Turns out, even being in a fake POW camp is a nightmare.
Photo by Mike Brown /Landov
After nearly a year out east, I returned to California in January of 1994 with orders to report to HS-10, the helicopter training squadron in San Diego where I would spend six months learning the ropes before finally deploying as part of an operational squadron. But there were a few more hurdles to clear first, and the toughest of these was what came next. Before you can become a pilot, rescue swimmer, or any other job where there is significant risk of capture, you need two things. You have to have secret clearance, and you have to go to survival school.
The term “boot camp” was first used by the Marines back in World War II, the term boot being slang for “recruit.” Those of us who showed up for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape Training (SERE) that January may have already been through many months of training, but we were clearly still green, still boots—and survival school was boot camp on steroids. Based on the experiences of U.S. and allied soldiers as prisoners of war, the program’s aim is to equip its trainees with both the skills and the grit to survive with dignity in the most hostile conditions of captivity. It was far and away the most intense training I’d encountered so far.
We mustered at the SERE school building at Naval Air Station North Island, on the northern end of the Coronado peninsula, where we were scheduled for a week of classroom training, followed by a week of field work. We spent that first week covering history and background, including lessons learned from World War II and Vietnam. We learned such things as how to tell a captor just enough to stay alive—but not enough to give away secrets. The week went by fast, which suited us fine: we were looking forward to getting into the field. That day came soon enough. We were all lined up and checked head to toe for smuggled food items before heading out. We had been warned not to try and sneak any food into our clothes or boots, but as I would learn again and again during my time in the Navy, there’s always one in every bunch. Sure enough, a few guys got caught with a variety of ridiculous food items stashed on their person. I had to give it to them for trying.
After inspection, we drove about 90 minutes to the northeast, heading into the mountains of Warner Springs, California, where we were broken into groups of six and then into two-man evasion teams. I was paired up with a big Recon Marine. These are special ops guys, similar in many ways to SEALs, including some who specialize in deep reconnaissance and others, called black ops, who focus more on direct action missions. I didn’t know if this guy was black ops or not, but regardless, as survival and evasion partners go I figured I could do a lot worse. Then we were set loose in the wild with nothing but the clothes on our backs, simulating the experience of being on the move behind enemy lines. We spent the next three days learning basic survival and evasion skills, including trapping, tracking, and land navigation. We ate everything we could get our hands on, which wasn’t much. Survival school classes had been going out to this same spot for years, and practically everything that qualified as edible plant or animal had long ago been snatched up and eaten. Soon we were wolfing anything that wasn’t tied down, including bugs, some scruffy plants, and one lucky rabbit. By day two, we were starving.
The nights were rough. Our first day out my partner and I built a shelter in preparation for the cold mountain night, but we way overbuilt. Being manly men, we wanted a nice roomy set-up so we would each have our space and wouldn’t have to sleep so close that we would touch each other. Having since experienced that kind of cold a number of times, both in training in the States and thousands of feet above sea level in the wilds of northern Afghanistan, let me tell you: all that manly bullshit goes right out the window and you are more than happy to be nut to butt with anyone who has a pulse and warm blood coursing through his veins. After waking up the fourth time, chilled to the core and teeth chattering, my Marine buddy and I grunted a few words of manliness and then nestled up to each other like a scene right out of Brokeback Mountain.
After three days of this, we were ready to get on with the evasion-and-captivity portion of training, which included an evasion exercise lasting about twenty-four hours, leading directly into the simulated POW camp portion of the training, which would be three days long. During the evasion exercise, which simulated the circumstances of a downed aviator, we would be out in the woods attempting to evade capture by the enemy, who would actively hunt us down. The rules of this exercise were pretty simple: don’t get caught. If we did, we would win a prize: extra POW time. When the time was up, they would sound a loud siren, at which point those of us who had made it to the time threshold without being caught would walk to the nearest road and turn ourselves in. The “turn yourself in” part sounded crazy to me, but what the hell. It was their rules. My Marine buddy and I did very well at the evasion exercise—so well, in fact, that by the time they sounded the siren the next afternoon, we had cleared way to the south and we were completely out of earshot. We eventually realized we had gone way out of bounds and the time limit must have expired by now, so we found a road and started walking north toward the exercise boundary. Soon we were picked up by a truck full of foreign-looking men who looked quite pissed off. Hoods were yanked on over our heads and we were smacked around for a while. Good times. Later we learned that these guys had been out looking for us for almost four hours and were none too happy about it.
Once we reached camp, our hoods were removed and we were marched into a processing area, where we were each given our own war criminal number. I remember my number to this day: I was no longer Brandon Webb, I was now War Criminal 53. There were two rules here and we learned them pretty fast. “Grab your rags!” was the first. The second was, “Eyes to ground, whore dog!” Grab your rags: that was intended to remind us to grab the sides of our pants (which did indeed resemble rags at this point) so the guards could see our hands at all times. Eyes to ground: that one was to ensure that none of us war criminals would look around and gain any increased awareness of our surroundings—awareness that we might be able to use later to our advantage. I decided to test out this second rule. Quietly, carefully, without moving my head or neck, I rolled my eyes just a few degrees to steal a glance around. Whack!—my head rocked back from a swift backhand to my face. I could feel my jaw crack. I was a fast learner, or at least not the slowest: I tried it once more, and after the second numbing smack across the face figured they were enforcing the rules pretty well. From that point on I grabbed my rags and kept my eyes to ground. I did not look around. (Okay, I did—but I was a lot more careful about not getting caught doing it.)
Once we were given our new rags and number, we were all asked very nicely what we preferred for dinner. “War Criminal 53! You want the chicken or the fish?” Both sounded damn good to me—but I suspected it was a trick question and that what they really wanted was our signatures. We had to sign for our choice of dinner in the ledger, and they had instructed us to use our real names. I’d heard enough stories to realize that they could use this against us in any sort of future propaganda campaign. I may have been a prisoner in their camp, but I wasn’t about to roll over. I wrote my choice in the ledger (I chose fish) and signed it without using my name, writing simply, “Fuck you—sincerely.”