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SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape)

Counterinsurgency Warfare Training

It is July 1969. My ship, USS FLETCHER (DD 445), sails from the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam, completes the long eastern passage across the Pacific Ocean, and returns to the United States.

“Fighting Fletcher” is decommissioned in San Diego, California on August 1, 1969. The crew is dispersed to other duty stations all over the world.

I volunteer to serve in the U. S. Naval Advisory Group, Vietnam. Within a short time, I begin 17 weeks of counterinsurgency warfare training at the U. S. Naval Amphibious Base, Coronado, California, before heading back to Vietnam.

Counterinsurgency warfare training is thorough and physically challenging. The final week of our preparation for war in Vietnam concludes with SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) training at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California. Located in the mountains of San Diego County on the Southern California coast, Camp Pen is the major west coast base of the United States Marine Corps, and is one of the largest Marine Corps bases in the United States.

SERE training is meant for special operations soldiers, military aircrews, and combat troops who are at highest risk of capture, and whose position, rank, or seniority place them in greatest danger of exploitation by an enemy. SERE training focuses on resistance to exploitation and interrogation, survival during isolation and captivity, and escape from hostile enemy forces.

Human rights organizations criticize SERE training for being an overly severe training ordeal, because military personnel are immersed in some of the harshest “enhanced interrogation techniques” authorized for use in war.

SERE training begins when our counterinsurgency warfare class of about 200 naval officers and sailors are loaded onto “deuce and a half” (2½ ton) trucks and driven down a dirt road through a forest.

Soon, the trucks slow down and come to a stop. We are ordered out of the trucks by men wearing black uniforms who shout at us and herd us into a barbed wire prisoner of war stockade surrounded by watch towers.

We are “captured.”

SERE training is the acid test of our ability to keep faith with the United States Military Code of Conduct.

The Code addresses how we should behave in combat, how we must attempt to evade capture, resist interrogation while a prisoner, and try to escape from an enemy after capture.

The Code of Conduct is part of U. S. Military doctrine and tradition, but is not a formal military law like the uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Conventions.

War is a “come as you are” event. Being captured by a hostile enemy force is not for sissies.

Even though our experience of SERE training is really just a minimal taste of what to expect if captured, it is evidently too difficult for some.

Just before midnight on the first night of our capture, the commanding officer of our counterinsurgency warfare class forms us up in ranks in the middle of the prison compound.

He tells us in a loud voice, “I quit the program. I resign my command of this class. I refuse to go to Vietnam with you. I turn over command to the next senior officer. I quit the program.”

He marches off the field and disappears. The next senior officer of our counterinsurgency warfare class steps forward and assumes command.

As POWs (Prisoners of War), we are made to carry stones from a large pile in one corner of the prison compound to another large pile of stones in the opposite corner of the prison compound, and back again.

We are beaten and badgered. Some of us are waterboarded.

Waterboarding is a form of torture in which a prisoner is strapped tightly with belts onto a downward tilting board, with the prisoner’s arms and legs held rigidly against the board. The prisoner’s face is covered with a black cloth, and is completely in a dark place, immobilized and helpless.

When the board is tipped downward, water is splashed onto the face and dripped into the nose of the helpless person strapped to the downward slanting board. Struggling in the terror and agony of drowning, the tortured prisoner pulls hard against the restraints, violently coughing and choking, frantically gasping for any merciful gulp of air, desperately drowning.

Waterboarding causes pain, lung and brain damage, physical injuries from struggling against restraints, and lasting psychological damage.

Of course, human rights organizations criticize waterboarding as one of the most tortuous of training ordeals. It is one of the harshest “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by opposing hostile forces in war.

Some of us are put into black painted plywood coffins, with the top closed down. There are 1″ round air holes drilled here and there into the side walls of the coffins.

I see a senior warrant officer crawling on his knees, holding and kissing the boots of a guard wearing a black uniform. Some of us escape. All who escape are recaptured.

One freezing night, we are formed up in ranks in the middle of the prison compound and hosed down with icy water from high pressure fire hoses. We are given no food, but we do have water.

I am interrogated with a small group of seven men arranged side by side in a line. I am asked questions about my family. The questions are designed to be twisted and turned against me, to break my will to resist.

Answering only with my name, rank, service number, and date of birth, I am determined to do my best to discipline my responses in accordance with the United States Military Code of Conduct.

I am hammered strongly, violently, repeatedly, on the left side of my face (the guy must be right handed). Each time, I am slammed so hard that I actually see white stars against blackness. Really.

I am hit many times. Eventually, a young enlisted sailor is pulled forward, in front of the line.

Each time I answer my interrogator with my name, rank, service number, and date of birth, the young sailor is hit hard in his face in my place.

Eventually, the interrogator moves on to someone else for interrogation. No one asks me any more questions.

At the end of SERE training, we are directed to a very large aluminum cauldron filled with viciously spicy, habanero-jalapeño soup.

It is nearly inedible, but everyone is so hungry, most of us try it anyway. To me, it is perfect. I think I eat at least three bowls of fire soup, maybe more. It is good.

As a large crowd is breaking up to get back into the trucks, an officer wearing a black uniform pushes his way through the crowd to get to me. He calls out, “Lieutenant Smith! Lieutenant Smith! I just want to shake your hand. You are the only person in this whole class who didn’t tell us a damned thing.” He adds, “I hope you never get captured. You will make them so mad, they will surely kill you.” I say, “Thank you, sir.” I feel terrible.

As members of the Armed Forces of the United States, our purpose in this world is to live up to the U. S. Military Code of Conduct. Just a few days earlier, as an assembled class, we were given perfectly clear, explicit instructions, about how we needed to behave for just one weekend. Above all else, SERE training is meant to teach us how to live up to the U. S. Military Code of Conduct. As it turns out, in just a few days, as a class, we managed to fail dismally.

Remaining invisible in plain sight and withholding information is important for survival in dangerous situations. The whole point of SERE training is to teach us to be resilient to coercion, to survive within an uncertain, hostile environment for an unknown period of time – in this case, a relatively short period of time.

Oh yes, I really do feel terrible.

Later that evening, I eventually get back “home” to my BOQ (Bachelor Officer Quarters) living quarters at the U. S. Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado, California.

I am surprised at how hollow eyed, dark stained, disheveled, haggard, and worn out I look when I first see myself in the bathroom mirror. “Really? Where have you been?” I whisper to myself. Falling asleep without delay, I am down and out for a very long time, exhausted, drained, gone from this world.