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Homeland Security

American Forces Press Service

Commander Leads Gitmo Guard Force Through Challenges

By Sgt. Sara Wood, USA
American Forces Press Service

NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, March 31, 2006 Navy Cmdr. Catie Hanft knows she asks a lot of the sailors and soldiers she commands. They work 12- to-14 hour shifts in intense heat, dealing with a difficult group of people from a culture foreign to them, all the while knowing their work is under international scrutiny.

But with a focus on leadership, Hanft, deputy commander of the Joint Detention Group and commander of the Navy Expeditionary Guard Battalion here, is bringing her troops past these challenges to a place where they are fulfilling their mission and contributing to the fight against terrorism.

"Being down here is the right thing to do," Hanft said. "Seeing how hard the sailors and soldiers work, I know we're doing a good job."

The roughly 500 sailors in the Navy Expeditionary Guard Battalion provide security inside Camp Delta, the main detention facility here. An additional 400 to 450 soldiers provide security for other smaller camps and Camp 5 -- the newest and most high-security facility -- as well as external security outside the camps.

In all the facilities, guard force troops face unique challenges when dealing with the detainees, Hanft said. Detainees who have been here for a long time and are frustrated and depressed often act out against the guards by assaulting them, throwing things at them or calling them names, she said.

Guards are not allowed to react to detainee outbursts, but are relieved from their posts and taken care of while the detainee is put in segregation as punishment, Hanft said. This has been a challenge for her troops, she said, because they cannot give in to their natural inclination to defend themselves when attacked.

"I ask young sailors to put aside their personal political beliefs and to reach deep into their ethical beliefs, and to look past the differences and problems, and to be humane," she said. "That's a big challenge, to do that on a daily basis."

The long hours also are taxing on the guard troops, Hanft said, especially when they're required to keep their composure at all times and use interpersonal skills to work with the detainees and foster cooperation. Servicemembers receive cultural training before reporting here, but the Muslim culture isn't something that can be learned overnight, she said.

"No matter how much you tell a person what they can expect, they won't fully understand until they come down here and see the reality and live the reality day to day," she said.

A negative worldwide perception of detention procedures at Guantanamo Bay has been a challenge for her troops to overcome, Hanft said. These troops have sacrificed a year of their lives to leave home and serve their country, doing a very arduous duty, and it's hard for them to hear criticisms and accusations leveled at them in the United States and abroad, she said.

"It's very hard on them to know that they are volunteering -- they are sacrificing their families and themselves -- to come down to a place that many people don't understand and that many people criticize," she said.

Many criticisms of Guantanamo Bay occur because people haven't visited the facilities and witnessed detention procedures, Hanft said. "Until you really fully understand what's going on down here and see what's going on down here on a daily basis, then you can't really comment on it," she said.

The Guantanamo Bay leadership is constantly making improvements to make detainee operations better, Hanft said. The detainees' menu was recently changed to a more Mediterranean-style cuisine to suit their preferences, and detainees have a choice of four different meal plans, she said.

As always, all detainees are given basic issue items and afforded the right to practice religion, Hanft said. Compliant detainees are given comfort items, such as games, library books, and pens and paper, she said. Highly compliant detainees are allowed to live communally, sharing meals and recreation, and spend more time out of their cells, she said.

Female guards perform the same duties as their male counterparts, with one exception, Hanft said. When a detainee is showering at the end of the cellblock, female guards cannot go more than two-thirds of the way down the block, she said. Also, when detainees are using the bathroom facilities in their cells, they are allowed to cover themselves with a sheet or exercise mat.

Legal procedures being put in place for these detainees are ones the U.S. government has never had to employ before, so there are many issues to work out, Hanft said. While that system is being developed, the servicemembers at Guantanamo Bay have been charged to safely, securely and humanely detain the suspected terrorists, and they are doing so with integrity and discipline, she said.

"The American people need to trust that the military, who they've turned to before in times of need, are doing what they need to do," she said.

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