December 10, 2019
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How I spent my time at Navy’s western Maine ‘torture’ camp

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Michael Kessock

It is with great interest that I read Chris Busby’s recent article in the BDN, published July 2, in which he sharply criticizes the training of the Navy’s SERE — Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape — school based here in Maine. As I read it, my interest quickly turned to disgust. His comments were insulting and offensive to any member of the armed services who served as SERE instructors and the Naval officers who experienced the training.

Much to my surprise, the BDN decided to publish a follow-up article on July 16. In the first two paragraphs, Busby described the SERE program as a “torture school” run by “spies and sadists,” who participate in “brutality and depravity.” Then again last week yet a third article appeared, raising the possibility of a massive cover-up while accusing a highly respected late senator, Margaret Chase Smith, of lying to protect the SERE program.

Wow! What a great story!

Too bad it’s fiction. Regrettably, Busby’s imagination far exceeds his credibility. His articles bear little resemblance to the truth, so far-fetched as to be laughable. A modicum of research would have served him well.

All Navy pilots must attend SERE school. I have yet to meet one who volunteered. Yet, if you were to ask them to list their most memorable moments in the service, you’d probably hear “my first solo flight,” “hitting the boat” (aircraft carrier), “receiving my wings” and “SERE school.”

In my case, I had the misfortune to be scheduled for the last class of the year — in mid-December 1971. After arrival at Brunswick Naval Air Station, we were bussed (at night) to the staging area. We arrived around dawn and were given training in navigation, trapping and, most importantly, how to survive two nights outside in a Maine winter.

Later that afternoon we all set out individually on our trek to the POW camp. We were each given a backpack, sleeping bag, flashlight, compass and maps. The 2½-day “evasion” included several mandatory checkpoints at which we were rewarded with a slice of bread and small cup of broth. It would be the only food we received for the entire week. Those who missed a checkpoint or were caught “pairing up” immediately were sent to the POW camp.

In spite of inclement weather (freezing rain), it wasn’t that challenging to navigate, even though the route included traversing streams and mountainous terrain. The nights were a bit tougher.

The third day placed us at the final checkpoint, which was in close proximity to the camp. We, those who were still uncaptured, could hear loudspeakers offering food and shelter if we surrendered — a tempting offer when you’re cold, wet, tired and hungry. After several hours of hiding, the remaining holdouts eventually were surrounded and imprisoned. Of course, there was no food or shelter. Instead, we were greeted by a cold shower — outside. That’s when you learn: Never give up, don’t surrender.

The days spent in camp weren’t much fun.

Busby was partially correct. We were indeed waterboarded, sleep deprived and humiliated. Various other techniques were used in an attempt to “break us.” My particular favorite was their version of “solitary confinement,” being locked in a coffin. Not nice for those who were claustrophobic. But I enjoyed it: It was warm inside, and I got a brief chance to get some sleep.

Unaddressed in Busby’s article was the time spent on “psychological interrogation” in camp. He simply states that SERE school is outdated and is no longer relevant in today’s world of new and different enemies. In fact, the “soft sell” interrogation techniques were far more effective than the “hard line” techniques. They’ve taken the “good cop/bad cop” routine to a higher level of expertise.

Following camp we were bussed back to Brunswick and debriefed. Each student was individually graded by the “guards” in great detail. I, like most, did well with the “hard line” but poorly with the “soft sell.” The lead speaker to our group was the camp commandant, who turned out to be a psychologist. Several hours were spent explaining the reasons for our treatment, basically emphasizing the need for “realism.”

Among other things, we learned the “guards” were a rather elite group, some of whom were actually Navy Corpsmen, whose primary duty was to look out for our health and well-being.

In closing, it should be pointed out that the Navy Seal Training program is much tougher and far longer than SERE school. Why not eliminate their training as well? After all, who needs Seals?

Michael Kessock is an ex-Navy pilot who lives in Brewer.



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