naked, and hosed down while the senior officer was being interrogated in front of me.

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  16. I was the youngest in my class in 1977(war criminal #22) and was awarded 2 commendations.

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  17. I was an instructor at WS from 89 to 95. Looking to reconnect with instructors that I worked with.

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  18. Welcome! Love to buy you a beer and talk about how and why you trained us. It was, well, an experience. Thank you for your contribution (and service).

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  19. SERE Warner Springs 1965. Captured, went into a barbed wire enclosure to disrobe, it may have been 36" high, lots of scratches. Interrogated, was uncooperative was made to squat with a stick behind my knees (ouch), hit in gut with rifle butt, punched in face gloved fist several times. After awhile it all went blurry and I stopped talking they stopped hitting. Lew Prince, AO

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  20. I did Warner Springs SERE in 1966. It was brutal. I remember the guards turned one of us into a guard complete with a 'piece' and an ammo belt.

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  21. I went thru SERE at Coronado in the fall of 1967 before being deployed as an RM to Vietnam. It was the hardest week or so of my life...from the shore to the desert to the compound. No rules. Just survive. Escaped once by getting lifted out by a helo...they gave me an apple and kicked me back into the program. Best apple of my entire life. When they raised the American flag that last morning...guys actually cried.

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  22. I attended S.E.R.E. school early November 1976, just after Vietnam. Silly me, I volunteered to be the Chaplain. I was an Ensign Naval Flight Officer assigned to VP-6 Barber's Pt a few weeks later. I escaped twice and have a recollection of being acknowledged for those escapes at the debrief back at NAS the next day. The first time I escaped, I was given a peanut butter and jelly sandwich as a reward when I returned, about an hour later. The second time I escaped, the instructor was pissed, or at least played that way....no sandwich that time! When Dick Chaney used to claim that water boarding wasn't torture, I always thought he should be forced to be water boarded and see if he had a change of mind. I remember being forced into a dog house-sized box with jusf a coffe can for physical needs. There was common lore that a group of SEALs went through and took over the whole S.E.R.E. camp! Wouldn't doubt it. I rember being interrogated a couple of times and during one, I played like I was going crazy and he stopped the interrogation to see if I was ok. I remeber having to rake the compound with our fingers. Water boardings and hearing guys being beat and thrown against a coregated sheet metal wall (for effect, I guess...sounded horrific) was common. I still, 42 years later remember the gaggings of the guy next to me being water boarded. I'll never forget it. Aweful! On the bus ride back to base, I slept hard. When I got back to base, I think I might have eaten something, then slept for about 12-14 hours. I felt the course was legit, valuable and we who went through are in a select group that relatively few have experienced.

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