Soldiers relieve sailors at Guantánamo prison

The withdrawal from Iraq and drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan mean that Army troops trained in detention duty now stand guard where the Navy once stood watch.

08/20/2012 5:00 AM

02/09/2014 10:10 PM

U.S. Army troops now stand guard where the U.S. Navy once stood watch.

With the military out of Iraq and drawing down in Afghanistan, the Pentagon has been systematically turning over the prison camp guard role to specially trained soldiers and relieving sailors brought to patrol prison camp cellblocks as a stop-gap measure in the war on terror. This realigns forces for the long run in the prison camps that President Barack Obama campaigned to close.

Now, overwhelmingly it’s soldiers guarding the 168 foreign men at the detention center. The sailors the Pentagon pulled from their regular assignments are being returned to sea duty.

The Department of the Navy wouldn’t talk about it, leaving it to a Defense Department spokesman, Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, to explain there’s “nothing nefarious here.”

“Nearly all the guard force in the camps is the regular Army or Army National Guard,” said Breasseale. “It was once about 50/50 Army-Navy.”

To be sure, Guantánamo is still a Navy base — the oldest belonging to the United States overseas. A Navy captain, whose rank is the equivalent of an Army colonel, is the base commander. He’s known as the “skipper,” Navy lingo for the commander of a ship, which in this instance is a 45-square-mile corner of southeast Cuba that has a McDonald’s, public school, seaport and suburban-style housing for sailors who get to bring along their families.

A total of 804 U.S. Navy enlisted and officers are assigned to the base, where foreign workers hired by Defense Department contractors outnumber service members. They’re mostly from Jamaica and the Philippines, and they do the service jobs that sailors no longer do on land duty — cook in the galleys, run the power plant, mop the floors.

But pass through at Roosevelt Gate, Guantánamo’s entry into the Detention Center Zone, and there are twice as many soldiers than sailors assigned to prison camp jobs. Puerto Rican National Guard troops run the checkpoint. Once through, the first thing you see is a sign promoting the Army’s Value of the Week, one of seven mottos like “Courage” and “Selfless Service.”

Headquarters still has a mixture of all the services. The commander of the camps is a Navy admiral and his staff attorney, public affairs officer and chief of staff are all Navy captains. The officer in charge of the guard force is an Army colonel. Medical services are run by the Navy, whose forces are distinguishable in the camps by their different patterned battle-dress uniforms.

Detention Center staff figures provided to The Miami Herald on Monday estimated there were 900 from the Army, 400 from the Navy, 100 from the Air Force, 80 from the U.S. Coast Guard and five Marines assigned to what is technically a temporary detention mission. That’s a ratio of nearly 9-to-1 troops to captives — from the cellblocks to the court compound to special seaborne security.

But the Navy deployment to the detention center is “is slowly but surely being ramped down,” says Rear Adm. John W. Smith Jr., commander of Joint Task Force Guantánamo, as the prison camps project is called.

Sailors first starting guarding at Guantánamo’s cellblocks in 2004 or 2005, according to a Defense Department official who was authorized to discuss Guantánamo’s staff issues on condition of anonymity. At that time, the Army found itself battling an insurgency in Iraq and stretched across two battlefronts, from Baghdad to Kabul. And it was “tapped out” by 15-month deployments, stop-loss policies and trouble meeting recruiting targets, the official said. The best choice for Guantánamo may have been Army MPs, soldiers who were specially schooled in detention and corrections skills, notably to do guard duty at Fort Leavenworth, the “disciplinary barracks” for criminal service members. But they were tapped out, too.

So the Navy pulled sailors off land and sea duty as “individual augmentees,” gave them special training and dispatched them to one-year tours at Guantánamo. Some were “Masters at Arms,” the official said, Navy cops who typically patrol a base or waterway, do some criminal investigations and enforce traffic laws. But many were not. Engineers, bosun’s mates, supply specialists, even clerks got special training and one-year tours in the cellblocks of Guantánamo.

Today, Smith said, only a few Guantánamo guards are sailors.

They’re assigned to at least one of the three camps that the military won’t let reporters see — Camp Iguana, housing a few men the courts have ordered free; Camp 7, housing former CIA prisoners, or Camp Echo, a segregation site for lawyers to meet their captive clients and others. He would not elaborate.

And MP units, both active duty and reserves, have moved in to the place that Obama ordered closed upon taking office even before he ordered the withdrawals from Iraq or Afghanistan.

Smith, who has done mix-and-match service from Iraq to his last post at the Key West interagency anti-trafficking center, says it’s all about trying to create stability in a place where troops come and the “one thing that’s constant is the detainees.”

Most of them have been in U.S. custody for more than a decade.

“The detainees will use that,” said Smith, noting the captives at times know the military’s Standard Operation Procedures that govern Guantánamo detention “better than we do. So to have a constituent force in some form or fashion will help facilitate and mitigate that gap.”

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