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 ninety 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 2, 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.”
After signing up for dinner we were gathered in a room where we could talk to each other. There were some pretty nervous guys in there. Strange though it sounds, I felt pretty relaxed. I’m not sure if this comes from early experiences being on my own or if it’s just my temperament, but I’ve never been one to lose my cool in a high-stress situation. This would prove to work to my advantage more than once, both now and especially later on, once I was finally in training as a SEAL.
After a few minutes, the camp guard came in and asked for a show of hands from anyone who was U.S. spec ops. I couldn’t believe it. Did he really think we were going to fall for that?
“Come and answer us, you American whore dogs! Who is U.S. spec ops and pilots? We know your U.S. spy planes and spec op soldiers are on the ground in our country! Turn yourselves in now and save yourself pain and suffering. We will give you hot meal!”
The accent was Russian and sounded quite authentic, but the request was so funny and so obviously full of shit that it took an effort to suppress laughter. In the next instant my amusement turned to shock and dismay when I saw several of my comrades’ hands fly up. What the hell were they thinking? Those unfortunates were asked to sign a confession and then immediately separated from the rest of us. I don’t know where they were taken or exactly what their special treatment was, but I can promise you two things: a) it hurt, and b) it was not “hot meal.”
Next I was assigned to a small concrete box, about three feet tall, though somewhat large in width and depth (thank Heavens), which I was expected to enter. Not much alternative here. I crawled in and did my best to find a comfortable position. Hunching down a bit, I could just manage to sit cross-legged, sort of. I am not a tall man, and in that moment I was grateful for this fact.
In the box I noticed a Folgers coffee can. I was told its purpose. “It is for you to piss and crap in.” Ahh, all the amenities. There was a little canvas flap one could pull down for a little privacy when it came time to use the can, that phrase having now taken on its literal meaning.
This would be my home for the next few days.
I wondered what would happen next. It wasn’t that terrible being crammed into this ridiculous box, but I wanted them to haul me out and start interrogating me. Let’s get this damn thing over with, I thought. But nobody came.
As the hours crawled by, a sort of routine began to establish itself.
People were randomly selected (at least it seemed that way to me) to be pulled out of their boxes and taken away into the night. A short while later, we would hear screams. Then the music would start: bad songs, the worst, over and over. Other times it would be a recording of a little girl pleading for her daddy to come home. Whatever it was they played on the loudspeakers, it would go on for hours. When daybreak came this routine continued. Screaming, complaining, whining, beatings, and bad music.
My most vivid memory of time in the camp was being crammed into another tiny box, this one of wood and no more than three feet in all dimensions. This wonderful location would be my accommodations for the next few hours, while they subjected me to the interrogation portion. (Be careful what you wish for.) I’ve never had a problem with small spaces, but when I was stuffed into that box (yes, stuffed), my left leg started to cramp. This was the kind of cramp you can quickly relieve simply by straightening out your leg, but in that damned box, there was no straightening anything out. That leg cramp—and even more, my complete and utter inability to do anything about it—drove me near to insanity. It took everything I had to keep it together in the box.
On day 2 they gathered us all together and gave us a speech.
“Nobody cares about you worthless turds. Nobody on the outside is thinking about you. You’re ours, and no one gives a shit. So we’ve made a decision. We were supposed to keep you here for three days and then let you go. But that was the old plan. That was before we had a chance to find out just how weak and pitiful you are. We decided, we’re gonna keep you pieces of shit here and keep punishing you for a lot longer. Maybe five days. Maybe ten. We haven’t decided yet.”
Now, this sounded pretty farfetched. We all knew that the POW portion would last only three days. But at this point, it was weirdly believable. When you haven’t had a decent meal in four days, you haven’t slept much, and you’ve gone through a full twenty-four hours of that POW environment, I don’t care who you are or how tough you are, it starts to mess with your head.
After this bizarre announcement we were returned to our concrete homes. Shortly thereafter, my neighbor in the next hole over, War Criminal 51, asked to see the camp commandant about his swollen feet. He was ignored, and soon asked again, this time louder. And again. And then again. He kept repeating his request, over and over, and was ignored every time. After more than a dozen repetitions, his demands moved from pleading, to urgency, to hysteria, and still he kept at it.
Finally he started screaming.
He was done putting up with this bullshit, and everyone could stop playing games now, right now. “My orders end tomorrow, man! I’m not playing this fucking game any more! Get me the fuck out of here, man!” He sounded like Private Hudson, the Bill Paxton character in Aliens. (“That’s it man, game over man, game over! What the fuck are we gonna do now?! … We’re all gonna die, man!”) He had completely lost it.
After about an hour of this, I had to pull down my little canvas flap so the camp guards wouldn’t see me laughing. I know that sounds sick, but I couldn’t help it. There were only two ways to see it: either it was terrifying, or it was funny as hell. I went with funny as hell.
Suddenly I heard the scuttling of running feet. I jerked open my canvas flap just in time to see War Criminal 51 making a run for it! I could hardly believe my eyes. Did he really think he could get out? Who knows. My neighbor (I never did learn his name) had cracked.
I don’t think anyone had ever tried to run right out the main gate before, and he actually took the guards by surprise for a moment—but only for a moment. They grabbed him up pretty quick. I never saw him again.
Not that he was the only one who thought about escaping. But it is an established rule in the U.S. military that even in a prisoner-of-war situation you still use a strict chain of command. For example, if you want to make an attempt to escape the camp, you have to run your request chit and ask permission from the senior person. This was difficult for me to accomplish because of the location of my concrete box and my lack of proximity to our senior person. I made two attempts to run escape chits, but none of the people I passed them to were successful in getting a chit all the way up the chain of command.
In the middle of the second night there, we were told to strip naked. We stayed that way while they hosed us down with freezing cold water. Time for your bath. What else could you ask for?
During the course of these few days we learned a lesson that had been learned the hard way by real POWs before us, mostly from people imprisoned in the Hanoi Hilton in North Vietnam: in any prisoner-of-war situation, the goal is to survive with honor. If you act like a jackass, if you are arrogant and refuse (or appear to refuse) to cooperate, you will be quickly executed. Don’t be a smart-ass. That is not the way you play the game. As much as is humanly possible, you stick to name, rank, and service number.
A few guys took the opposite tack and acted out, being as obnoxious and uncooperative as they could. Their reward: they got waterboarded. After the course was over, these guys started bragging about being waterboarded for bad behavior, as if it were a badge of honor. They were quickly disabused of this notion. In our debrief after SERE, it was made crystal clear that if you got waterboarded, this showed that you were not putting into practice what you’d been taught about surviving in a prisoner-of-war situation. In short, you were a fuck-up.
A few guys pushed it even further, and their punishment went beyond waterboarding: they were executed. (Simulated, of course, but still not fun.) More than a few people failed out for getting “executed” or completely losing their cool. Three days doesn’t sound like a very long time. Under normal, everyday circumstances, it’s not. But under POW camp conditions, it doesn’t take long to wear down a man’s sanity.
After day 3 we were liberated from the camp and soon found ourselves back at North Island getting debriefed on our POW experience. Our guards had seemed callous and brutal, like they neither knew nor cared who we were and didn’t even notice us except to punish us. It was a ruse. In fact, they had watched us all quite carefully and taken thorough notes on each individual prisoner the entire time. I was happy to find out that I did pretty well.
I asked about War Criminal 51, the guy in the hole next to mine who’d made a run for it.
“He lost it, completely and totally,” I was told.
Would he be able to go on with his training, I asked, or was he out of the Navy?
“Don’t know,” they said. “We’re still evaluating him. Either way, though, he will not be continuing on in his current high-risk assignment.”
They gave us advice on how to make a solid transition from our exhausting training back to normal, real-world living. “Remember,” they told us, “you guys have not eaten in almost a week. Take it easy, and definitely refrain from having any alcohol for a while, because it can induce hallucinations.”
I think they told us this last piece at least three times, but they could have said it thirty times and it probably still would not have mattered. Try telling a nineteen-year-old who has just been liberated from a simulated POW camp that he should “take it easy” and “refrain from alcohol,” and see what happens. I went out that night with all my friends and classmates to the Surf Club on base, and we got absolutely trashed. I don’t remember much about that night, but I vividly remember waking up Sunday morning with a massive headache, peeing bright yellow from dehydration. I didn’t care. Boot camp—all of it—was over.
Now all I had to do was figure out how to get to BUD/S.
Published from the New York Times Best Seller, The Red Circle by: Brandon Webb