For the second time in almost 10 years, an Alabama National Guard military police company have completed an assignment to help maintain order and security at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The base, the site of prison facilities where suspected terrorists have been housed since the 9/11 attacks, occupies 45 square miles on Cuba’s southeastern coast. The 128th MP Company, slated to return stateside this week and then to Alabama shortly thereafter, arrived in Gitmo on February 13, around the time that many of the more than 160 inmates imprisoned there went on a hunger strike, a move which drew national and international coverage and renewed calls for the prison facilities to be closed.
While attention to the hunger strike rose and fell, and the number of hunger strikers declined, the Alabama Guard soldiers went about their business with little fanfare.
“We had a very important mission: providing external security for the JTF – that’s Joint Task Force Gitmo or Guantanamo Bay…[and ensuring] that there are no breaches internally or externally from the camp,” said Capt. Johnnie Scott, the Athens-based unit’s commander, in a telephone interview last week.
“Going through an access point, you would see one of my soldiers,” Scott said. “If you were going into a sally [passage] trying to gain entry…you would see one of my soldiers. If you would be passing a tactical vehicle alongside the road, it would be one of my soldiers [on] roving patrol. And if you would go through any fighting position (a sheltered hole, for example), you would see one of my soldiers. So we were there, we were in the front and leading the way and taking charge and helping, aiding the mission here at Guantanamo Bay.”
While their primary mission was providing security for the facility, 128th soldiers also regularly escorted prisoners or detainees to medical, legal or other routine appointments. If a detainee balked at going to a required appointment, Gitmo’s specially trained Quick Reaction Force would escort them, sometimes doing what are called “forced cell extractions,” and 29 soldiers from 128th were part of that unit.
Sgt. Cassandra Chapa, one of 34 women in the 128th, was one of the few female soldiers in the Quick Reaction Force. While acknowledging that terms like “forced cell extraction” imply the use of force or violence, she said violence did not figure in the 60 such extractions in which she participated.
“It sounds a lot harsher than the reality, but the reality is they [the detainees] were very compliant,” Chapa said.
“This is very rarely a violent event,” said Maj. Christian Hodge, a Guantanamo spokesman.
“We treat them as human beings,” Chapa added. “You know, they are. You just treat them as you would want to be treated. If I was in the same situation and, you know, someone was coming into the camp to escort you to an appointment and to do…a forced cell extraction, I would want them to treat me as humanely as possible, and that’s just what we’ve done. If I were in the same situation, I would hope and pray that the next unit would do the same as we’ve done here at Gitmo.”
As of last week, 164 detainees were being at held Guantanamo. According to data compiled by Human Rights Watch, 779 detainees have been held there since 9/11, and about 600 have been “released without charges, many after being detained for years.” Of those still there, 84 have been “approved for transfer to home or third countries” but have yet to be transferred. Nine have died “while in custody, six by suspected suicide,” according to the human rights organization. Seven detainees have been convicted “after trial or plea bargain” before military commissions, and six, including five co-defendants in the 9/11 attacks, face formal charges. The trial of the five co-defendants, who included alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, could begin in a year or so, according to press reports, but that is not certain.
Given its size, the detainees held there, and being surrounded on three sides by unfriendly territory, Gitmo is a distinct world unto itself. A spokesman at the base said about 6,000 people — consisting of members of the military, civilians and their relatives — live on the base. About 2,000 civilians and service members work at the Joint Task Force.
Another far less dangerous feature of life at Gitmo is its highly visible and sometimes aggressive population of Cuban rock iguanas. Chapa said when an iguana is crossing a road, vehicular traffic comes to halt.
“Some say they look like tiny little dinosaurs, you know,” she said. “Some people name them and they become little mascots, so to speak. But around here…they’re a protected species and you know, if you are caught, I guess, harassing or messing with them, you get, like, a $10,000 fine. So we like to look at them, but we don’t really generally like to play with them. We just kind of leave them in their own environment.”
The coexistence is not always comfortable. Chapa said one of the lizards has taken up residence at the 7th tee at the Gitmo golf course and has tried to chase away golfers who decline to feed it. Scott said he has incurred the creature’s wrath firsthand.
“Once people start feeding them, they become very territorial and aggressive,” Chapa said.
The 128th is the second Alabama Guard MP company to be assigned to Guantanamo since 9/11. The 217th MP Company out of Prattville was there about nine years ago. During that deployment, the company lost Master Sgt. Herbert R. Claunch of Wetumpka, who died of a heart attack on April 18, 2004. Scott said two soldiers who were in the 217th at that time were part of the 128th deployment, and they told him that conditions for soldiers at Gitmo in 2004 were not like they are today.
“It’s completely different,” Scott said. “A lot more MWR [Morale, Welfare, and Recreation] activities. … But the mission is still the same…basically care and custody of detainees.”
Scott, 31, lives in Huntsville with his wife and five children. Chapa, 28, formerly of Huntsville, now lives in Alexandria, Virginia. Both have about eight years in the Guard and each has a prior deployment – Scott to Kuwait and Chapa to Iraq. While Scott’s civilian job is as a chemical operator at the Daikin America Inc. plant in Decatur, and Chapa will soon be resuming her business management studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, a third of the 128th soldiers came to Gitmo from the correctional or law enforcement field. For them, Scott said, a detainee transportation assignment was similar to what sheriff’s deputies routinely do with court-bound inmates back home.
“They basically are handcuffed, put in the back of a transport vehicle and escorted to the court hearing…and then they are escorted back in the same fashion to their cell or their holding facility,” Scott said.
Hodge said 128th soldiers were not involved in the hands-on nourishment of hunger strikers, a process that authorities at the facility describe as “enteral feeding.”
Asked how many times per week on the average that detainees “are taken somewhere for some kind of appointment,” how they get to that appointment and what kind of restraints – hoods, shackles, etc. – are placed upon them, Hodge said, “All these things vary greatly depending on the situation and that particular detainee, and I can’t go into details on specific detainee movement operations because of security concerns. I can say that they are not hooded, but are secured by equipment and means typical of any detainment facility.”
The 128th is one of two Alabama Guard units who have recently wrapped up their overseas deployments. About 250 soldiers with the Birmingham-based 135th Expeditionary Sustainment Command have returned stateside from an assignment in Kuwait. At present, more than 400 Alabama Guard soldiers are on overseas deployments, and another Guard unit is expected to deploy to Afghanistan next year.