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Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Escape and Evasion of Trust

Stressful Sunday is upon me! I have to host and run a conference call this afternoon and want to make sure that everything goes well. Given that the call will be all Mensans and the standard formula being; for every three Mensans there will be five opinions, I will be up against it.

The weather prediction for beautiful downtown Fallon is for a high of 45F with the snow turning to rain and 20 mph winds from the WNW. The muddy yuck factor is in effect here in the rural areas. Not a clean clothes day.

The dogs are a sloppy mess, having been out running and barking in the wet weather. What was a beautiful white coating on everything has been churned into a "mud bowl", and they are quite satisfied with their efforts. The effervescence of wet dog nearly inspires me to washing these two, but until the backyard dries out again it would be an exercise in futility.

I debated with myself all day whether to release this today or write something new. This story from nearly 40 years ago won out. You will need to remind yourself as you read this, that this was a different time and a different war going on, but some things won't change unless made to. My writing style was a bit rougher when I penned this story as well, so please just go with the story, I am working on the rest.



The Escape and Evasion of Trust

During the summer of 1972 at Ft. Benning, Georgia I learned many things. These things included: how to control aircraft at my assigned airport, how to lead a unit of soldiers controlling aircraft, how to lead units in combat, and how to survive in various climates and conditions. I was busier than your average teenager.

Part of the training I received as a barely nineteen year old soldier in a Special Ops Unit, was a course called Escape and Evasion. It was a week long for regular troops. For our unit it was three weeks, with a week of classroom instruction, a week of field testing and a week of recovery.

The course was conducted entirely on military reservation property so that civilians were not encountered, involved, or had knowledge of what went on. The really humorous part for me was the setting. The entire mission was conducted in the same kind of pine forests that I played in growing up.

I had the silly idea that this was to be a physical exercise -- well, because they told me it was. I was na├»ve about psychological warfare at that age.

As part of our mission we were given a secret to memorize and keep. This information would be the prize for our pursuers should they capture us. We were not to reveal our secret if captured or others would suffer because of us.

Our instructors were all familiar to us as we had been together as a unit from the start. They told us that “no one had ever avoided capture, and we wouldn't either.” I am not sure if that was to challenge, or demoralize, us. This was my first hint that we may not be on the same team.

They took us out to the site in the back of a “6 x 6” truck with blindfolds on our eyes and bags over our heads to make sure that we couldn’t see anything. We spent about two hours riding around in that rattling, bouncing beast before we reached the place where we were to be released.

Claiming that I needed to be close to the flap in case of motion sickness from riding blindfolded (not likely) I managed to get seated at the back, next to the tailgate. That way I could hear and smell what I couldn’t see. I had been paying close attention and knew where we were within a click (kilometer) without ever getting out of the truck.

Without a doubt we were south of the airfield in a fenced off area known as Dixie Village. There was only one power substation (I heard the hum) for miles in any direction, and one cattle grate before a military PSP (perforated steel planking) bridge. I said nothing about knowing where I was, or anything else.

The teams consisted of five men each, and our mission was to avoid capture and delay giving up our secret for as long as possible, ideally never telling.
We were made to believe that it was our duty to take our secrets to our graves. The idea they placed in our heads that, “giving up your secret would cause harm to a fellow soldier” was a powerful in ways hard to explain if you haven’t faced that challenge.

I learned later in my career that everything is considered compromised with twenty-four hours of issue, and known in forty-eight hours.

These teams were made up of strangers, in order to test our abilities to learn to work together. We were also secretly and individually told by our instructors that we possibly had an infiltrator on our team.

We had been given a party the weekend before our course was to start and encouraged to drink excessively and a lot of the usual espirit de corps BS was promoted. The proverbial psychological pump had been primed.


The issued field gear (personal equipment) for this exercise was purposefully excessive. That way we would be weighted down and eventually feel the need to shed items. The cast-off equipment would give away our location. That trick I figured out as soon as we were issued equipment that had no purpose in the local terrain.

As soon as I got out of the truck I sorted my gear into two piles. One pile of what I knew that I would need to survive and one I considered dead weight. Once that job was done I was ready to move out.

I did stay long enough to attempt to speak with the other four who still stood where they unloaded from the truck, talking among themselves.

They were wasting time arguing over who was senior in rank and who should give orders. I said “OK, you guys work all of that out, I am leaving.” They were still saying that I couldn't do that when I disappeared into the darkness. They had proven to me just that quick, that to stay was to fail.

Leaving a nice clear trail with my new boots, I went along the road that the truck departed on for about a hundred yards until I found a downed tree and hopped up on it.

I sat down in a comfortable spot and removed my combat boots and put on my moccasin boots that had a smooth sole and laced up to my knee.  They were much easier to run in and didn't leave an imprint, at least nothing that those “gomers” could track.

Carrying my bags in either hand for balance I walked along downed trees until I found a deer trail back to the river.

At the river I found a good overhanging tree and took the bag I didn't need up that tree and into the vines in the canopy and tied it in place. I checked to make sure that it couldn't be seen from above or below and then eased back down making sure that I hadn't scraped any bark to give away my hiding spot.

Time was getting short so I strapped on my mini pack and trotted down the road that took me away from the river and around the perimeter of where the bad guy camp would be located, IF I was right.

I was on target and early enough to beat the shift change of the guards. The guy on watch was sleeping standing up and slumped against the side of a duce and a half (2.5 ton truck).

Since I was traveling light I was able to just breeze through the perimeter, stepping over the trip wires clumsily strung with the camp lights hitting (reflecting upon) them.

Wearing soft Nomex flight gloves on my hands and camouflage paint on my skin I was nearly invisible. I made no sound as I moved and was through to the supplies in seconds, getting myself some extra candy bars, meal packs and a spare canteen.

Zipping right back out had been my original plan, but as I surveyed the camp with their planning board in plain sight, a brilliant and funny idea possessed me.

The Senior Instructor had chosen to place his command tent next to a large oak tree and had his picnic table and lawn chairs set out under them. The command communications (radio) truck was parked on the west side to block any weather that would blow in.

I knew that there had to be some tactical advantage to the fishing poles stacked against the end of table, I just wasn't “military” enough to understand that. What I did see was that the "Big Dog" had made himself at home here.

So I did (made myself at home) too. I grabbed some more batteries and one of their planning maps and went up the communications truck ladder and stepped right into that big old oak tree.

It is good to be in your own neighborhood when people are after you, but sometimes the best place to be is where THEY feel safe.

My former “compadres” were among the first captured and were still arguing when they were brought in.

I was asleep in my tree house when the yelling started. I didn't move at all for at least a minute, wanting to listen and learn before I moved. I was pretty sure I was invisible, but my adrenalin was pumping from the noise below and I moved so slow that the people were out of the truck and lined up by the time my head was turned sideways. I didn't need to worry, nobody was looking up. After all no one would be crazy enough to hide in the aggressor camp… right?

The four soldiers (students) were lined up with their arms over their heads, hands cuffed together over a pole. They looked like fish or game birds ready for processing.
Two instructors wearing combat "war paint" and looking like “Rambo” on speed, (I believe that they were under the influence) were screaming threats and obscenities at the captured men.

The behavior was excessive, but not totally unexpected, until one of the goons bit a guy on the nose in his excitement. The other went down the line whacking the prisoners across the kidney region with what I later learned was a shot-filled length of automotive hose. They all peed their pants from the impact and pain.

Humiliation is a big part of interrogation it seems. One by one they were taken into a hut and the screaming and banging started. There was a board next to the door with our names on it. A big red mark was drawn through the names of those who had been captured, interrogated, and had given up their secret. It was the board of shame.

As they were brought out they were placed into a big bamboo and wire cage that was filled with mud and human waste. It was wide enough to hold all of a class but only about 3 feet high.

It was purposefully short for added humiliation. That way you had to go about on all fours or duck walk. Duck walking (squatting holding onto your ankles), was the preferred (by the guards) mode of prisoner locomotion. The guards came over to the cage whenever they had to pee and made everyone duck walk around the inside perimeter quacking while they (the guards) urinated through the wire.

If anyone resisted, the entire group was brought out and beat across the backs of their legs, which in turn made duck walking all the more painful. So it was degrading, humiliating, painful and possibly necessary. If we believed all of the indoctrination we had received it was necessary. We had to be tough. I knew that I didn’t like what I saw.

I was getting restless and a bit bored in my tree house, but not so much that I wanted to join the group in the cage. I had always hated duck walking; I couldn't imagine it being any more fun in there.

At that point I was contemplating a breakout and had actually moved through my tree to a place right above the cage. I was just about to contact the group to be ready for my release of them when I heard prisoners snitching to the guards on other prisoners.

That did it! I couldn't trust anyone. I slowly eased back to my bed and spent a lot of the night worrying about what my duty really was. What was my mission?

Was it still to avoid capture and delay giving up our secret for as long as possible? The secret had apparently already been given up, but did we all have the same secret? If we did, no problem, if we didn't then I couldn't give up mine. I had to go with the safe side.

Three days into the exercise the first group of instructors rotated back to the main base, except for the Senior Instructor. I got the feeling that he never wanted to go back.
This senior sergeant was a huge black man with a chest and arms that looked like they were part of a tree. The funniest thing was that he had his afro picked out and a headband on ala Jimi Hendrix. He never put on his shirt, but had his web gear and rigging on constantly. Hooked to the webbing was a holstered .45 auto pistol, a Kabar combat knife, a machete and multiple ammunition holders.

Around his neck he wore a pouch of leather of a kind that you really don’t want to know about. Inside of this pouch was (I learned as the smoke drifted upwards), his stash of pot. I began to understand that many rules were not being followed here.

From the names on the board at the interrogation hut I learned that there were 20 candidates in this session, including myself. Eight had just departed in a truck for the main base; three more were lined out as "swimmers."

I learned later that those three individuals had decided to try swimming across the Chattahoochee River and ended up being fished out by Alabama Fish & Game way downriver. They violated the boundaries and so were out. They were really lucky that they didn’t drown. The river was high and running hard with a lot of debris in it.

That left eight, plus me to capture.

The fresh instructor crew came in with sirens blaring and lights flashing at 02:00 and were yelling and hitting things to make noise. They wanted to make an impression!

The Senior Instructor came out of his tent, (an eight man tent in which he lived in alone) and fired his .45 in the air which scared the Hell out of me. “Up” is where I lived!

The new hunters quieted down immediately and Senior said, “Hit the sack, we roll at 05:00!” The group stowed all of their gear and crawled into their tents and were snoring almost instantly. They had a lot more discipline than the first crew did.

Between 04:00 and 04:30 I had noted that the cook would be up and making coffee and the camp guards tended to migrate there. They would hang out until 04:45 when they had to get back to their posts so they could be relieved when the Sgt of the Guard came around at 05:00.

As soon as I heard the cook get up and groan as he peed into the cage and lit up the cigarette that would be in his mouth all day, I moved slowly into position.

The guards moved to the mess tent which was closest to the river and blocked from sight from everything else by the Senior's tent. As they did that I went down the ladder and through the camp, snagging more candy bars and meal packs from supply and emptying my extra canteen into the cage. If you hadn't figured it out, I had to pee in the extra one to avoid detection. 

I do have a bit of the joker in me and I couldn't leave well enough alone. I changed the sign boards around so that the departed instructors now had red lines through them and wrote “gone fishing” on the student board for the entire group. I thought it was funny then, but not so much later.

By playing around with the signs I had pushed my luck to the limit, it was 04:45 at that point. I had to make a quick choice, go directly across the center of camp like I owned the joint, or depart into the brush. Fortunately I didn't take a long time to decide and took off through the heart of the camp on a run.

I slipped between the radio truck and the oak tree as the Senior Instructor came out of his tent. As I climbed the ladder on the back of the truck the communications guys were walking down the driver's side talking.

I got as far as on the top of the box (shaped like a camper) and flattened out, as they started to climb the ladder themselves. I was hugging the roof of that metal box, willing myself to blend into the paint when the Senior Sergeant let out a huge roar of anger.

The comm. guys dropped back to the ground, and ran around to the center of camp.

I lifted my head up slightly but quickly dropped again. I could see the red design on the Senior's headband, which meant he was facing towards me. I waited for a better chance.

More people came running and the noise got louder. I thought that it would have been the signs that made him mad, but it wasn't. Someone or something had taken a crap in front of the Senior's tent and he wanted to know where the guards on duty were.

The guards both came from the mess tent and so were at the back of the group, not where they should have been. That prompted a loud and long tirade by the senior man about duty and responsibility. Once everyone focused on them I was up and into the tree and scurried like a squirrel back into my nest.

I stayed put for the next two days and the changes were finally noticed on the board. It was just assumed that someone in the camp was being funny. That pissed me off, but not enough to make me climb down and take credit.

The anger and energy of the new crew of people hunters was very productive. They had their remaining eight victims swept up in the two days that I rested and waited. I was the only one left. So now what? I wait, that's what, or else I will get listed as captured when they had no idea where I was.

They spent another night searching the woods for me grid by grid using night vision, walking all of the roads and trails. By the next morning the team had decided that I had left the reservation.

At their meeting that night around the picnic table (which I attended unknown to the rest), the Senior Instructor declared the session concluded and ordered the signs posted around the area stating the end of session. It gave any remaining candidates (me) until sundown the day of posting to appear in camp.

That night I slipped down my tree and out of camp and returned to my hiding spot along the river to change back into my combat boots and recover my full gear compliment.

Since no one was after me any longer I sat down and heated up some coffee and a meal. After a meal and a short nap I strapped on my ridiculously huge pack and hiked to the “Aggressor” camp. I was just full of myself for having defeated this experienced group.

As I walked into camp I was set upon by the instructors who ripped my pack off of my back and jointly punched, kicked and beat me to the ground. They then stripped me naked and tied me hand and foot.

I was dragged in front of the Senior Instructor who was really upset with me for evading them. He said to me, “No one ever escapes.” I made the mistake of looking him in the eye and saying, “But Sgt Major, I did evade you, I even changed your board.”

I never should have said that to someone in his condition and state of mind.

A few words to one of his men and they put a rope under my arms (pulled behind my back) and lowered me into a deep pit mostly filled of water. Then they pulled a tarp over the pit making it pitch black and steamy hot.

I was in there for what seemed like a week, but was really “only” a little more than thirty (30) hours.

They drug a rope with a bicycle inner tube tied on the end of it across me telling me don't worry about the snakes. In that utter darkness they had a cage with rats in it squealing, peeing and pooping right above and on my head. It is hard to describe the range of emotions that scenario created then and still does in my nightmares.

When it was again dark outside, they pulled me up out of the water and hung me upside down. They then proceeded to beat the bottoms of my feet with bamboo canes trying to get me to talk.

The problem was that they never asked the right question. I would have given up the phony secret I was told if they had asked me, because it was game over, I had won.

But they didn't ask me for that; they accused me of cheating and leaving the reservation. That pissed me off all over again, so I told them nothing. The senior sergeant said “fine” and threw me back into the pit.
 
I had my arms tied behind my back and my hands were tied to my feet, the rope holding me up was through my arms. If I had gone forward the rope could have traveled to where my feet were higher and I would have drowned. No one bothered to check on me after I was thrown in the pit.

When the psychos came back with a field phone I thought I was in for it big time.
Fortunately the Senior Instructor and the Captain he worked for showed up and told them to get me out of the hole and dressed. The other instructors seemed genuinely disappointed but did as they were told.

I was bruised and scraped from one end to the other. My feet were so swollen I nearly screamed out loud when I pulled on my boots. The instructors laughed at my struggles.

They made me hike out to the nearest paved road with my pack on and they rode in their trucks. It was about two very long miles the way they went. If they had followed the river trail we would have been there in one quarter of a mile, but I’m sure that they knew that.

I went before a review board and answered their questions. I gave statements about what went on in camp and who was there and when. All proving that I was in fact on the reservation the entire time.

There was little choice left for them; the course completion was awarded to me.

I never got credit for beating them at their own game. So I never told them where I hid.

=============================

Epilogue

There was far more effort to instill fear than to ever teach anything. Instead of twenty young men trained in techniques of E & E and survival, they instead taught us about degradation and brutality.

These were men I had trusted. That damage could not be undone.

I know that there will be those who say their techniques were necessary to train soldiers about what to expect from an enemy.

My answer to that comes in the form of two questions:

Why were they more interested in beating and humiliating captives than learning anything from them?
 
Why are we not interested in training men to avoid capture and succeed?

PS

I have been asked by those who have read this story before you, what the significance of my reference to the "field phone" was.

This is a hand crank powered telephone unit that is used as an electric shock device. Wires from it can be (and have been), connected to various parts of the human anatomy to cause pain when the hand crank is turned.

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