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Pilot Tells Terror of Bailout, 46 Days as a POW : Military: Air Force Maj. Tice had his F-16 shot out from under him in a bomb run over Baghdad. After that, it got worse.

March 16, 1991|MARY JORDAN | THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — Minutes after an Iraqi missile hit his F-16 jet over Baghdad, Air Force Maj. Jeffrey S. Tice was out of his plane, alone in the vast sky, hurling toward Earth at 125 miles per hour, face first.

"The clouds were coming up fast; I was dropping real fast," Tice said Friday, recounting the 15 long seconds when he dropped 10,000 feet before his parachute opened. "Over and over, I kept saying, 'The parachute has got to work.' "

It did, and his 46 days of captivity in Iraq began.

The 40 beatings "that turned my body black from my toe to my shoulder" followed, he said in his first unrestricted interview since his captivity. So did the days and nights of being blindfolded into darkness, and the violent interrogations that included wiring his head for electric shock treatment.

"Yes, I have spent time in hell," said the 35-year-old father of two girls, who grew up in Bucks County, Pa. "One day they gave me a shave" using a blunt razor and no water, he said. "I was a stuck pig. There was blood pouring all over."

Twice in the harsh days between the January afternoon when his jet was hit by a guided missile during a bombing raid and the March morning when he was turned over to the Red Cross, Tice said, he thought he was about to die. The first time, he was fired on by Bedouins in the desert; the second time, he was on the wrong end of allied bombs.

"As I was falling (in the parachute), some bullets come whizzing at me, and I look down and see muzzle flashes on the ground," Tice said. "Then I see some guys on the ground shooting at me."

When Tice's feet touched the ground, he started running hard. "I took four or five Jesse Owens-like steps," he said, "but that was it. They shot up the mud in front of me, a straight line of automatic fire right in front of my feet."

Talking heatedly in Arabic, about 10 of the nomadic men who lived nearby in tents huddled around Tice. One kicked him in the groin; another beat him with the butt of his rifle. His hands were tied with one of the men's kaffiyeh, the cloth headdress. They stripped him, taking his radio and gear, some of his clothes, his dog tags and his wedding ring.

Later, in a tent, one of his captors rolled a bullet around Tice's face, lingering along his cheeks and chin. The man then kissed the bullet, replaced it in his AK-47 and jammed the rifle barrel against Tice's right temple.

"Now I'm getting a little bit frightened," said the Air Force pilot. "I was thinking then that there was a very good possibility that I might die tonight."

Moments later, another man ran a sharp knife around his throat, and the group appeared to Tice to be debating how to kill him.

But the group's leader spared Tice, keeping him overnight in his tent. In the morning, Tice was driven to a nearby town and handed over to Iraqi officials. One hour later, Iraqi military officials arrived and drove him to Baghdad in a 1985 Chevy Caprice.

During the four-hour ride, Tice saw the oil refinery on which he had dropped two 2,000-pound bombs. "I could see the fires in the refinery--that was a good moment. I knew we had hit our target."

Tice said his swarthy complexion and dark hair and mustache confused some of his captors, who thought he might be Middle Eastern and possibly a traitor. "But they knew I couldn't speak any Arabic," he said. "The six words I could understand seemed to be the same six words of English I heard for six weeks: 'Bush,' 'American,' 'sit down,' 'no speak,' 'yes,' 'no.' "

Only the Iraqis who questioned Tice during interrogations spoke English. "They wanted to know mundane things that they could have gotten out of aviation magazines, Jane's or even Newsweek or Time," he said.

The questions focused on tactical aviation information, Tice said during the 90-minute interview at Andrews Air Force Base. He was beaten during the interrogations with a hard rubber club that bruised his entire body, fractured his eardrum and dislocated his jaw.

"The rubber (club) was soft enough not to break bones," he said, "but hard enough that I was black from my toe to my shoulder." He lost 29 pounds in captivity.

The worst treatment came when he was forced to denounce the allied war effort on videotape. He said the Iraqis wrapped electric wires around his ears and under his chin, torture that knocked out chips of his teeth.

To get through the days, Tice said, he memorized the alphabet backward, alphabetized the 50 states and counted the tiny red brick tiles on the floor and walls of his cell: 1,494. "I will never have tile like that in my house," he said. Often, it was cold, and he slept on the floor of his cell, huddled in a green wool blanket.

The night of Feb. 23 is etched in his mind. Tice, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, was asleep when he heard the first American bomb hit.

"I moved away from the walls and crouched near the doorway," he said. U.S. planes were bombing the Baath party headquarters in Baghdad. As another bomb hit the headquarters, Tice said, "My window popped out."

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