Monday, August 17, 2020

Alaskapade Retro Post: The Three Most Stupid Things I've Ever Done - Part Two

Remember, these retro posts are reposts of entries that stood out to me.  They were written in the context of preparing for my first trip to Alaska in 2011.  Technology and cultural references are a decade old and may seem justifiably dated.

This is Part One of what turned out to be a four part series describing acts on my part, the rationality of which some might have found questionable.

Stupid - Part Two

I was sitting in a client's conference room in the midst of pre-meeting smalltalk when a co-worker brought up the Alaskapade and asked when I was leaving.  One of my clients asked what he was talking about and my co-worker pulled up the page on the conference room's projection screen.  We had but moments before the meeting kicked off, so there wasn't much time for me to explain.  There was time, however for my client to express his opinion that "this has to be the stupidest thing [I've] ever done".  My first instinct was to argue the purpose for my trip, but this is my customer and IBM probably wouldn't appreciate that.  So, I just grinned, nodded, and bit my lip as the meeting started.

It did get me thinking though.  I know I'm firmly resolved in my purpose for the trip and I also know that I've done many things more stupid than this.  There are too many to list without starting another blog, so I thought I would describe my top three in no particular order.As promised in a previous post, here is another of the three dumbest things I've ever done.

 Shooting My Mouth Off to a Prison Camp Guard

"That...Mr. going to cost you."

Many years ago, I served in the U.S. Air Force. My primary job was an Electronic Warfare Systems Technician and in that capacity, I serviced aircraft-mounted electronic countermeasures (ECM) equipment. The gear's purpose was to jam or deceive enemy radar by altering the apparent location and/or quantity of our aircraft as they flew over threat radar systems. We also maintained radar warning receivers that alerted aircrews to the presence of various ground and air based radar-guided missiles and anti-aircraft artillery. In their day, these systems were on the absolute bleeding edge of microwave and RF signal processing technology and as technicians on them, we were the geekiest of geeks. Training for and working with these systems required serious security clearances beyond what the general public even knew existed.  While I was in basic electronics tech school, I was constantly hearing from friends and even high school teachers back home telling me that strange people in suits with badges showed up at their doorstep asking questions about my background. I had pulled my share of harmless pranks in high school, but I was squeaky clean - the Air Force's wet dream, so securing the necessary clearances necessary to move on to the specific equipment was a breeze for me. I also happened to do really well in the tech training schools. Classes ran six hours a day, five days a week for 18 months, at the end of which I had carved out a 98% test score average. My point isn't that I'm some smart guy. Hell, I flunked algebra in high school.  I just got the concepts and excelled in the training.  Nevertheless, that average earned me Honor Graduate status and that status offered me my choice of base assignments as well as opportunities to apply to join Special Operations forces.  In one of the few conversations my father and I had regarding my career, he strongly advised (based on his own experiences) that I stay away from any special duties that involved National security or Special Ops.

I couldn't wait to get into National security or Special Ops.

I took an assignment at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin, Texas and worked in an ECM shop in the 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing's Component Repair Squadron (CRS). Many there claimed ECM stood for "Easy Chair Maintenance" and that CRS stood for "Can't Repair Shit".  To a certain degree, they were correct.  So when I was offered an opportunity to step outside the box and work in field intelligence for a three-letter agency, I jumped at the chance.  I would work in my shop until notice of an assignment came to me. These notifications usually consisted of temporary duty (TDY) orders with the location blanked out. Then, I would disappear for a few days and no one in my shop or immediate command structure was allowed to ask where I was. They knew these programs existed and that there were likely people the knew involved, but unless they were directly involved, they had no idea who those people were.  As one of "those people" it was a perfect racket.

These assignments had ancillary training prerequisites that were not overly technical.  Short classes at another three-letter agency in Falls Church, VA were common. You can determine the Government agencies there and put two and two together.  Less common but equally required were the field survival courses which were usually conducted in remote locations in the pacific northwest. One of these courses was essentially a prison camp experience wherein the trainees were dropped-in to the forest, captured by "enemy forces", interrogated, and subsequently evaluated on our ability to cope and maintain military discipline throughout the induced stress. There was one other tech in my squadron who had been to "prison" and he had related his experiences to me as a fellow one of "those people".  So when my turn came up, I had an idea what to expect.  In fact, I was pretty sure that I had the entire game figured out.  Hell, at 24 years old, I thought I knew everything.

I was fortunate to be scheduled in the summer months when surviving in the forest is easier.  I can take heat, but brutal wet and cold are not my strong points.  There were six of us from various service branches in my drop group.  When I said "dropped-in", I meant it.  We bailed from the back of a C-130 cargo aircraft and parachuted into the forest.  They didn't just strap a chute to us and push us out the door.  I had been a sport sky diver in years past and had some Air Force training as well.  We could see the camp facility from above during our descent and we knew they could see us parachuting in. We had been told that once we were on the ground we would most certainly be captured immediately and taken to the camp.

Having had some idea of what to expect, I packed peanut butter crackers and a heating bladder of water to live on in case I wasn't immediately apprehended. The course had a finite schedule and I figured every hour I was on the lam was an hour I wouldn't spend in "enemy" hands. I also knew the forest was wired and our location would be known as soon as we hit the ground and started moving.  So when I hit the ground, I buried my chute, dug a hole, covered myself with leaves,and laid there. I wasn't alone.  I discreetly shared my sustenance stash with an Army Ranger onboard before we jumped. We shared a warped sense of humor and clicked in the hours prior to our flight departure. Beyond that, I figured if I was caught with the goodies, splitting the blame between two of us might make my life easier.

We laid in the woods through the night and were awakened from the pre-dawn silence by an announcement blasted through a loudspeaker system in the trees instructing us to turn ourselves in. Specifically, the instructions were to walk south until we saw a white marker in the trees and then turn left, and to keep turning left at each marker until we received further instructions.  Looking back, I assume they always knew where we were.  They were just to lazy to come get us.  Essentially, they had us following an inward spiral which terminated at a clearing in the forest. The fort was straight ahead of us in this clearing.

Prior to our flight, we were given details of fake missions, nonexistent technologies, call signs, passwords, and other minutia to memorize. This would be the information that our captors would attempt to extract from us during the interrogations that were almost certain to take place in the days ahead.  The instructors actually used Dale Carnegie memorization techniques to force feed the information to us.

My Army co-fugitive and I exited the forest and made our way towards the fort.  After sleeping in the dirt among insects and Lord knows what else and having consumed only stale crackers and warm rubbery water for the last 30 hours, even prison quarters and inmate chow was starting to sound appealing.  The fort looked like a fort I would have constructed as a kid.  It appeared to be a two-story wooden structure with guard posts on each corner and a row of razor wire surrounding the entire place. As we approached the fort, a person appeared in one of the guard towers and yelled to us through a megaphone, ordering us to stop. It reminded me of the French guard in Monty Python's Holy Grail. That movie cracks me up to this day.  Unfortunately, the association of events cracked me up then too and I started laughing. The night before, we had been discussing the tactics they might employ to get to us and surmised that although they would try to scare us, they weren't going to physically harm us.  I assumed we were way to valuable for that. Looking back, I doubt my Ranger buddy knew better.  That value proposition would turn out to be but one of many invalid assumptions that I will have made by the end of this experience.
Another guard appeared on the other end of the wall before us and told us to keep walking. We started walking again and the first guard yelled to us to stop. Again, the other guard said to keep walking and we did.  About then, the most realistic bullets-hitting-the-sand-around-us-effect stopped us dead in our tracks. Turns out it was no special effect.  Apparently, when the first guard said to stop, he meant it.  The other guard was unarmed, or at least never showed a weapon. You can guess which orders we followed. The doors about fifty feet in front of us burst open and several people came running toward us with weapons drawn and yelling in some language neither of us understood.

Instinctively, I dropped to my knees with my hands in the air.  The afternoon before, I was leaping into thin air form a cargo plane and was as cool as a cucumber.  Now, here I was firmly planted on terra firma and my heart was pounding so loud I'm sure the guards could hear it from their posts.  We were instructed to turn to face away from the fort.  My hands were bound to the sides of our waists and my elbows strapped so close together behind me that I thought my arms would snap out of my shoulder sockets. They bound my feet together and them bound my right ankle to the left of my Army buddy.  One of the soldiers placed a black cloth on the ground in front of us and told us to put our faces in it.  Picture me on my knees with my arms and legs bound and try to imagine how I could comply with their order.  All I could do was lean forward and let gravity do its thing. I managed to turn my head to the right so I wouldn't face plant into the dirt and so I could see what was happening next to me.  That was the last I saw for what seemed like several hours.  The thick, opaque, black cloth was wrapped around my face and its base duct-taped around my neck. I couldn't see anything, but I remember hearing the tape being unrolled and torn.  We were brought to our feet, turned around, and instructed to walk forward. Still bound at the ankles, it must have resembled a drunken three-legged race at an inbred family reunion.  I had no idea which direction I was stumbling. We clumsily stepped up into something and I felt cooler air surrounding me.  I assumed we were inside the fort.

At this point, we were separated and I was led into a musty smelling room. The door closed behind me and the room was silent except for the thundering sound of my heart and pulse. I was still bound with my head covered. For all I knew the lights could have been on with a roomful of people watching me, so I just stood like a mummy.  I could hear conversations in adjacent rooms, but couldn't make out what was being said.  I could also hear what sounded like grown men screaming out in pain and I tied hard to convince myself those were either others acting out for effect, or maybe recordings.

After what felt like hours, I heard the door open behind me.  My feet, elbows, and hands were unbound and that damn hood was finally removed. Looking back, it's interesting how visual sensitivities are impacted by temporary blindness.  The room walls were bare and dull grey in color, yet the contrast from total darkness made the grey seem vivid by comparison.  The room was sparsely populated with an old metal government issue table with chairs on opposite sides facing each other. The walls were bare, but traces of unfaded paint were visible as if pictures or other framed items had been recently removed. Behind the table and one chair was a clear window into a smaller room with a big, old-school video camera.  Two older Asian-looking men in foreign military uniforms walked in. One spoke perfect English with no trace of accent; the other said nothing. The English speaker spoke softly and in a seemingly friendly demeanor, invited me to take a seat.  I was offered a cigarette and a glass of water.  Was this going to be good cop/bad cop?  I declined the smoke, but took the water.  Article III of the U.S. Military Code of Conduct permitted me to accept basic living necessities, but dictated that we decline luxuries that might lead the other prisoners observing us to think we were receiving special treatment in exchange for information or cooperation. I sat silent at the table, choked down the hard water, and stared stoically at the window before me; avoiding eye contact with the camera operator.

The non-English speaker spoke to the other in what sounded like an Asian dialect.  The other nodded, opened a binder on the table, and pushed it toward me.  I was instructed to sign a pre-written statement or write my own and then read to my captors in front of the camera. I replied that I didn't wish to make a statement.  The non-English speaker said something to the other, who then relayed to me that it was not a request. "You must make a statement." I thought about if for a moment and reached for the pen. It was a standard issue black Bic Click pen with "Property of the U.S. Government" embossed in the barrel.  That pen totally ruined the environmental mood effect.

I scribbled out a short sentence with my right hand as my left had been cuffed to the table.  I then closed the book and slid it across the table.  Without looking at it or even opening the book, the English speaker motioned to someone in the camera room and stepped out leaving me alone with the other officer.  A large red light on the camera illuminated and the officer pointed at the book and then at the camera and said something I didn't understand.  I knew what he expected and in an uncharacteristic moment of cooperation, I opened the book, looked toward the camera and read the following statement which I had written moments before.

"My name is U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant Scott Wilson. The Geneva Convention dictates that I cannot be bound to tell you anything more."  That was the written statement.  At this point, I thought about that pen and then the smart ass in me piped-up and I added "Do whatever you want to me, but remember; You never found me out there. I came to you."

I could hear someone in the camera room burst out in laughter and then stifle it.  The Asian speaking officer leaned over to me and with a straight face said very quietly in perfect, unaccented English. "That - Mr. Wilson - is going to cost you."

It occurred to me at that very instant that that might not have been smartest thing I had done up to that point in my life.  The events that occurred afterward would confirm this thought. In fact, I would learn during my time there that I was wrong on many things concerning this experience.  We figured we were too expensive and important to take serious physical abuse from these guys.  We were wrong.

I was led to a cell in an area I had not seen in the complex before.  My feet and hands were bound to the outside of the bars as I sat on the concrete, legs on the floor and my body bent at the waist and my arms reaching to the other side of the bars. A heavy steel rod between the hand and foot cuffs prevented my hands and feet from retracting back through the bars.  From that position, I learned shortly thereafter that if the bottom of your feet are beat with a pliable rubber paddle, the bones don't break and there's no bruising for evidence.  I also learned that if I didn't flex my wrists upward, extending my fingers as straight up as possible, the rubber hose would rip the skin on my knuckles like a bowling ball dropped through single-ply toilet paper and it hurt like a motherf*cker.  I can imagine the incredulous look on my face when the reality of my situation sank in.  These people really are serious, this shit really hurts, and I really fucked up sighing up for this program.  I have very few recollections of life with my father, but I clearly recall briefly thinking he was right when he warned me about this type of work.

At some part of the path after our trek through the woods from our comfy hiding spot to the camp, someone apparently uncovered my water bladder and empty peanut butter wrappers from the forest where we hid out.  I paid for that too and there was no blame sharing discount.

I towed the line and did my best to play by the rules for the rest of my time there. Once again, I thought I could outsmart them during an interrogation session, so I made up details and lied.  I later learned that they already knew all of the information I was given beforehand, so they knew I was full of it.  I learned also that the reason telling lies doesn't work is because your captors could assume it's true and word will get out among the other prisoners that you are cooperating. Morale suffers as a result. It's not like everyone's morale was high to begin with, but I got the point.

I learned that they had called back to my shop at Bergstrom and asked for dirt on me. They asked about things like gambling and drinking habits, girlfriends, pilfering from the paint locker; anything with which they could claim to know about and use to try to get me to talk.  When I said above that I was squeaky clean, I meant it. So when they broke character and told me that someone from my shop reported some lame story that I forged my semi-annual physical fitness test results, I knew it was crap and thought (silently to myself this time) "is that the best you got?" and refused to talk.
One afternoon while standing outside sweating and attached to a vertical post in the ground that wasn't attached to anything at the top, the opaque black hood was removed from my head and I witnessed a prisoner that I didn't recognize being folded and stuffed into a small nesting crate.  The crate was lowered into a freshly excavated hole in the dirt and much to my terror, was starting to be covered with dirt as I was re-hooded, detached form the post and led away.  It was like a David Copperfield stunt without the element of illusion.  I would have simultaneously shat and barfed had there been a shred of food in my system.  The peanut butter had long since passed and I refused to eat the "food" they shoved into my cell when I wasn't bound to the bars.  This was what Dr. Morris Massey defines as a significant emotional event" and coincidentally, the exact point at which I wholeheartedly gave in.  My mind was warped enough to convince myself that this was all somehow real and I that I was witnessing the consequences of my own actions.  Adding to the emotional baggage was the thought that my actions could have caused others to endure the same consequences.  I was physically and emotionally broken.  Perhaps that was their goal.  I played by the rules for the three days that followed.  I gave up no information and cooperated as little as possible as I had been taught.

When our "sentence" was complete, a horn was sounded that was heard throughout the camp and it was as if the world around us went from black and white to color.  The entire staff immediately spoke perfect English as they opened up the cells and walked the grounds calling for everyone to assemble in the courtyard.  We were told that our training was complete and sent to shower and get back in uniform and meet up for our individual evaluations.  We were introduced to medical staff who asked two questions:  "Do you believe you need medical attention?" If the answer was yes, the next question was "Are you hurt or are you injured?"  I considered the motive behind that second question with hurt possibly being a mental interpretation of pain, versus injured being a physical reality.  It occurred to me that I might have been both physically hurt and emotionally injured. I've experienced my share of injury and trauma - both physically and emotionally, over a lifetime, nothing really stuck except for one thing.  To this day, I cannot be bound from behind.  Any attempt to handcuff or otherwise bind my hands behind me yields an almost uncontrollable reaction. In my world, once you've been bound for real and it wasn't a game, it can never be a game.  But I digress.
I actually didn't get the chance to answer the medics' first question after they saw my scabbed over knuckles and the dirt-soaked dried blood running up my forearms.  This was nothing a little soap and water and band aids couldn't fix.  As she patched me up, the rather attractive medic commented without emotion "this only happens to  those who ask for it". After the medical screening, I was led into what appeared to be a cafeteria full of people.  I remember wondering where all these people came from and where were they when I was getting my head kicked in.  I also remember seeing very few others with bandages.  What I did see was the "prisoner" that was being buried alive as I was led away.  Turns out, he was in instructor and I learned that instructors who weren't involved with an ongoing class took turns in the box or in other staged punishment scenarios so we wouldn't recognize them.  Again, outsmarted.

As I was being debriefed, I recall being struck by the fact that the instructor staff were all older and were all veterans, most of whom had spent real time in real POW camps during the Vietnam war. At that moment, I felt like a heel for the attitude I displayed more so than I felt like a pussy for whining when my feet were beaten the days before.  These guys were the real deal and I felt like I had disrespected them and their suffering with my attitude and my actions.

The key thing I took away from it all was a comment I received from the "Asian" officer.  All he said to me was "You could stand to take all of this a bit more seriously".  I'm fortunate that although I faced some wild experiences and had to make some hard decisions in my last couple of years of Air Force service that followed my prison camp experience, I never faced the circumstances that were presented to me in the camp.  So while my "you didn't find me" comment was stupid, I like to think I came out of it a little wiser.  I know I was a great deal more humble.