In today's NYT story, "Adopting Harsh Tactics, No Inquiry Into Their Past Use," reporters look into the American "SERE" training of our own soldiers which led to the torture practices of today's "War on Terror."
SERE was the big training craze following the Vietnam war, when I was in high school in the 1970s. I'd like to hear more from soldiers who went through SERE training "back in the day" and their families' experiences.
This is my story. I'm going to tell it here for the first time.
My high school boyfriend Bobbie was accepted into the Air Force Academy when he was 18 and wrote me detailed letters of his training days in Colorado. He was "captured" on field exercises and taken to a mock POW camp for SERE training, aka "torture camp."
Bobbie went into the USAFA a civil rights activist, a self-identified feminist, a socialist. He dressed like a Black Panther in his senior yearbook photo— with a leather suit jacket and an afro that had to be 15" in diameter! We met doing the UFW lettuce and grapes boycott. He was in the Red Tide, our high school underground newspaper.
Bobbie said he wanted to join to be the "spook who sat by the door," to reform or subvert from within. His skeptical friends said he was naive, that he'd be the one who'd get "subverted"— but there was no talking him out of it. He was the eldest son of a military family, and named after his father, a decorated officer.
In addition to the group beatings, waterboarding, electric shock, sleep deprivation, sound/noise torture, starvation, dehydration, he was also forced to eat human feces and vomit, in accompaniment with the beatings. They had replicas of "tiger cages' they kept him in. He wrote me that after awhile of knowing it was all a training, he couldn't hold the frame anymore and it became nothing but his reality. His sense of time and self evaporated.
Although his captors were supposed to be Vietcong, they were largely white kids who'd been instructed to scream everything in "fake" Oriental accents that would have been absurd if they weren't so sadistic. They were supposed to target his vulnerabilities, which in his case, meant humiliating him for being African-American.
His father was Air Force— and I think even he was taken aback by the SERE training. Afterward, as far as I could tell, Bobbie had a psychological breakdown. He wasn't the same guy. I was afraid of him.
They'd given him some very peculiar advice about women— it creeped me out. I was, like, "HEY, it's me, remember?" But he didn't. He hurt me when we made love, my back bled. He acted like we were supposed to play this out until I got "tougher" and could take it. It didn't have anything to do with "kink" or fun.
After he came, that time I bled so much, I got out of the room and pretended I had some urgent phone from my dad, his mother, any distraction to get him out of the house. I felt cold as a crypt after he left, and I have never seen him again. I didn't tell anybody. That was thirty-five years ago.
The last time Bobbie came to my door I wouldn't let him inside. I was freaked out by his threats and declarations. After all, I was the "enemy" now; I hadn't changed my political stripes. He was laughing in this weird way, like a spoof of a con artist, and shouting that he had a "Rosa Luxemburg t-shirt" for me. Yeah, right. I wouldn't open the door.
He used to say I was one of the smartest people he'd ever met. Yes, of course we were teenagers, but we so serious about our politics and our books. He'd given me a homemade ring from one of his parachute rigs. We put up with so much shit from people who didn't know a thing about us, just "oh-my-god-black-boy-white-girl" bigoted diarrhea. Our idealism was one of our greatest comforts. His last contact with me was chilling enough by itself, but if you'd known how gentle, empathetic, and shy he used to be, it was even more heartbreaking.
When we went out on our first date, only a few months previous to his enlistment, Bobbie had been too shy to kiss me goodnight. We held hands for a long time while I gave him a "of-course-I-want-to-kiss-you!" pep talk.
I couldn't believe the Air Force had taken Mr. Eagle Scout Perfect Gentleman and turned him into a psycho. After he finished crying on the first trip home, he clammed up and wouldn't talk about it anymore— or he lied, unconvincingly. After his service, he became a leader in a Black GOP leadership council. Talk about Stockholm Syndrome.
I will never forget Bobbie's letters. It was not something he said to get laid... we were already lovers, there was no rejection to parse.I am holding back from writing the gory details because it makes me so sick— and I feel so helpless. When I heard what was going on in Iraq, I knew exactly where it came from.
Politicians on Capitol Hill today, including the liberals, talk about whether they're "not sure" they want to prosecute torture violations because they don't want the trials to become a "partisan battle." Their rationalizations make me want to puke.
Do they understand that— puke? Because maybe they'd like to spend a week in a tiger cage being force-fed shit and see if they still think it's a "partisan issue." These politicians are living in Absurdistan.
I'm glad Bobbie wrote me before he pushed it all out of his mind. It is the bleeding edge of the American nightmare— and everyone who's been part of it needs to wake the fuck up.