December 2, 2007 – Arthur McCants III has drowned many times in his dreams, by his account.
The lanky 60-year-old from Eight Mile said he is haunted by “waterboarding” — an experience some decry as torture — that he endured in Navy survival training more than 30 years ago.
Now, he and his sister accuse the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) of ducking its obligation to provide him with needed disability help.
The VA has reported that it can find no proof that waterboarding occurred during such Navy training, although a former survival instructor said this year in congressional testimony that it did.
McCants, a former teacher and mail carrier who has fallen on hard times, traces his emotional struggles back to events of April 1975 in San Diego.
He was in the Navy, undergoing Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training with about 30 others, he said, when they began a role-playing exercise. The students were cast as POWs, while their instructors became harsh guards.
Black and white
While the instructors strapped McCants, who is black, to a board, they began to interrogate a fellow student, who was white.
“They told another POW that if he didn’t talk, ‘The black one will suffer,'” McCants said. “He just gave his name, rank and serial number, and when he refused to say more, they poured buckets of water over my face.
“The board was slanted at a 20-degree angle. Your feet are higher and your head is lower.”
The water, he added, “was constantly coming.”
McCants said he passed out.
He was still strapped to the board by his arms and feet when he regained consciousness moments later, he said.
An instructor resumed the interrogation. He told the other POW, “If you don’t talk, the black one will suffer more.”
When the other POW again refused to comply, McCants was waterboarded again, he said. This time, it was even worse: “They put a T-shirt over my face and began pouring water over it. I was now sucking water through the T-shirt. I was trying to break the straps, and my whole body was arcing. My whole body was trying to break the straps.”
He said he was taken off the board after he regained consciousness.
The next day, McCants said, an instructor threatened to subject him to more waterboarding. “I broke into tears. My knees buckled. I knew I couldn’t handle it again,” he said. “I would have lost my mind.”
McCants completed the course but felt scarred by the waterboarding experience, he said, and eventually sought to leave the Navy. He received a general discharge under honorable conditions in June 1977.
McCants said he moved to Oklahoma City but was drinking and using drugs. He said he got into scuffles with police officers while under the influence, and his marriage fell apart.
He said he returned to Mobile shortly after Hurricane Frederic struck the city on Sept. 12, 1979, and — having earned a college degree in physical education before joining the Navy — landed a job teaching driver’s education at Blount High School.
He said he quit drinking and drugs and worked for about four years at Blount, until he left for higher pay with the postal service. He said he worked as a mail carrier for some 12 years until he was partially disabled after being struck by a pickup truck.
McCants said he now must live on $1,500 a month: $1,300 in disability from the Postal Service and $200 from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
He said he has asked VA officials to declare him 100 percent disabled for post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the waterboarding.
The agency notified him last month that his claim had been denied, although he was given 60 days to appeal.
In a document dated Aug. 2, 2007 — which McCants said he did not receive until early November — the VA noted that it had confirmation that he graduated from the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape course on April 21, 1975.
The letter also said that a VA examiner “diagnosed the veteran is with PTSD” earlier this year “based on the veteran’s reported stressors during active duty, which consisted of his report of abuse with waterboard while training.”
But the VA said that it was denying McCants’ request for full benefits because no information was available on the “curriculum used at that time” at the survival school.
The Press-Register sought over two days last week to obtain comment from the VA about McCants’ claims.
A VA representative in Washington, D.C., responded with an e-mail indicating that he could not discuss the case unless McCants completed and returned a VA document agreeing to disclosure of his records.
A controversy over waterboarding by the U.S. military in interrogating suspected terrorists has become a national news subject in the past year.
A Nov. 9 story in The Washington Post told of a former Navy survival class instructor testifying before Congress that waterboarding is “torture” and that he had undergone it himself in survival training.
The article said Malcolm Wrightson Nance, who taught at a Navy school in California, said of waterboarding, “It is an overwhelming experience that induces horror and triggers frantic survival instincts.”
Meredith Sartin of Mobile, McCants’ sister, said her brother “has worked hard and tried to take care of his family for so many years.” She said he has two children in law school and another one who is a registered nurse.
She said her husband, Jay Sartin, was a VA counselor for her brother for many years and tried to get help for him. But her husband has retired and is dealing with cancer, she said, so she has stepped in to represent her brother’s case.
She said she is frightened by her brother’s suicidal tendencies and that he desperately needs VA assistance and treatment. “I don’t want to lose my brother,” she said. “I’ve been praying over all of this.”
McCants said he holds tight to the belief that he can win his case on appeal and maybe even return to teaching.
As for now, “I just want to have a good Christmas,” he said, tears welling up in his eyes as he spoke.