Last week, much to my dismay, government officials testified before Congress that the United States has used the interrogation technique known as waterboarding and would like to hold out the option of using it in the future. As someone who has experienced waterboarding, albeit in a controlled setting, I know that the act is indeed torture. I was waterboarded during my training to become a Navy flight crew member. As has been noted in several media outlets, waterboarding is "real drowning that simulates death." It's an experience our country should not subject people to.
In February 1963, I was ordered from the Naval Air Station in Alameda, Calif., to Whidbey Island, Wash., for survival training. Part of the weeklong program was a brief incarceration in a simulated prisoner-of-war camp; at that time, the program was modeled on events that had occurred during the Korean War. First we were to be "held" in a mock North Korean camp and later transferred to a Chinese camp.
The enlisted men who supervised the training worked to make the situation realistic, and they succeeded in convincing me that I never wanted to become a prisoner of war. I recall that after our "capture," the sailors - wearing Red Army uniforms - marched the dozen or so of us along the ocean without our boots. It was very cold, and all our resolve and determination could not prevent our courage from eventually draining out through our wet feet. They took us to a compound of small huts with dirt floors. The camp was surrounded by barbed wire, and the entrance was guarded by armed soldiers.
Several times that night I was on the verge of speaking out, of trying to call the whole thing off, and I suspect that I was not the only one. We held on because none of us trainees wanted to be the person to quit. The camp had an array of torture devices, including the infamous "black box" (which I actually liked because it was the only time I was off the ground and not miserably cold), and our captors also threatened executions, though we had the comfort of knowing that they would not carry through on such threats.
We were all interrogated a few times, some of us more than others. During one interrogation, I was led blindfolded into a room. Suddenly one of the "enemy" hit me hard in the stomach - a sucker punch that left me doubled over, out of breath. I think three other people were present, but I was never sure. Two men grabbed me at my sides. They put a pole of some kind under my knees and bent me over backward. My head went down lower than the rest of my body.
The questions (What is your unit? Where are you from?) were asked by one man. But we were not supposed to talk. I remember that the blindfold was heavy and completely covered my face. As the two men held me down, one on each side, someone began pouring water onto the blindfold, and suddenly I was drowning. The water streamed into my nose and then into my mouth when I gasped for breath. I couldn't stop it. All I could breathe was water, and it was terrifying. I think I began to lose consciousness. I felt my lungs begin to fill with burning liquid.
Pulling out my fingernails or even cutting off a finger would have been preferable. At least if someone had attacked my hands, I would have had to simply tolerate pain. But drowning is another matter.
Even though I knew that I was in a military facility and that my "captors" would not kill me, no matter what they threatened, my body sensed and reacted to the danger it was in. Adrenaline helped me to fight out of the position the men were holding me in. I can't really explain how I managed to stand up, still with one man clinging to each arm. I only know how horrible it was. The experience was probably only a few minutes, but to me it seemed much longer.
Waterboarding has, unfortunately, become a household word. Back then, we didn't call it waterboarding - we called it "water torture." We recognized it as something the United States would never do, whatever the provocation. As a nation, we must ask our leaders, elected and appointed, to be aware of such horrors; we must ask them to stop the narrow and superficial thinking that hinges upon "legal" definitions and to use common sense. Waterboarding is torture, and torture is clearly a crime against humanity.
Richard E. Mezo, who served in the Navy for six years, teaches at Germanna Community College's Fredericksburg, Va., campus.