Note: This is part of a series. You can read part one and part two here. Now the rotor thumps were close enough to tell this chopper was heavy and touching down in our POW compound. This must be the assault force and ‘go time’ to break us out, I thought. Almost as soon as the chopper touched down outside, I could hear shouts, double taps, and my ears popped from the concussion of the flashbangs in the hall.
I poked my head up just high enough through the head hole to clear my eyes. I could see immediately that Jamie W. and Mike M. were also up for their tactical peek. All eyes in the room were on the door. We heard the rapid succession BANG BANG of a shotgun breach double tap. The door knob and mechanism arced across the room, rebounding off of the back wall. All heads quickly ducked back down to safety.
With the door open came the crisp snap of the firing pin of a flashbang grenade, immediately followed by the ear-splitting report of the grenade. I pushed my fingers into my ears firmly in spite of my earplugs, just in time to dampen the roar of the blast.
The first man to enter the room called out for us to identify ourselves in our box cells. We three in the room stuck a waving hand and arm through the head hole and shouted our names. The door latch rattled one last time as the door flew open and I was pulled through the tiny entrance hole.
Jamie, Mike, and I squinted at each other in the blinding light of the overpowering single 60-watt bulb that hung in the center of the room. Our rescuers were men from one of our sister squadrons. This was an honor. They swiftly ushered us into the hallway in a low crouch and pushed us into the growing line of other ‘criminals of the state.’ We pressed against the hallway wall, crouched with our heads bowed low, one hand on the shoulder of the criminal in front of us.
An assaulter moved down our lineup, pressing sets of earplugs into our hands. It occurred to me that I still had mine in since being pulled from my box. My peers and I were searching wildly for our captors to give them much-deserved goodbye kisses. The assault force expected this, and indicated more and more forcefully to keep our heads down, preventing us from making any ID. It turns out our interrogators had been absconded into a single protective holding room mere seconds before the helo touched down.
“Stand up! Follow the man in front of you. Let’s go!” Our linear formation snaked its way through the building one final time and out into the blast of icy night air. We were led into the back of USAF 1st SOW H-53 heavy transport helo, where we sat down and awaited liftoff. Once the helo picked up and oriented itself on azimuth for home, the assaulters fished out fruit and candy bars that they passed out to us all. We woofed them down with gusto.
I couldn’t quite recall when it was that I had eaten last, not including of course the soup du jour from the People’s Kitchen; it had been some time on the patrol for the downed pilots. I was oddly not really very hungry, and still wracking my brain for the name of that spice that was missing from the People’s potage.
Back in our home compound, we filled a warehouse-size room with our formation. To our left front flank, looking grim and sour, was a formation of the assault force brothers who had repatriated us. We were in awe of them. After several brief remarks from our commander, the national anthem was played while we stood tall at attention with crisp salutes. Finally, the assault forced filed by and congratulated every one of us. Call it corny, but it was a rather moving experience.
We would not leave the warehouse that night. We were directed to remain for the night and sleep on cots to decompress. We would be allowed to go to our homes at the end of the coming duty day. Business as usual. There was a bland coffee cake and juice available. We nursed both into the wee hours as we caught up with each other, sharing our experiences.
I noticed the rest of the guys were wearing their issued Gortex outer jackets. “Where the hell did you get those?” I sniveled. “They were put on top of our boxes, and we just pulled them in,” they explained. “Wondered why you never pulled yours in.” Well, when it rains, it pours, as I always say; I had no idea it was up there the whole time. I had to depend on the warmth of winter leaves stuck to my ass to get me through my 54 hours in a plywood-box cell.
Very soon after we were deposited into the repatriation warehouse, I could just feel the presence of my brother SFC Kurnrick threading his way through the crowd, making a beeline toward me. He planted himself directly in front of me and asked, “What did you say to those toads about me?”
“What?” I had to think.
There was a time shortly before the SERE Resistance Training Lab (RTL) that, out of affectionate ribbing, I began to append SFC Kurnrick’s name with “Kurn-dick,” just to taunt him, expecting that he would duly counter with something equally or more offensive in return. Kurndick it was, for those few days!
Later, during one of my interrogations, the interrogator was uniquely animated in his method, which eventually made me smile and chuckle.
“What the hell is so funny, criminal?”
“Nothing, sir,” I began. “It’s just that I was thinking of a funny face that one of my buds makes when he gets pissed at me—always makes me laugh.”
“Oh, and just who might that be, criminal?”
My mind conducted inventory until it found the last thing I remembered making me laugh out loud, and it was the good SFC Kurnrick at the helm. Not wanting to reveal his correct name, I said, “SFC Kurndick, sir.”
“Ah, and if we were to go right now and get SFC Kurndick and tell him to show us the funny face, then he would show it to us, right criminal?” he continued.
“Well, sir, I expect he would pretty much have to then.”
I had no idea this had occurred, but SFC Kurnrick later conveyed to me, “I was sitting in my box at some point when two of the guards yanked me out of my box and started slapping me around and shouting, “Show us the funny face, Kurndick! Show us the funny face!” The fact that they were calling him the exclusive “Kurndick” revealed that I must have been involved.
Prisoner to free man
The SERE RTL had taught us all much about ourselves and each other. My criticisms of the ordeal were few and superficial. Of the many slaps in the face delivered to me by that experience—both figurative and literal—the final coup de visage came weeks later, as I resumed my daily morning workout routine.
I kept a 50-pound rucksack packed on the side, always read for a morning rucksack speed march that took me down long street and others for a good seven- to eight-mile movement.
During my first march since the RSL, around about the four-mile mark, I pulled a canteen and tipped it back—only to be met with a flood of stale, brown urine. I flashed back to my bursting bladder in the hold of the cargo truck just prior to our capture. Stale brown piss. I mean it would have been bad enough if it were nice, warm, fresh stuff…but stale, brown, and cold? Oh well—karma. Here’s to you, SFC Kurndick.
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