Our survival phase ended as soon as the evasion phase kicked in. It was time for us to hide from our enemies as they tried to catch us. I was bone tired, starving and sick. I had been adequately sleep deprived and food deprived, so I was ripe for capture. Most of the day, Kennedy and I stayed just a step ahead of the enemy.
“Come on move it, move it, I can hear them,” he whispered as we kneeled in the thick brush. Every now and then you could hear someone screaming, which scared the shit out of me.
“What are they doing?” I asked Kennedy.
“Well, no telling what happens when they catch you. You signed a waiver you know, that they can do as they please. They can hit you, push you, and kick you. I suspect whatever a real captor would do, when they catch you, is what they are doing,” he said.
“I don’t give a shit about a waiver, no one better put a hand on me,” I said.
“What did you think you were signing up for? This is survival training.”
“Whatever. Like I said, I wish somebody would put a finger on me.”
As the other teams were captured one by one, the screaming and yelling continued all around us. It was more than enough motivation to keep me moving. I was so scared, for once Kennedy had to struggle to keep up with me. It was not in my nature to tolerate combat.
Later that evening out of nowhere, a large man in a strange looking uniform grabbed Kennedy and pushed him so hard he went reeling backwards. I looked in horror. They wouldn’t, no they couldn’t hit me. I didn’t have time to think when another man grabbed me by my collar and pushed me down to my knees. He then pulled both my arms behind me. I looked around me and noticed where all the screaming was coming from.
There were about five or six men beating my fellow teammates. I could not believe what I was seeing in front of me. In a matter of minutes, it seemed we were running from our “fake” enemies. Then we were transported to what appeared to me to be some sort of hell. In the middle of the desert stood some sort of compound with a few small buildings surrounded by rows of barbed wire.
The man pulled tightly on the thick rope he tied around my wrists. I was shaking, crying, and moaning. I looked at his boots, then up and saw he was dressed in a very strange looking uniform.
Then the strange looking man stood in front of me. I looked directly into his eyes. I saw pure hate. I screamed expecting the hit I thought was coming. He must have seen something in my eyes that told him it would not be wise to hit me. I believe what he saw was the real fear inside of me. Or, he may have recognized my mental instability. Everyone else around me was being kicked, pushed, or slapped.
I think it was at that precise moment when my mind went from being sane, to being highly unstable. I was delirious by then. My mind was dark and my feelings and emotions were struggling to make sense of it all.
I sat there in shock. This is too real, I thought. They were going too far with their real life training. My mind couldn’t wrap itself around what was happening. The man left me alone and went over to Kennedy who was being held up by another man. Then he hit him again. The man then pulled me up and took me to a clearing, pushing me roughly back down to my knees. I looked over to the right and saw some of my fellow comrades on their knees as well.
Another man went down the line, kicking everyone on their backs. He got to me, and reached back to hit me.
“Keep your fucking hands off of me!” I shouted at the man. My mind was going in so many directions at once. Somehow, from somewhere inside of me, the girl from Newark, NJ came out and she wasn’t taking any bullshit.
“Shut the fuck up, bitch,” he said. He went on to the next guy and kicked him. Another man then went up to him and asked him why wasn’t he hitting me? I couldn’t hear his response, but the other man came over to me, pulled me up and pushed me hard against a wall. I think I took him out of our real life role-playing when he got directly in my face and said in some foreign accent, “What makes you think we won’t beat the shit out of you? You think because you are a woman we are not going to hurt you?” He pushed me again, hard enough to knock me off my feet. I got really scared, and thought it best I not say anything more. I thought maybe he decided to give me a little mercy when he took me back to where everyone else was.
Four men stood guard with assault rifles over the men that were still on their knees facing the wall. I still couldn’t figure out who the men were that captured us. Their uniforms looked like a mixture between the Russian Army and Star Trek. They spoke broken English as well, with a foreign accent. They were so good; I totally forgot they were soldiers who were also actors.
After beating everyone except me senseless, we were put into a single line and told to start walking. I stumbled along. My body was sore and the rope around my hands was so tight, I thought my wrists would start to bleed. All I could think about was if I made it out alive, somebody would get their ass kicked for allowing them to hurt us like they did. I didn’t know it, but the days ahead would be worse than I could ever imagine.
They pushed and prodded us along the hot desert until we came to a large compound, which was surrounded with barbed wire.
Once inside a building they told everyone to take off their clothes. The med did as they were told. A very large manly looking woman took me in a room alone and demanded I strip so she could search me.
“OK, that’s it, you guys are going too far,” I said to her.
“Shut up, and take your clothes off,” she said.
“No. I’m not taking my clothes off. I have been on my period for three days, I have no underwear, and I’m stinking and dirty. Please don’t make me,” I begged.
“All you have to say, is I quit,” she said. “Then you will be transported back to San Diego.”
Quitting wasn’t an option for me at that point. I was representing every woman that would ever attend survival school. It was all about being treated equally, even if it meant they would beat me just like a man. I had never quit anything I set my mind to do while in the Navy.
It began seventeen years before in boot camp where I had doubts I wouldn’t make it, but somehow found that inner strength to keep going. After watching the movie Private Benjamin I thought they had stolen my Navy experience. A former teen beauty queen I wasn’t prepared for the ten pound boots, excessive exercise or people screaming in my face. There was definitely nothing that could prepare me for the strange looking woman, with her piercing eyes, demanding I take my clothes off in a dark and dirty room.
I stripped naked, as she put on latex gloves and roughly searched my body cavities. I had no idea what she was looking for, as we weren’t even allowed to bring a toothbrush with us to the desert.
I felt degraded as I stood in front of her, bleeding and dirty. I felt truly violated as she continued to search me. I was in the most vulnerable situation I had ever been in.
After she effectively searched me and found no contraband, she threw my clothes at me.
“Put those back on,” she said. “You stink.”
That first night in the camp, they pushed us with the butts of their rifles into individual cages. The cages were too small to stand or lay in. There was barely enough room to sit straight up.
I looked next to me and saw Kennedy curled up in his cage. He was in pretty bad shape, they had beaten him a couple of times since we were captured.
I sat in my cage and was transformed into the prisoner I had become. Within a matter of hours, my tired mind had forgotten that I was in a simulated Prisoner of War camp. It had become very real to me. Too real.
A mean looking guard with a rifle, paced back and forth in front of us. We weren’t allowed to talk. Most of us were so traumatized we probably would not have talked to each other anyway.
Crouching in my cage, I began to feel the worst cramps I had ever felt in my life. I called the guard over and asked to speak with someone.
“Who you want to speak to, you stupid woman?” he said.
“I want to see the nurse. I want to see the nurse,” I screamed, over and over again.
Finally, the same manly looking woman unlocked my cage, pulled me out by my arm, and pushed me into another dark and filthy room.
“I have cramps, I want a Tylenol,” I said to her.
“Hell no! If this were real life, you would have to suck it up. So suck it up,” she said.
“This isn’t fucking real life,” I said.
“Like I told you, all you have to do is say I quit, and you’ll be out of here.”
“I’m not quitting, just give me a damn Tylenol.” She looked at me like I was shit underneath her boot. Like I was letting the female species down.
They were using me like a lab rat, I realized. They didn’t seem to have any idea how the excessive stress would affect a woman’s body.
“OK, I’m going to give you one Tylenol,” if you bother me again, you will be kicked out,” she said.
“Fine,” I said, as I took the pill and swallowed it.
She took me back to my cage and pushed me inside with her foot.
“Bitch,” I said under my breath.
That first night in the camp was horrific. The camp was set up like it was real. If it were a movie, they would have won an academy award. It was 1995, but it looked like we were in the early fifties. I saw an old black and white film once, about a Korean POW camp and everything was the same.
For twenty-four hours straight they blasted propaganda over the loud speakers. “Americans are evil. Americans kill babies. Americans are evil,” a tape played over and over again. Every now and then, I could hear people screaming.
The constant noise kept me from sleeping. But, severely sleep deprived, I finally fell asleep sitting up in my cage with the Folgers coffee can beside me full of my waste.
I woke up still forgetting I was playing a war game. They had indoctrinated me so well, that my mind went in and out of believing it was real and knowing it was fake. Then one by one, they led us into a small room.
First, there were the constant verbal assaults. One man held us in a room for hours and lectured us on how America hated black people and why would we want to fight for a country that hated us and treated us so bad? They had a point, but it would take much more for me to crack. Since I was the only black person in the bunch I figured his speech must have been directed at me.
Then they burned a huge American flag in front of us. A couple of my comrades looked like it really pained them to see the flag burn. I was so mentally out of it at that point, that it was just a piece of fabric as far as I was concerned.
When they took me into the interrogation room, I was expecting the worst.
As soon as I stepped in the room, the guard pushed me hard down to the ground. I fell to the floor in pain.
“Where do you work?” the man demanded.
Doing as I had been trained since boot camp, I said, “My name is Petty Officer Athena Strouble, my service number is 139-48-6442.”
“We know you have a top secret clearance, now tell us where you work!” he said, grabbing me by my clothes and shaking me real hard.
“My name is Petty Officer Athena Strouble, my service number is 139-48-6442,” I repeated.
“You will talk, you little black bitch,” he said, as he grabbed me by my hair and pulled me across the room.
He continued to drag me across the compound to the cage where Kennedy sat. Another guard pulled him out of his cage and pushed him down on his knees beside me.
The man then put a 9mm gun to my head. I was terrified. For some strange reason I began to have flashbacks of my dead mother. My mind was transported to another place. All I could think about at the time was how much I missed her. She had died months before and I didn’t allow myself to grieve. The pain and severe sadness I felt losing her had always been just below the surface and for some reason the man holding the gun to my head brought it all out of me. I really thought I was going to lose my mind.
“Tell us where you work and your secrets or I kill her,” the man said to Kennedy.
“My name is Seaman Josh Kennedy, my service number is 278-30-5586,” he mumbled.
The guard took the gun away from my head and hit Kennedy across his head. It seemed as though they were growing tired of us, so they shoved us back into our cages for the rest of the night.
I dozed off, and was woken up by Kennedy.
“We’re going to escape tonight when the guards change,” he whispered. “Are you coming with us?”
“No, don’t do it Kennedy, they will kill you if you get caught,” I said.
“You have to come, we have to escape, it’s all part of the training,” he pleaded with me.
“What training?” I said. I was too far gone to reason with. I had crossed that abyss. It was no longer simulated training; it was real life to me. I was confused and very, very tired. All I wanted at that time was my mother. My head was in a terrible place. All the physical, mental, and verbal abuse had taken its toll.
“OK, we’ll be leaving in a few hours, you can stay here if you want to and continue to get your ass beat,” he said.
After five long hard days, Kennedy had decided to give up on me.
With the full moon shining brightly, I watched one of my comrades pick the lock on his cage. He then opened up all the cages including mine. I sat petrified, too scared to move as they ran towards the fence where a hole was already dug and crawled under it.
Watching them run in the darkness, I could hear gunshots and more screaming. I knew I had made the right choice to stay. I was the only one left behind. The guards ran around the camp frantically, speaking a language I never quite figured out.
Even with all the commotion going on, it didn’t faze me. I was having flashbacks to my mother’s last days. She had been terminally ill for over a year, yet I wasn’t prepared when she finally died. I remembered in her morphine induced state her telling me I hadn’t done enough to help her. I had done all a daughter could do for her dying mother. But, even in the end I felt like a failure to her.
She was gone and she was all I had. Because of all the trauma I had been in, it felt like she had just died. I could feel her spirit with me in the cage but it wasn’t a good spirit, it felt like a disappointing one.
Watching the guards running around the compound, I sat in my open cage, too horrified to move. I closed my eyes, wishing for the nightmare to end. When I opened them, there stood Kennedy with an assault rifle.
“Move Strouble, now!” he shouted. “I’m getting you out of here.”
He led me out of the camp, into a clearing where the rest of our team members stood, along with the trainers that dropped us off in the desert. Our captors were nowhere in sight. It was over. I had made it to the end. Only it didn’t feel like the end to me. It would take a lot more than someone just saying “game over” for me to come to grips with what I had been through.
The men seemed to have fared much better than I had. They looked a little dazed but still seemed to have it together. We were past dirty, we were filthy. None of us had any basic hygiene while in the desert. I can’t describe the smell I had all over me.
It was over, but I didn’t know what to feel. It felt like I had lived a nightmare. I was feeling too many emotions at one time. I believe I felt a sense of relief, but I was still in a state of shock that would take days to get out of.
We boarded a bus back to San Diego. It was a long way back. No one spoke for the entire ride. It had been five days of hell for all of us.
I had made it through survival school. If I could make it through that, than I could survive anything. I thought I would feel triumphed, but I didn’t have a good feeling anywhere inside of my body. I went in and out of sleep. While awake all I could think about was how much therapy I would need. I would need to see someone about the things I saw, the things I felt and my reactions to everything I encountered. I was hit with a double whammy, since the experience also brought out the intense grief I felt for my mother. It would take a lot for me to get myself together. Survival school would change me forever.
© 2010 Athena Lark