For 5 months ‘I stayed in the box’

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As a Marine Corps officer, I spent five years and five months in a prisoner of war camp in North Vietnam. I believe this gives me a benchmark against which to measure the treatment which Sen. Richard Durbin, Illinois Democrat, complained of at the Camp of Detention for Islamo-fascists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The senator’s argument is silly. If he believes what he has said his judgment is so poor that his countrymen, assuming, of course, that he considers us his countrymen, have no reason not to dismiss him as a witless boob. On the other hand, if he does not believe what he said, the other members of the Senate may wish to consider censure.

Consider nutrition. I have severe peripheral neuropathy in both legs as a residual of beriberi. I am fortunate. Some of my comrades suffer partial blindness or ischemic heart disease as a result of beriberi, a degenerate disease of peripheral nerves caused by a lack of thiamin, vitamin B-1. It is easily treated but is extremely painful.

Did Mr. Durbin say that some of the Islamo-fascist prisoners are suffering from beriberi? Actually, the diet enjoyed by the prisoners seems to be healthy. I saw the menu that Rep. Duncan Hunter presented a few days ago. It looks as though the food given the detainees at Guantanamo is wholesome, nutritious and appealing. I would be curious to hear Mr. Durbin explain how orange glazed chicken and rice pilaf can be compared to moldy bread laced with rat droppings.

In May 1969, I was taken out for interrogation on suspicion of planning an escape. I was forced to remain awake for long periods of time — three weeks on one occasion.

On the first of June, I was put in a cement box with a steel door, which sat out in the tropical summer sun. There, I was put in leg irons which were then wired to a small stool. In this position I could neither sit nor stand comfortably. Within 10 days, every muscle in my body was in pain (here began a shoulder injury which is now inoperable). The heat was almost beyond bearing. My feet had swollen, literally, to the size of footballs. I cannot describe the pain. When they took the leg irons off, they had to actually dig them out of the swollen flesh. It was five days before I could walk, because the weight of the leg irons on my Achilles tendons had paralyzed them and hamstrung me. I stayed in the box from June 1 until Nov. 10, 1969. While in the box, I lost at least 30 pounds. I would be curious to hear Mr. Durbin explain how this compares with having a female invade my private space, and whether a box in which the heat nearly killed me is the same as turning up the air conditioning.

The detainees at Guantanamo receive new Korans and prayer rugs, and the guards are instructed not to disturb the inmates’ prayers. Compare this with my experience in February 1971, when I watched as armed men dragged from our cell, successively, four of my cell mates after having led us in the Lord’s Prayer. Their prayers were in defiance of a January 1971 regulation in which the Communists forbade any religious observances in our cells. Does Mr. Durbin somehow argue that our behavior is the equivalent of the behavior of the Communists?

Actually, I was one of the lucky ones. At another camp, during the time I was being interrogated in the summer of 1969, one man was tortured to death and several were severely beaten. In fact, according to Headquarters Marine Corps, 20 percent of my fellow Marines failed to survive captivity. Have 20 percent of the Islamo-fascists failed to survive Guantanamo?

The argument that detainees at Guantanamo are being treated badly is specious and silly. In the eyes of normal Americans, Democrats believe this argument because, as Jeanne Kirkpatrick said 20 years ago, they “always blame America first.” This contributes to the increasing suspicion, in red states, a problem that Democrats are aware of and are trying to counter, that Democrats cannot be trusted with our national security. Only the Democrats can change this perception, most recently articulated by White House adviser Karl Rove. The ball is in their court and I am certain there are steps that they can take to change this perception, but making silly arguments about imaginary bad treatment of enemy detainees is not a move in the right direction.

James H. Warner is corporate counsel practicing intellectual property law in Northern Virginia. He served as domestic policy adviser during the second Reagan administration.

Tony Blankey’s column will appear tomorrow.

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