Military retracts Guantánamo PTSD claim

A military spokesman said the commander of the guard force misspoke in saying the incidence of PTSD among guards was double that of combat troops.

12/08/2013 4:08 PM

09/26/2014 6:15 PM

The U.S. military is retracting a claim made to “60 Minutes” that Guantánamo guards suffer nearly twice as much Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as combat troops.

“There are no statistics that support the claim of twice the number of troops diagnosed with PTSD,” said Army Col. Greg Julian of the U. S. Southern Command in response to a query from the Miami Herald.

Southcom has oversight of the 12-year-old detention center, including the consequences of duty there on the thousands of troops that have guarded the Guantánamo prisoners. At its height, the prison held about 660 men at the sprawling detention center complex. Now, a staff of about 2,100 troops and contractors holds 162 captives, 82 of them cleared for release.

Army Col. John V. Bogdan, the current commander of the guard force, offered up the surprising Cuba-to-battlefield ratio of PTSD in a September interview with CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl. It aired Nov. 17, without verification, and was echoed in a BBC broadcast Nov. 20 by the female Army captain in charge of Guantanamo’s maximum-security prison, Camp 5, where, she said, a captive on most days hurls at a guard a home-made brew that can include excrement, blood, semen and urine.

She told the BBC her guards suffer PTSD as a consequence of “that constant threat of being in enemy contact for up to 12 hours at a time,” and said the prison’s Public Affairs Officer or guard’s mental-health unit could provide precise statistics.

But, after weeks of research from the island prison to the Pentagon, Julian, Southcom’s Public Affairs Officer said late Friday: “Col. Bogdan was mistaken about twice the level of PTSD.”

Julian attributed the error, in part, to a misreading of a study coupled with a misunderstanding of the distinction between a PTSD diagnosis and the stress troops experience at Guantánamo — an isolated outpost with an unpopular mission where the Army captain said her troops work 14- to 16-hour days.

A reading of a January 2011 survey of the “occupational health and wellbeing” of 1,590 troops assigned to the detention center, according to Julian, found those particular Guantánamo troops “were nearly twice as likely [though not actually diagnosed] to screen positive for moderate to severe post-traumatic stress as soldiers surveyed in previous studies who had recently redeployed from Iraq or Afghanistan.”

Julian would not provide a copy of the study.

Bogdan invoked the now-retracted figure after showing 60 Minutes, exclusively, a prison camp disciplinary block called 5 Echo. He said he granted CBS rare uncensored access to cast a spotlight on his guards, who spend their time at Guantánamo “performing admirably” and “working their asses off” through fearful, 12-hour shifts of “enemy contact” that might harm them.

Bogdan: The incidence of PTSD is almost twice that seen from regular aligned forces.

Stahl: Twice what they see on the battlefield?

Bogdan: Uh huh.

Bogdan’s citing such a statistic was surprising because, across years of inquiries, military spokesmen repeatedly said there was no way to quantify PTSD diagnoses of the thousands of troops who worked at the prison since it opened in January 2002.

Guantánamo guards have come and gone on 6- to 24-month rotations and have included Army, Navy and, briefly, Marine enlisted forces — from mix-and-match deployments that also included National Guard and Reserve units. Today, the prison has mostly Military Police, an Army specialty. They are trained for the job and have done tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. For several years, the military used sailors whose specialty was not military policing but were trained up especially for the temporary guard mission.

Military spokesman have said the mix-and-match approach coupled with constant rotations made it impossible to track the mental-health effects of the job after guards left Guantánamo. Veterans Affairs spokesmen similarly said they had no way to know how many PTSD cases resulted from duty at the prison camps.

In fact, however, the military had conducted studies of stress on Guantánamo guards. And none supported Bogdan’s claim, according to military sources who saw a synopsis of the reports but spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive issue.

The studies listed “splashings” and contact with the detainees as stressful at Guantánamo, according to those sources, but also blamed the prison’s 12-hour shift work, guards’ distances from families and alcohol abused at Guantánamo as contributing factors.

(Guantánamo is different from the other post-9/11 war-on-terror deployments. Unlike troops sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, where consumption of alcohol has always been forbidden, it’s plentiful at Guantánamo – which has several bars and low-cost liquor retail sales at the commissaries. Prison camp staff are also allowed to have family come visit.)

While Southcom has refused to release the latest study, a synopsis of some earlier studies can be found on a Navy website that was presented at an unnamed conference in May 2010. It’s called: “Operational Stress in Detainee Operations at Task Force Guantanamo Bay Cuba” — and it flatly contradicts Bogdan’s claim.

It compared National Guard troops who served in Iraq ”with moderate combat exposure” from 2005 to 2006 to Guantánamo guards surveyed from August to November in 2009 — and found those troops suffered more PTSD than Gitmo guards.

That study came at a particularly low point for morale at Guantánamo — just months after President Barack Obama, in a major speech at the National Archives, called the Guantánamo his administration inherited “a mess.”

It is also possible that the stress factors have increased during Bogdan’s tenure, which has been marked by some of the worst relations between captives and captors in years.

His Army troops have fired on captives that Navy guards had considered compliant, in cell shakedowns seized items that were earlier allowed, had to manage a long-running hunger strike that some detainees blamed on these guards disrespecting the Quran, and mounted a raid on Guantanamo’s once-showcase prison building of cooperative captives that put nearly every prisoner under lockdown.

The phenomenon of captives “ weaponizing” their feces and other bodily fluids has increased since Bogdan got there in June 2012, according to descriptions of the so-called “splashing” problem offered up on prison visits. A captive overdosed on anti-psychotic drugs last year, prompting Bogdan to institute a special guard unit to conduct groin searches of captives who meet with their lawyers.

And Bogdan’s guards have had to deliver captives to forced-feedings on order of a Navy medical unit that grappled with the hunger strike that by the military’s own account rose to 106 of the then-166 captives protesting.

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