Outdated Images of Detention Center, Mission Frustrate Guantanamo Troopers
By Sgt. Jim Greenhill, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
U.S. NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, Dec. 1, 2006 – A 28-year-old block guard here whose mission is to ensure the safe care and custody of enemy combatants said he wishes the world had an accurate picture of the place where he serves.
This Navy master-at-arms, who is not being identified for security reasons, is an active-duty sailor whose prior deployments include stints in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, is part of a joint task force, 13 percent of which is currently drawn from the National Guard. All branches of the military and several government agencies are also represented.
He said he is frustrated that the world does not have an accurate understanding of his mission. “I wish they could spend a couple of days in my boots,” he said. “I wish they could see how much we care for these individuals. We pay so much attention to these detainees. Our care for them is very extensive.
“If a guy’s salad isn’t right, I’ll make a phone call to try and get him the correct salad,” the guard said. “To hear that we mistreat them … frustrates you sometimes, because you go out of your way so much to make sure these guys are taken care of as far as medicine, any dental care they need, any nutrition.
“I don’t think people realize how hard we try to keep the detainees as safe and as well cared for as we do, because ‘fair, firm and impartial’ is exactly what we do here,” he said.
Visitors to Joint Task Force Guantanamo hear those words repeatedly. “Fair, firm and impartial” has become a mantra from the top down, along with “safe care and custody” and “humane treatment.”
Navy Rear Adm. Harry Harris Jr., commander of JTF-GTMO said misconceptions abound about the mission and conditions here. “There’s always the misconception that we’re somehow beating these detainees and doing heinous things to them, and that is simply not the case. We’ve had many outside, independent investigations (into allegations) of detainee abuse and misconduct, and there has not been a single instance – not one -- of torture or inhumane treatment that has ever been substantiated.”
Servicemembers here said they are especially frustrated by repeatedly seeing television, movie and print images of detainees being held at Camp X-Ray, a considerably more austere temporary facility that was operated for only four months and has been closed for four years. Many international news stories still are illustrated with old photos of Camp X-Ray.
When the admiral’s staff see a news report with images that include troops in dark woodland camouflage uniforms moving detainees in orange jump suits in a primitive facility, they know those images are out of date: No guards here have worn these phased-out uniforms for more than a year.
“There’s the misperception that you see on television of Camp X-Ray, that’s the guys outside in orange jumpsuits,” Harris said. “Camp X-Ray was only open for four months in 2002, and then it was closed, and then we moved folks into Camp Delta.”
JTF-GTMO has brought more than 1,000 members of the media through the detention facilities. The press tour includes a visit to the overgrown, broken-down Camp X-Ray.
Harris acknowledged that the footage from Camp X-Ray is “highly visually arresting.”
“But,” he added, “I’d like to not see that anymore. There are lots of misperceptions along those lines, most of them rooted in innuendo and rumor. There are misperceptions about how we do interrogations. Most of those arise out of bad television shows and worse movies. There’s no place here for that kind of activity.”
The difference between the world’s perception and the reality on the ground can be so jarring that visitors find it hard to accept that their impression has been so completely inaccurate, and they continue to suspect that something must be missing. Navy Capt. Mark Leary, the naval base commander, said he recognizes that not every mind can be changed, but he enthusiastically embraces Harris’s push for accuracy.
“It’s important for you to come down and see the operation for yourself,” he told foreign newspaper reporters recently. “We may not bring you around to believe as we do, but I think it’s helpful that you see for yourself and make your own decision on what you see. We’re doing an important mission down here. It’s important for the United States. It’s important for the world. You may disagree, but you’ll make an informed decision after coming and actually seeing for yourself. That’s the best that we can hope for.”
While JTF-GTMO leaders say the detention facility operates under the most scrutiny and with the highest degree of transparency ever granted by anyone, anywhere in wartime, some things get less attention.
That 28-year-old block guard is one of many who has been hit with a “cocktail” of feces, semen, blood and urine thrown by a detainee. “It’s humiliating,” he said. “A guy throws feces on you, and you’ve got to turn right back around and walk down a block that might have 40 people on it. They’re making their little comments, and you go home and you change and you come back to work. Take a shower. Go to medical, get your screening. Come back to work and deal with it the best you can.”
During the 12-month period that ended in August, JTF-GTMO cataloged 3,232 incidents of detainee misconduct, including 432 assaults with bodily fluids, 227 physical assaults and 99 efforts to incite a disturbance or riot. “This is serious stuff,” Harris said. “And yet the guard force and the intelligence people maintain a remarkable degree of restraint and equilibrium. The young Americans that work here are doing a spectacular job in a dangerous place.”
Staff Sgt. Thomas Garcia of the Maryland Army National Guard’s 2nd Battalion, 110th Field Artillery, imagined talking with a skeptical buddy back in the states. “I’d have to set him straight,” Garcia said. “I would tell my friend that (abuse) didn’t happen here. I was here, and we kept a professional attitude. I have never once since I’ve been down here ever heard of a detainee being abused, but I’ve seen the soldiers and sailors get abused. (Detainees) throw some of the most unmentionable cocktails. They urinate on (the guards). They spit. They call them names.”
Garcia’s duties include maintaining a 300-foot long building similar to a small aircraft hangar stacked high with detainee comfort items, including Korans, which only certain people are allowed to touch. “(Korans) are handled with kid gloves,” Garcia said. Other items shipped in for detainees include prayer beads, caps and rugs, backgammon and chess sets, and soccer balls and basketballs.
While the old Camp X-Ray rots, American taxpayers have spent about $100 million on GTMO improvements, including state-of-the-art detention facilities identical to top-notch prisons in the United States.
Those facilities include Camp 5, an air-conditioned, state-of-the-art complex where some of the detainees already live, and Camp 6, a similar recently completed maximum-security building awaiting the arrival of its first detainees.
Detainees order books from a 5,000-volume library that is being increased to 20,000 books at the rate of 450 new items per month. Librarians take the books to the detainees on the blocks. Maggie, the chief librarian, said that books in the Harry Potter series translated into Arabic are among the most-requested items. Library items are in dozens of languages.
In a 20-bed hospital, 100 medical personnel are available to care for about 450 detainees. Specialists are flown in from the United States when needed.
On average, five attorneys visit detainees every day.
The detainees also are able to choose meals that cater to dietary, religious and cultural preferences.
During recreation time, detainees have access to exercise equipment and sports, such as soccer and basketball. They are allowed daily showers. In Camp 4, detainees who comply with camp rules and cooperate with interrogators live together in groups and receive increased recreation time and other privileges. They watched World Cup soccer games, and news from their 24 native countries is posted in the camps.
“I couldn’t begin to tell you when we’re going to close this place down, but until we do, we have an obligation to treat the detainees in a humane way and give them humane facilities and living conditions,” Harris said.
In 2000, British authorities seized a terrorist training manual known as the Manchester Document, named for the city where it was found. It includes guidance for captured terrorists on how to provide misinformation to the public, such as suggesting that they have been tortured. Some detainees held here have apparently followed that guidance after being released. Harris said he hopes people are skeptical when former detainees make allegations.
“The first thing they need to know is that these people were released,” he said. “We’ve released over 340 detainees. We’re a country at war, and we have enemy combatants here, and yet we let them go. That’s unusual in modern warfare, that a country at war would outright release enemy combatants captured on the battlefield, and yet we do that. They’re out there walking around spewing forth all manner of lies and evil things and distortions, but the fact is that they’re released.”
Harris said he feels that communicating the reality of life at Guantanamo Bay is difficult but improving. “Americans are coming to realize that the troopers here are doing a great job, and it is a hard job,” he said.
“We’re getting better at communicating,” he added. “But our opponents can lie and we can’t, and so we have to fact check and make sure that we tell the truth.”
(Army Sgt. Jim Greenhill is assigned to the National Guard Bureau.)
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