U.S. NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba - A 28-year-old block guard here whose mission is the safe care and custody of enemy combatants says he has a dream: That the world would have an accurate picture of the place where he serves.
Like many of the National Guard Citizen-Soldiers and Airmen and members of other branches of the armed forces he serves with in Joint Task Force-Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO), this Navy master at arms, who is not being identified for security reasons, says 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.”
The guard, 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.
A visitor to JTF-GTMO hears the guards’ refrain repeatedly, from all ranks and services: Please, someone, get the story straight.
Service members say they are especially frustrated by repeatedly seeing television, movie and print images of detainees being held at Camp X-Ray,
a considerably more austere facility that was operated for only four months and that has been closed for four years. One example: an international news story in May was illustrated with those old photos.
The enemy combatants detained here during the Global War on Terrorism generally refer to their guards as “MP,” for military police.
“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 almost 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.”
He related a detainee’s recent request: “‘MP, I got out 15 minutes late for my recreation. Can I get another 15 minutes so that I can play soccer?’”
“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 JTF-GTMO 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.”
As Rear Adm. Harry Harris Jr., JTF-GTMO commander, says: “There are a lot of misconceptions. 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 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.”
When the admiral’s staff see a news report with images that include troops in “woodland” uniforms moving detainees in orange jump suits in a primitive facility, they know those images are out of date: No guards have worn these phased-out ” uniforms for more than a year.
“There’s the misperception that you see on television of Camp X-Ray,” said Harris. “That’s the guys outside in orange jumpsuits. 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.
During one such tour in mid-November, a reporter expressed irritation about being led through the discarded camp: “We are in the business of reporting the news, not the news from five years ago,” she said.
“But we still see that footage,” the JTF commander said later. “It’s highly, visually, arresting footage, but 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. We do custodial [in custody] interviews.”
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, somewhere must be missing. Capt. Mark Leary, the naval base commander, 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 year that ended last 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, imagines talking with a buddy back in the States.
“I’d have to set him straight,” Garcia said. “I would tell my friend that stuff, such as 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. They throw some of the most unmentionable cocktails. They urinate on them. They spit. They call them names.”
Garcia knows that the mission calls for the safe and humane care and detention of enemy combatants. His duties include maintaining a 300-foot long building similar to a small aircraft hangar stacked high with detainee comfort items.
They include Korans that only certain people are allowed to touch. “They are handled with kid gloves,” Garcia said. Other items shipped in for the detainees include prayer beads, caps and rugs; backgammon and chess sets; and soccer balls and basketballs.
While old Camp X-Ray rots away, American taxpayers have spent about $100 million on GTMO improvements, including penal facilities identical to those 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-volumn library that is being increased to 20,000 at the rate of 450 new items per month. The librarians take the books to the detainees on the blocks.
Maggie, the chief librarian, speculates that the Harry Potter series translated into Arabic is among the most-requested items because fantasy is a strong theme in Arabic and Southwest Asian literature. 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.
An average of five attorneys visits 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, 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. Detainees from JTF-GTMO have apparently followed that guidance after being released.
Harris and others hope that 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 that communicating the reality of life at Guantanamo Bay is difficult. “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 said. “But our opponents can lie, and we can’t, and so we have to fact-check and make sure that we tell the truth.”