January 28, 2008 – An Eight Mile man’s detailed account of being “waterboarded” while undergoing training in a Navy survival school in California in 1975 is so accurate that “only somebody who went through it would know that,” according to a former instructor at the school.
Malcolm Wrightson Nance, now a retired Navy senior chief petty officer living in the Washington, D.C., area, said in an interview that he immediately noted the authentic nature of Arthur McCants III’s story when he read it.
McCants, 60, says he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as the result of the waterboarding, a controversial interrogation procedure that simulates drowning and that some criticize as torture.
The Press-Register wrote about McCants’ difficulties in a front-page article Dec. 2.
VA documents show that McCants successfully completed the Navy survival training, and a VA analyst has diagnosed him as having PTSD. But the agency has rejected efforts to win a full disability for emotional distress, contending that he cannot prove he was waterboarded.
McCants said he will pursue an appeal to a VA board in Washington.
Nance testified Nov. 8 before a House Judiciary subcommittee in Washington that he underwent waterboarding in 1997 while training to become an instructor at the Navy’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school. Of waterboarding, he told the subcommittee, “It is an overwhelming experience that induces horror and triggers frantic survival instincts.”
McCants said that he was waterboarded during his SERE training at San Diego in April 1975. He said he has struggled with suicidal thoughts and been haunted by images of drowning. He said he also has problems with alcohol and drugs.
In rejecting his disability claim, VA officials say there are no records of the curriculum at the school in 1975.
Nance — a SERE instructor from 1997-2001– said that the school has long used waterboarding to prepare trainees for abuse if they become prisoners of war. Still, only a small fraction of the SERE students are actually waterboarded, he said, and the practice is little known.
McCants said he and about 30 other military personnel went through the course. He said he was waterboarded during an exercise in which the students pretended to be POWs while the instructors functioned as brutal guards.
McCants, who is black, said he was strapped to a board at a 20-degree angle, with his feet were higher than his head. He said that the instructors began to interrogate a fellow student, who was white.
“They told the other 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 water, he said, “was constantly coming” until he passed out. When he came to, he said, the guards repeated the process, this time with a T-shirt over his face, after the white POW again refused to talk.
Nance said that the use of the ultimatum with the warning that “‘the black one will suffer,'” is “exactly what the phrase would be.” Although it sounds stilted, he said, it’s meant to mimic a POW interrogator speaking English rather than his native language.
After reading McCants’ account published in the Press-Register, Nance said, “It’s pretty clear he knew everything that goes on in a waterboarding.” He said, “I have great sympathy for him. This man served.”
The director of the VA Appeals Management Center in Washington, Arnold Russo, said in a recent interview, “I’m not denying that he has PTSD, but we don’t have the service incident verified.” Russo said the best evidence that McCants could show would be testimony from someone who witnessed his waterboarding.
But McCants said that he and his fellow SERE students hailed from different units and did not know each other. Nance, meanwhile, said there would have few witnesses, because SERE’s waterboardings were not done in front of the whole class.