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Lansing State Journal May 27, 2004

Michigan units step up to security tasks in Guantanamo Bay

By Leach Hugh

Guardsmen adapt to duties in Cuba

Troops monitor 600 top suspects in war on terror

Cuba: Work 'stressful' for state guardsmen

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba - Behind three layers of chain-link fence and razor wire, 218 Michigan National Guardsmen are watching over men suspected of being among the most dangerous terrorists in the world.

Members of the 1st Battalion of the 119th Field Artillery Regiment, which includes units in Lansing, Charlotte and Alma, are guarding 600 suspected terrorists from 23 countries.

It isn't quite what they expected when they joined the National Guard, but they've willingly adapted to duties normally handled by military police. They arrived at the 45-square-mile U.S. naval base in southeast Cuba in early January after two weeks of training at Fort Dix, N.J. And they expect to be there until November.

"We knew it was going to be a whole different atmosphere," said Spec. Andrew Fillwock, a 21-year-old Central Michigan University student from St. Johns. "We had very good training to prepare us."

With the demand for security in Iraq, other locations and Cuba, there are no more military police units available, said Col. Jerry Cannon, commander of Joint Detention Operation Group, which provides security at Camp Delta. So units with specialties not needed right now are being retrained to help out.

Cannon is the sheriff of Kalkaska County - in northwestern lower Michigan - in his real life.

"These are people who don't care if we take one more breath," said Cannon, whose daughter, Julie Bellinger, is an Okemos teacher.

The duties of those in the 119th: Mainly patrolling corridors of 48 6-by-8-foot green steel mesh cages where suspected terrorists are held and moving them to and from recreation and shower areas.

The detainees aren't considered prisoners of war at the facility equipped to hold 1,100 suspected terrorists. And there's no limit on how long they can be held without legal representation. But they can be released - more than 100 have been so far - if they give useful information that will help the war on terror.

Life on duty

"It's stressful work," said Brig. Gen. Mitch LeClaire of Big Rapids, deputy commanding general of operations for Joint Task Force Guantanamo. "Sometimes detainees will throw feces or urine at the guardsmen, knowing they can't do anything about it."

Spec. Joe Polo of Holt, who arrived at Camp Delta with the rest of the 119th in early January, said he's heard of that happening but hasn't experienced it.

"All we can do ... is fill out the paperwork and take it up the chain of command," said Polo, 25, who works for a housing contractor at home and attends college.

The guardsmen are instructed not to administer discipline to detainees on their own, no matter how provoked they may be.

The way Camp Delta is built permits officers in charge to see exactly what's going on. Cannon said that makes incidents of abuse such as those reported in Iraq practically impossible.

"Our relationship with the detainees is strictly professional," said Spec. Benjamin Cook, 23, a committee clerk for Michigan's Legislature who lives in the St. Johns area. "If they request an interpreter or require medical treatment, we arrange that."

As they walk the concrete paths between cages, guardsmen cover their name tags and unit patches with tape to prevent detainees from identifying them. They aren't assigned to the same area two days in a row, further minimizing the chance of being identified.

Those precautions resulted from threats made by detainees against MPs and their families when members of al-Qaida and the Taliban were first sent to Guantanamo Bay in early 2002.

Rewards for help

Camp Delta has four camps. As detainees demonstrate good behavior and cooperate with interrogators, they can move from the most restricted camp to those that offer greater privileges and comfort items, such as chess and checkers, bottled water, and more recreation and shower time.

At Camp 4, detainees are allowed to wear their favored white instead of orange jump suits, participate in recreational activities with others, have books and use communal living rooms. Plans also are under way to allow them to take day trips on the base. Their cages don't have solid walls, which lets detainees talk to or shout at those nearby. The steel mesh also allows air to circulate, preventing the blocks from heating up to more than 85 degrees. If the temperature rises above that, guards can turn on fans.

Detainees are housed one per cage: "These cages are about the same size as a jail cell," Cannon said. "At the Kalkaska County jail, I would probably have two bunks in each."

The cages contain a squat-style steel flush toilet and a small sink that's so close to the floor it can be used for washing feet, important in Muslim religious rituals.

Most of the detainees are Muslim. In addition to a bunk, mattress and blanket, the cages contain a copy of the Quran, a prayer mat, prayer beads and a skull cap.

There are five prayer calls a day. An arrow painted on the bunk points toward Mecca, permitting detainees to face the proper direction during prayers.

Prisoners are fed in their cages on Styrofoam plates brought to Camp Delta from the military kitchen attached to the soldiers' mess hall about a mile away.

In many cases, the detainees are better off, Cannon said. Some come in with gunshot or shrapnel wounds. Some need medical care.

"We have done heart surgeries and back surgeries here," he said. "We check the mail the detainees send out and most of them say Americans are good people."

Contact Hugh Leach at 377-1119 or hleach@lsj.com.

GRAPHIC: BECKY SHINK, Lansing State Journal;

Camp Delta: A guard stands watch in a tower behind the fence that leads to Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where 218 Michigan National Guardsmen are watching about 600 suspected terrorists from 23 countries.
Far from home: Michigan National Guard Staff Sgt. Shawn McBride of Lansing is working as a cellblock sergeant at Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. McBride says what he misses most are his wife and children. BECKY SHINK Lansing State Journal;
Camp conditions: Col. Jerry Cannon explains living conditions of the detainees in Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. About 600 suspected terrorists are spread over four camps. In back is Sgt. Major Anthony Mendez of New York. Cannon is sheriff of Kalkaska County in Michigan.

Box: Guantanamo Bay;
* Where: 45-square-mile U.S. naval base in southeast Cuba.
* Bordering: Communist Cuba. A 17.5-mile fence patrolled on one side by U.S. Marines and on the other by the Cuban army separates the base from the rest of Cuba.
* Camp Delta: A facility equipped to hold up to 1,100 suspected terrorists built at Guantanamo Bay after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.
* Purpose: Try to extract information from the detainees about terrorist activities, weapons caches, safe houses, methods of moving money and more.
* Incentives: Detainees may be moved to less secure areas with more privileges and comfort items in return for good behavior and cooperation with interrogators.

Box: On the Web;
* Guantanamo Bay - Camp Delta: www.globalsecurity.org, military, facility, guantanamo-bay_delta.htm;
* Michigan Homeland Security: www.michigan.gov, homeland;

Box: Michigan Guard at Guantanamo Bay;
* Duty: Provide security at Camp Delta, which houses 600 suspected al-Qaida and Taliban terrorists.
* Who: Main security duty now falls to 218 members of the 1st Battalion, 119th Field Artillery Regiment, with units in Lansing, Charlotte, Alma, Port Huron, Albion and Augusta. Because it is considered a combat unit, the 119th has no female members.
* Tour of duty: Arrived in early January. Expected to depart in November.
* Working conditions: Security force members work six-day weeks, 8-10 hours a day. There are three shifts providing around-the-clock security.
* Other units: Military police units that were providing security when the 119th arrived. The 119th will be the primary security force until new units arrive to share duties. The 177th Military Police Brigade of the Michigan National Guard is leaving today after about a year's deployment.

Key officers;
* Brig. Gen. Mitch LeClaire, a retired Ferris State University professor of engineering technology and a member of the 177th, is leaving after serving as deputy commanding general of operations of the Joint Task Force, composed of members of all military services.
* Col. Jerry Cannon, sheriff of Kalkaska County and a member of the 177th, will remain until June as commander of the Joint Detention Operation Group, in charge of security at Camp Delta. Box: COMING SUNDAY;
* More coverage of Michigan guardsmen in Cuba.

Map; Guantanamo Bay CUBA; Associated Press


Copyright 2004, Lansing State Journal