March 20, 2008 – Mobile, AL — The Department of Veterans Affairs has reversed earlier rulings and granted a rare disability claim by an Eight Mile veteran who says he suffered long-term emotional problems after being waterboarded during a Navy survival course in April 1975.
The Board of Veterans Appeals in Washington, D.C., ruled in favor of Arthur McCants III, 60, following a series of stories in the Press-Register, dating back to Dec. 2, about McCants’ case.
Steve Westerfeld, a VA spokesman in Washington, confirmed the appeal ruling in a phone interview Tuesday and said that VA officials considered information in the articles as well as testimony from veterans who responded to the stories and described their waterboardings at the survival school in California.
“I’m happy. … I feel a whole lot better,” McCants said Tuesday. He said he is scheduled to undergo eight weeks of post-traumatic stress disorder counseling in a dormitory setting at VA facilities in Biloxi, starting next week. He will also get free medication.
He said he has struggled with drugs and alcohol for decades — as well as suicidal thoughts — since he underwent waterboarding at the survival school in the San Diego area.
Westerfeld said that it has not yet been determined what amount of disability payments that McCants will receive. That will be decided by the VA Regional Board in Montgomery, Westerfeld said. McCants could also get back-payment compensation from the time his claim was first denied in 1986.
“Waterboarding” is a controversial procedure that simulates drowning; some denounce it as torture.
McCants said he was in the Navy, undergoing Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training with about 30 others during April 1975. He said that at one point, the course instructors took the role of guards, and the students were POWs.
He said the instructors strapped McCants, who is black, to a board slanted at a 20-degree angle. “Your feet are higher, and your head is lower,” he said.
He said guards told another POW that if he didn’t talk, “The black one will suffer.”
When the other POW refused to give anything more than name, rank and serial number, McCants said, “they poured buckets of water over my face.” He said the water “was constantly coming” and that he passed out.
McCants said he regained consciousness just moments later, and the procedure was repeated, only this time water was poured through a T-shirt over his face. “I was now sucking water through the T-shirt. I was trying to break the straps, and my whole body was arcing.”
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 said he presently must live on $1,500 a month: $1,300 in disability from the Postal Service and $200 from the VA for an injury he received during his more than five years in the Navy.
He said he’s facing foreclosure on his home because he has been unable to meet the payments in recent months, and he fears he will have no home to return to after completing the eight-week course in Biloxi, where he will not get a weekend pass until his fourth weekend in treatment.
Westerfeld said that after the Press-Register articles came to their attention the case was given priority on the docket because of “financial hardship.”
Along with the articles, the Press-Register sent names and information on veterans who contacted the newspaper following the articles, veterans who said they, too, were waterboarded at the same survival school.
Among the evidence McCants had previously offered to the VA, was a report by a VA analyst concluding that McCants suffered from PTSD as a result of the waterboarding.
VA officials had said they did not doubt he had PTSD but said in a previous ruling that there was no record of “the curriculum” at the school in 1975. The VA said then there was no proof the PTSD was caused by an “in-service or service-related” incident.
In its reversal of the earlier ruling, the new ruling concludes, “The veteran has been diagnosed with PTSD that is medically attributed to a stressor he experienced during his service.” It adds, this time as a “conclusion of law,” that “the criteria for service connection for PTSD have been met.”