IN THE CAMPS

Guantánamo medics: Forced-feedings aren’t torture

 

Crosenberg@miamiherald.com

Rapper Mos Def may have scored sympathy for the prisoners here with a brutal web video dramatization of a forced-feeding. But in this corner of Cuba where U.S. troops are charged with managing the long-running hunger strike, fans are hard to find.

“I deleted his music off my iPod. I was a little upset about it,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class Vernon Branson, 33, who is a watch commander at Camp 6, the steel and concrete prison where more than 100 prisoners went on hunger strike this year.

As of Friday, the military said, 68 captives were on hunger strike, down from a high of 106 amid apparently easing tensions for Ramadan, Islam’s holy month. Of the 68, 44 were designated for tube feedings of the type that the hip-hop recording artist who now goes by Yasiin Bey tried to portray in London last month in a demonstration organized by a British legal defense group.

Detention center troops interviewed this week expressed opinions ranging from resentment to indifference to the rapper’s stunt that put a spotlight on the forced-feedings that the world’s not allowed to see. Reporters have requested to observe tube feedings throughout the hunger strike but permission has not been granted.

So the question is: where does the truth lie? Is it the depiction in the viral video and the lawyers’ claim that their clients are being tortured? Or is it the insistence of the U.S. military that forced-feedings are intended to preserve life, not inflict pain.

Several guards in Branson’s military police unit got nasogastric feedings out of curiosity since deploying here two months ago, the sergeant said, “and took it like a champ.”

“It’s a life-saving tool if you ask me,” said Branson, whose troops deployed from Fort Bliss, Texas. “We see it every day and we know it’s not as bad as they make it out to be.”

The captives’ lawyers say their clients consider it torture — an agonizing, degrading introduction of nutrition that obviates their right to protest their indefinite detention. They got U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler to agree, although she ruled she does not have the authority to stop the military.

President Barack Obama, who does have the authority, has lamented that in his failure to close the camps that now contain 166 captives, the United States has come down to “the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike.”

Yet 10 members of the Navy medical corps who do the feedings said in a series of interviews that they are proud of their service and pained by the portrayal that they are doing something inhumane. Detainees who don’t want the tube, they said, have the option to eat. But, as U.S. military medical forces, they are determined not to let them starve.

“I never felt like I would be that person who would be persecuted for keeping a detainee alive,” said Eric, a 24-year-old corpsman, the Navy’s name for a medic. He helps evaluate the captives to see whose body weight is low enough to merit tube feedings of a nutritional shake — if they will not drink it on their own.

Navy nurses and corpsmen interviewed said they’ve routinely trained by doing nasogastric feedings by inserting tubes up their own noses or in fellow sailors or soldiers — and universally shrugged off the tube feedings as painless. Each said they volunteered to deploy to the prison from such far-flung posts as Italy, Illinois and Washington, D.C., and several said they’d volunteer again — citing a range of reasons from the beauty of the beaches to scuba diving, the camaraderie of service at the base and the change of pace.

In the video that went viral, the rapper recoiled from the tube and wouldn’t let a British doctor snake it up his nose. He resisted. He wriggled free of his restraints. He sobbed in a stunt a Navy nurse who goes by Ensign Lodowick called “ridiculous.”

The video is “the opposite of everything that goes on here,” said Lodowick, 30, who spends his nights offering captives designated for nutritional supplements a choice — drink a bottle of Ensure, or take it through a tube inserted in their nose to their stomach.

“It’s not that painful. It’s not that excruciating,” he said Thursday evening on his way to a night shift at the prison where, for Islam’s daylight fasting during Ramadan, the prison staff adopted an after-dark feeding routine.

“They’re not begging for you to stop,” a 23-year-old corpsman named Hannah chimed in.

To be sure, the troops say some of the hunger-striking prisoners become furious when women among the medical corps administer the so-called “e-feeds,” short for enteral feedings. In one often repeated account, a captive slipped out of his restraints and slugged a nurse. The nurse was not made available for an interview.

A night shift nurse named Candice, a 32-year-old Navy lieutenant, said she has been spit on, cursed at and threatened with such angry prisoner glares that “I feel my soul is being sucked out” while working at the prison.

But in her experience by the time the guards have the detainees settled in the restraint chair they cooperate and “guide,” as she put it, wriggling their heads to help the tube find its way to their stomach.

“For the most part it’s good patient interaction,” she said.

This week, the military would only permit journalists here to report during Ramadan a brief afternoon glimpse of a dozen or so prisoners of Echo Block standing hip to hip then kneeling together in prayer, a privilege the military says they’re granted so long as they abandon their hunger strike.

The medical corps has mostly shunned reporters’ requests for interviews, leaving explanations about the hunger strike and forced-feedings to a staged stop on a hospital tour where a nameless officer cheerily explains the procedure for cameras required to film him from the neck down.

This week, for the first time, nurses and corpsmen volunteered to be interviewed and did so inside an unused surgical ward not far from a poster that warned medical troops to think about security before they blog, tweet or post on Facebook. Each of them had seen the Mos Def video despite having to endure slow and balky Internet access to do so.

Army Sgt. Lasima Packett, on temporary duty here with an Indiana National Guard public affairs team, said the video was a disappointment and her respect for the rapper diminished.

Navy Capt. Robert Durand, the public affairs officer who has been defending the honor of the detention center throughout the hunger strike, drew a distinction.

“I disagree with his portrayal and his performance,” he said, “but I still like him as an actor and musician.”

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