Monday, July 5, 2010

20 Years Later, Gulf War Pilot Recalls Experiences as an Iraqi POW


Charles S. Vallone Maj. Joseph Small III and his wife, Leanne, rode in a Memorial Day Parade, May 27, 1991. Small was a prisoner of war in the Gulf War. He was released from custody March 6, 1991 in Baghdad. Journal Times file photo by Charles S. Vallone

(Racine, Wis. – Racine Journal Times) - Clouds and mist in the Kuwaiti sky forced Maj. Joe Small to fly his military twin-engine turbo-prop plane lower than usual as he hunted for Iraqi strongholds in the final days of the 1991 Gulf War.

Small, of Mount Pleasant, spotted a large Iraqi enemy position with rows of intertwined trenches. He didn't know it at that moment, but it was one of the last things he would see for days.

"I was in the process of getting out of there, and that's when we were hit by a surface-to-air missile," Small said. "It took off the right wing of the airplane and put us instantly out of control.

"My back-seater was killed and I was wounded in the arm and forced to eject."

Small, then a member of a Marine Corps air observation squadron, landed with his parachute and was instantly surrounded by Iraqi soldiers who took him prisoner. Small remained a prisoner of war for the next week and a half, spending much of that time blindfolded, tied up and in physical pain from his emergency landing and the myriad beatings he suffered during interrogations by Iraqi soldiers.

Small was shot down on Feb. 25, 1991, three days before the cease-fire that ended the Gulf War, an armed conflict where the U.S. and other forces helped expel Iraqi soldiers from the free nation of Kuwait, which was invaded by Iraq in August 1990 because of oil disputes. Nearly 20 years since that initial invasion, Small, 58, reflected on the treatment he received as a POW and on how he survived.

He credits coming home alive to Vietnam POWs, who taught him interrogation tricks.

"Whenever I meet one I tell them, ‘Thank you for saving my life,'" Small said, "because they taught me how to evade answering questions but still give an answer whether it be a lie or just a partial truth."

Small said in his mind he drew a line with information he would tell on one side, like his name, rank, service number and plane type, and information he wouldn't tell on the other, like his mission goal.

"You say, ‘Is this worth dying for or not?' If you say, ‘No,' you still make them work for it so they think they've got something when they don't," Small said. "What I learned from the Vietnam guys was you're going to lose the physical battle but as long as you can keep ahead of them mentally and spiritually then you're going to come out ahead in the game."

That lesson was true for Small, a St. Catherine's High School graduate who attended the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in between military trainings. He survived mentally - mostly by thinking of his family - but lost physically as his interrogation beatings added up.

"You're tied up. Your hands are bound behind you tightly to the point I tore a rotator cuff in my shoulder. You can't see anything so you don't know where the blows are coming from," Small said. "At one point I was whipped. At another point I was knocked unconscious."

As a POW, Small was transported from Central Kuwait where he was shot down to Kuwait City and eventually to Baghdad. He was blindfolded and tied up, the cloth straps around his wrists tearing away his flesh to the bone until he arrived at a military prison in Baghdad where the straps and blindfold were finally removed when he was placed in a cell.

"It was a 10 foot by 10 foot concrete block room with a jail cell door in one corner," Small remembered. "They gave me a blanket and a bucket and that was about it."

Small stayed there until a few days after the war ended when he and the other POWs were released as a condition of the cease-fire.

"They just came into my cell one night and said, ‘Pack your stuff.' I didn't have anything to pack so I was ready to go," Small said. He and the other POWs, including a friend of his shot down at the beginning of the war, were taken to a bus and eventually released to the Red Cross.

His ordeal over, Small returned home to recuperate and stayed in the military until retiring in 1994. Despite all he went through, Small remains modest about his time as a POW nearly 20 years ago.

"When you put that in terms," Small said, mentioning Vietnam and today's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, "it was bad and I wouldn't wanna do it again but there's people going through a heck of a lot worse.

"Everybody that puts on the uniform takes that chance," he said. "I'm proud to have served and done my job."

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