Gulf War POWs Tell of Saddam's Wrath

March 14, 2003 -- In the last war with Iraq, 22 Americans were taken prisoner, all but two shot down. But when they came home, the story of what really happened to them was never fully honored.

After a short military ceremony they were quickly forgotten. But 12 years later, as the possibility of another war with Iraq grows daily, the men who were held captive by Saddam Hussein's men remember their suffering all too well.

"I won't lie to you; I was terrified 95 percent of the time I was there," said Maj. Craig Berryman.

"My prevailing thought was they're gonna cripple me, or they're gonna kill me," said Col. Cliff Acree, who was captured after his aircraft was shot down over Kuwait on just the second day of the war.

Acree's wife, Cindy, said she feels people have forgotten about the sacrifices her husband and other Gulf War veterans made. "When it comes up that my husband was a prisoner of war, they'll say, 'Oh, in Vietnam?' " Cindy encouraged her husband, a lieutenant colonel at the time of his capture who has been promoted to full colonel, to tell the story so few Americans have ever heard.

And their stories are terrifying. "I can tell you that for about 20 minutes of my captivity, they played by the Geneva Convention. … The rest of the time, they did not," Acree said.

Inside the ‘Baghdad Biltmore’

Acree and the others ended up in the basement cells of the Iraqi secret police headquarters. Nicknamed the "Baghdad Biltmore" by the American POWs, it was a place of unrelenting torture and misery.

Acree said he was so hungry during his captivity that he was forced to eat the scabs off his own body.

Former Iraqi officials have told 20/20 the treatment of the American POWs was overseen by Odai Hussein, Saddam's notoriously brutal son.

Odai is believed to have ordered the starvation, the mock executions, the mock castrations, chemical injections and severe beatings of the captives.

Despite the excruciating torture he describes, Acree never yielded to the Iraqis' demands. Acree said his silence only made his captors angrier. They beat him and knocked him unconscious repeatedly as he was tied to a chair blindfolded, he said.

On his third day of captivity, Acree said, the Iraqis hit him with something that felt like a 4-by-4 or a metal pipe. "When it hit me, instead of going left or right or back, it lifted me up and back. Out of my seat."

That was the beating that fractured Acree's skull.

As a Marine squadron leader, Acree had the additional burden of a huge secret, the details of a planned amphibious assault on Kuwait by the U.S. Marines.

It was a secret the Iraqis suspected he knew.

Acree recalled: "The gun was loaded. Door closed. Now it's real quiet. And I'm told one more time, 'Lt. Col. Acree, you are not cooperating with us now. You tell us where the amphibious landing is going to take place, or you will die, right here, right now. What is your decision?' … And, that's when you count the seconds remaining in your life, one heartbeat at a time."

Still, Acree did not back down. "They did not get what they wanted to have. And it felt good," Acree said.

‘The Worst Feeling in the World’

Down the corridor of the Baghdad Biltmore, others were listening.

"Probably the worst feeling in the world is to hear somebody else being beaten. It just tears your guts out. Probably the second-worst feeling in the world is to know that eventually your turn's coming," said Berryman. The pilot of a Marine harrier jet, he who was shot down and captured on the 10th day of the war.

"I can't tell you how much hatred I had for them for the way they treated us," Berryman said.

At one point, Berryman said, the Iraqis asked him his religion. He told them he was Baptist, but they didn't believe him. "They said 'No, you're a Jew!' … and they just went crazy," he said.

But Berryman says he strove to be like Acree and the other senior officer, Col. David Eberly, in standing up to the Iraqi torture and even demanding better treatment for their men.

"That's the kind of men they are … It gave me, more strength to continue with my fight. I wanted to be as proud of myself as I was of them," Berryman said.

Faces of War

In the first weeks of the war, the POWs, particularly the television appearances the Iraqis forced them to make, became the symbol of a war that suddenly did not seem so easy and a military that did not seem so invincible.

At least one of the American POWs, Jeffrey Zaun, admits the Iraqi torture broke him. The Iraqis forced the Navy lieutenant to say, "I believe this war is unjust" in a videotaped statement.

Zaun had never seen the entire tape until he viewed it with 20/20. He said he did not do what he was supposed to do.

What American viewers didn't see was a man off camera, holding a gun and threatening to kill Zaun. "The guy brandished the pistol … he told me he was going to kill me and I believed him … To say screw you, I'm not getting on TV, no, I, I didn't, I didn't resist," Zaun said.

Salvation for the POWs came five weeks into the war, in the form of U.S. stealth bombers that would almost kill them.

"I wanted to believe this was a rescue force coming to kick the doors in and take us home," Berryman said.

On a night raid, the stealth bombers attacked and destroyed the secret police headquarters, unaware the Americans were inside.

Zaun said, "That night turned out to be pretty good because the secret police lost custody of us."

As it became clear that Iraq was losing the war, the POWs were eventually turned over to the Red Cross in Baghdad, and then flown to freedom.

No one knew then that one American pilot shot down by the Iraqis may have been kept behind.

The status of Navy Lt. Scott Speicher, initially listed as killed in action, was changed last October by the Pentagon to missing in action, believed captured, and still unaccounted for.

Forever Changed

The Iraqis have never apologized for their treatment of the American POWs, and once home, unlike the POWs from Vietnam, there were no medals of honor, no White House reception, no real understanding of how their treatment forever changed their lives and the lives of their families.

"It was a really private struggle. Very lonely struggle," said Cindy Acree.

Cindy Acree said not only was her husband physically scarred, he was emotionally scarred. "I realized the physical part early on," she said. "But it wasn't till later that I realized how many lingering effects there would be for years and until today."

Berryman and his wife, Leigh, now have three children, but the lingering effects of the trauma the major went through nearly cost them their marriage. "It was like he was there but he wasn't all there. His mind was somewhere else," Leigh said.

Berryman said his days in the Baghdad Biltmore changed his life forever. "There's not a day that goes by that we don't struggle with, you know, trying to make our marriage work," he said.

But Berryman wouldn't say the experience left him angry or bitter. He said, "I am left with pride of how I conducted myself."

Zaun, now an investment banker, says his statements against his country, even at the point of a gun, still leave him feeling regrets that he wasn't as tough as some of the other POWs.

"I don't have to tell you how mentally disturbed I was about, you know, having been on TV. Just the fact that they did that is illegal. The Iraqis can be held accountable for that," Zaun said.

But they never were. And now all three former POWs say they hope that by finally telling their story of torture and bravery, it will help prepare and protect those who may follow in their path.

"I think about my captivity experience every day," said Acree. "Our treatment in captivity was wrong by any standard you would measure. And humanity can do better than what they did to us."

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