In an about-face, the U.S. Southern Command is dispatching a Miami-based Air Force combat pilot — an American Airlines pilot at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks — to run the prison camps at Guantánamo after the admiral who was selected declined the position “for personal reasons.”
Brig. Gen. Jose R. Monteagudo becomes the 15th commander of the detention center of 116 captives and 2,000 staff members next week. He’s deputy director of operations at Southcom where, Army Col. Lisa Garcia said Thursday, he served as Marine Gen. John F. Kelly’s “lead for oversight of detention operations” at Guantánamo for nearly two years.
He becomes the first Air Force officer to command the detention center that opened Jan. 11, 2002, at Camp X-Ray and has across the years held at least 780 captives.
The general, who is a qualified F-16 pilot, was employed by American Airlines from 1998 until 2013 and likewise qualified to fly 777s, 767s and 757s. Monteagudo was not flying on Sept. 11, 2001, Garcia said.
The Navy had announced on April 10 that Rear Adm. Fernandez “Frank” Ponds would take the job. His last job was as commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 3, and stepped down June 17 in ceremonies in San Diego. He had extensive experience in the Caribbean with both humanitarian relief and hurricane preparation. But a Navy spokesman, Cmdr. Christopher Servello, said Ponds declined the job for undisclosed “personal reasons,” and notified the Chief of Naval Personnel earlier this month. “His follow-on assignment has not yet been determined,” Servello said.
Meantime, Monteagudo will relieve Rear Adm. Kyle Cozad next week in ceremonies at Guantánamo that are closed to civilian press coverage. Kelly personally selected Monteagudo for the post, Garcia said.
The choice of an Air Force officer is particularly unusual because the billet belongs to the U.S. Navy. At the start, a Marine brigadier opened the prison and four Army general officers held the position before the Navy got the assignment and dispatched a string of one-star admirals on year-long assignments.
It also follows a period of abrupt changes and temporary assignment at the remote base. In January, the admiral in charge of the Navy’s Southeast region relieved then-base commander Capt. John “J.R.” Nettleton, declaring her loss of confidence in him following the discovery of the body of a commissary worker in the bay on Jan. 11. Naval Criminal Investigative Services is still investigating that case. The Navy scrambled a temporary base commander to Guantánamo for nearly four months.
A military officer, who spoke on background as not authorized to provide details, said the sudden change “was a bit of a surprise” and that while Monteagudo will next week assume the title of Commander — Joint Task Force, Guantánamo, a one-star admiral’s name is being floated at the Pentagon as the full-time, one-year successor to Cozad. Like Monteagudo, the next detention center commander will likely come from the chain of command of Kelly, the Southcom commander.
Meantime, Monteagudo is expected to take up residence at the remote base in southeast Cuba into the fall. He is a 1988 nuclear engineering graduate of the University of Florida who joined the military through ROTC and has flown more than 3,700 F-16 hours including 130 combat missions, according to his official biography. His decorations and photos released by the Pentagon suggest he served in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm and also flew missions in Operation Iraqi Freedom. President Barack Obama nominated him to get his star in November 2013.
Most of his work, however, has been in command capacities out of the Homestead Air Reserve Base — between 1997 and 2011.
Monteagudo is a 1982 graduate of Sunset High School and received an MBA from Northwestern University.
Follow @CarolRosenberg on Twitter