VA Says Disability Claims for ‘Waterboarding’ During SERE Training are Rare

The Press Register

January 25, 2008 – A claim by an Eight Mile man that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder — the result of being “waterboarded” during a Navy survival course in 1975 — is a rare one, according to a Department of Veterans Affairs official in Washington, D.C.

“It’s the first case I’ve encountered personally involving waterboarding,” said Arnold Russo, director of the VA’s Appeals Management Center. He acknowledged, however, that he had heard of a couple of such cases.

Russo — whose office had rejected the claim by 60-year-old Arthur McCants III — said he has been with the VA for 19 years.

Waterboarding is a controversial interrogation method that simulates drowning and has been denounced by some as torture.

McCants said he was subjected to waterboarding while going through the Navy’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training at San Diego. He said he has been haunted by dreams of drowning since then and has struggled with alcohol and drugs, as well as suicidal thoughts.

Russo made his comments in response to earlier inquiries by the Press-Register about McCants’ case.

The newspaper first reported McCants’ story Dec. 2. VA officials had declined to discuss the case until McCants signed a document allowing them to do so.

During the SERE training, said McCants, he was subjected to waterboarding during a role-playing exercise in which he and other students were POWs and their instructors posed as enemy guards.

A VA document shows that McCants successfully completed the SERE course on April 21, 1975, and also reflects that a VA analyst has since diagnosed him as having PTSD as a result of the waterboarding that he described.

The VA, however, has turned down McCants’ claims for full disability for service-connected PTSD.

“I’m not denying that he has PTSD,” Russo said, “but we don’t have the service incident verified.” Russo said he has been unable to confirm that waterboarding was part of the SERE curriculum in 1975.

A Nov. 9 article in The Washington Post told of a former SERE instructor — Malcolm Wrightson Nance — testifying before Congress that he had undergone waterboarding himself in his training in California.

Russo said the best evidence that McCants could show to verify his claim would be testimony from a service member who saw McCants being waterboarded. McCants told the Press-Register that those who underwent the SERE training came from various units and did not know each other.

Russo said testimony by the former instructor might help McCants’ case, but said he would need to know more details. “I’m not ruling anything out,” he added.

He said that testimony from others who experienced or witnessed waterboarding during the SERE course might also be useful.

McCants said he first applied to the VA for full disability in 1985. He re-filed his claim in 1998 and has continued to plead his case.

McCants said he received notice of the latest denial from the VA Appeals Management Center in November.

Russo said the next step for McCants is to appeal to the Board of Veterans Appeals in Washington.

McCants said he currently lives on $1,500 per month — $200 from the VA and $1,300 in disability from the Postal Service, for which he once served as a mail carrier.

Over the years, McCants has been arrested on various drug-related offenses and in 2000 he pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine. He was sentenced to three years probation, records show. Court documents show that a cocaine trafficking case against McCants related to an Aug. 31 arrest is pending before a grand jury.

McCants — who is divorced — said he is frustrated with the VA but is trying to stay positive. “I’ve got good hopes,” he said.

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