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American Forces Press Service

Guantanamo Task Force Stands Tall in Tough Mission

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, Nov. 4, 2010 – Duty with Joint Task Force Guantanamo is one of the most demanding assignments in the military, but task force members recognize its importance and strategic implications for the United States and its troops in harm’s way, their commander said.

The 2,000 men and women serving here – a mix of servicemembers, government employees and civilian contractors – recognize the importance of their job providing “safe, humane, legal and transparent” care for 174 detainees at the facility, Navy Rear Adm. Jeffrey Harbeson told the Army Reserve chief, Lt. Gen. Jack Stultz, who visited here last week.

Soldiers and sailors of the Joint Detention Group posted as guards at the base’s nine camps make up more than half of the task force. They typically pull 15- to 16-hour work days six days a week, performing a mission that Harbeson said demands extraordinary self-control and discipline in the face of verbal insults, flying body fluids and other assaults from detainees.

“This is the most challenging job in the military today, by virtue of what these individuals have to endure and experience,” he said.

“You have to have iron discipline,” agreed Army Col. Donnie Thomas, the Joint Detection Group commander. “We know we have actors here who are still in the fight, … and they try to incite the guard force. It’s incredible to see the professionalism [the guards] demonstrate, and how they treat these detainees with dignity and respect.”

Thanks to new measures at the facility, assaults on the guards have dropped dramatically during the past year, Harbeson reported.

In January 2009, one-third of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay lived in communal settings, spending 20 hours each day outside their cells with free access to recreation equipment, TV, radio, library books and a food pantry. Today, 89 percent of the detainees live communally, and officials here are considering converting a wing in the maximum-security Camp 5 to allow even more.

Meanwhile, assaults on the guard force plummeted, from 1,100 in 2009 to 110 so far in 2010.

“We attribute that to the communal environment, with less actual guard-detainee interaction” because most detainees no longer need to be escorted to showers and recreational facilities, Harbeson explained. “That has minimized the source of friction between guard and detainees. … So it’s been a win-win all around.”

Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Calkins, a noncommissioned officer at Guantanamo Bay’s Camp 5, said he’s seen huge changes since he left from his previous tour here in April 2008.

“The detainees have calmed down a lot,” he said. “We had people getting ‘splashed’ every day. It happened all the time.”

Now, there’s a big incentive for detainees to resist such behavior, which can get them transferred from the communal “ultra-light” facility at Camp 6 to Camp 5 – the task force’s version of “time out.” Instead of getting 20 hours each day outside their cells at Camp 6, detainees at Camp 5 get just four.

“Typically, when they come to us, they want to get back to Camp 6,” Calkins said. “So they will cause all these problems over [at Camp 6], and when they come to me, they’ll get really, really quiet. They don’t want to stay here.”

While Calkins and his fellow Army guards at Camp 5 are trained correctional specialists, their Navy counterparts at Camp 6 come from a variety of backgrounds -- – aircraft mechanics, logisticians and some masters at arms, explained Navy Ensign Paul Fogel, the camp’s assistant officer in charge. All received four weeks of specialized training at Fort Bliss, Texas, before reporting to Guantanamo.

Navy Lt. Sean McMichael, the Camp 6 commander, said he’s impressed by how well his sailors have made the transformation after volunteering for duty at Guantanamo Bay, or in some cases, he said, being “volun-told.”

“It’s dynamic,” McMichael said. “The guards have to remember what we’re here for and maintain their vigilance at all times. … They have to maintain their cool, even when you’re spit in the face.”

Pulling duty in this environment requires a unique way of thinking about the detainees, he said. “You have to have a mindset that these are residents,” he explained. “If you think of them as terrorists and go with that mindset, you can’t be fair and firm and impartial. And that’s the stand we take as we conduct all our operations here.”

Calkins, who has experienced the insult of being “splashed” himself, marvels at his young soldiers’ self-restraint. “These soldiers are amazing,” he said. “They get splashed. They get called every name in the book, … and they go wash themselves off and come back for more.”

Armed with nothing but pepper spray and strict rules about when they can use it, the guards learn to use other tools to get detainees to cooperate.

“It’s not like in [the combat] theater, where you have a weapon,” said Calkins. “Here, your weapon is your ability to talk to people. If you can talk to the detainees, you can make them realize that, ‘Hey, I am here to do a job and that is all. This is nothing personal.’”

Guards say their biggest frustration here isn’t the occasion mistreatment they get from detainees; it’s what they view as widely held misconceptions about how they treat the detainees.

Detainees select their three meals each day from six different menus, have access to 24/7 medical care and are issued prayer rugs, Qurans and other religious articles to practice their faith. They also get access to newspapers in a variety of languages, as well as 18 satellite channels, 11 radio channels, a full library of materials, and classes in subjects including the popular new keyboard computer class.

“When people ask me why we’re offering computer classes to detainees, I tell them, ‘We want the detainees to focus on this, not on how to ‘splash’ the next guard,” Harbeson said.

But no matter how well they do their jobs, Navy Capt. Sharon Campbell, the task force’s chief of staff, acknowledged the reality of serving in what many here consider a highly underappreciated mission.

“We are doing an important job, detaining enemy belligerents brought here from the battlefield, and providing safe, humane and transparent care for them as the legal process is worked,” she said. “But there are no accolades here, so we have to concentrate on keeping people pumped up. We really have to work to keep each other motivated.”

Meanwhile, the task force members recognize that their every action here is eyed through what sometimes feels like a microscope, and counts in how the world sees them personally, the U.S. military and the United States.

“It’s a very politically charged mission in the sense that if we don’t do it right it negatively reflects on the government and the country,” Fogel said. “Every reaction you make or every action you don’t take could potentially be something that could really be a not-so-good thing.

“That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of 19- to 25-year-olds,” he said. “But their actions really do project what and how we are looked upon by the world.”

Another motivating force, Calkins said, is the recognition that how the mission is conducted here has a direct impact on troops deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. He still grimaces when he thinks about the repercussions from detainee mistreatment at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.

“What we do definitely can have an impact,” he said. “Soldiers are still getting hurt [as a result of what happened at Abu Ghraib.]”

Calkins said he regularly reminds his soldiers that they stand squarely on a front line in the war on violent extremism.

“I tell my soldiers that everybody has their piece, whatever that piece may be – whether you are in the States, whether you are in Afghanistan, whether you are in Iraq, or whether you are here at Gitmo,” he said. “And I feel that our piece is vital.

“Anything that these soldiers do or don’t do can have an effect on what happens to our soldiers” serving in the combat theater,” he added.

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