Guantanamo Task Force Stands Tall in Tough Mission

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. 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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