New Guantánamo commander: Base is one big family

This base’s brand-new commander went on Radio Gitmo on Tuesday with a call for unity at this remote outpost but never directly mentioned the reason he had arrived suddenly last week to replace the skipper whose boss lost confidence in him.

“You know the great thing about a community like this is that we all pull together especially in tough times and help each other. And we become each other’s extended family. That’s great,” Navy Capt. Scott Gray, on the job as base commander for less than a week, told the base community during Open Line on the radio station whose motto is Rockin’ in Fidel’s Backyard.

“The downside sometimes tends to be that everybody knows everybody else’s business,” he added.

The old “skipper,” as the base commander is called, was relieved under somewhat mysterious circumstances Jan. 21 amid an NCIS probe of the death of a commissary worker who turned up dead in the waters of Guantánamo Bay on a Sunday, a day after his wife reported him missing on a Saturday night.

The Naval Criminal Investigative Services is still investigating, NCIS spokesman Ed Buice said Tuesday, with both local agents and those sent in from the U.S. to help question members of the community, who number around 6,000 sailors, soldiers, civilian workers and family members.

Gray got here Wednesday, the same day the commander of Navy Region Southeast, Rear Adm. Mary M. Jackson, relieved Capt. John “J.R.” Nettleton of his position. The Navy released a statement saying the change was “due to loss of confidence in Nettleton’s ability to command” this sensitive outpost surrounded by a Cuban minefield. Gray had served as Jackson’s chief-of-staff and was scrambled down here on little notice, alone, without family based in Jacksonville.

The new commander, who has no role in running the war-on-terrorism detention center of roughly 2,000 U.S. military and civilian staff members and the last 122 captives, announced on the radio that he had inspected the installation over the weekend — from the beaches to the buildings “to the garbage dump where nobody goes.”

“I like what I see,” he said.

He made no direct mention of the 45-square-mile base’s perhaps best-known tenant — the prison set up in January 2002 — that sprawls along a bluff on the Caribbean and in a separately patrolled and controlled Detention Center Zone.

Nor did anyone on the base call into the live lunch-time FM radio program to pose questions to the new skipper on the venue which, in less tense times, sometimes includes base residents airing grievances.

Instead, Gray volunteered a few quality-of-life improvements:

▪ That he expected the Fort Lauderdale-based charter airline, IBC Air, to increase its once-a-week flights to twice weekly in February. Lack of air links from the base has been a source of unhappiness in some quarters.

▪ That he was waiving a no-alcohol rule at the open-air movie theater, the Lyceum, for Super Bowl Sunday. “Drink responsibly. Watch your language,” he warned. Nettleton had halted beer sales at the cinema kiosk and banned alcohol altogether after some moviegoers got unruly.

Gray also praised a weekend base K-12 school production of I Never Saw Another Butterfly. He explained the play was about the Holocaust. “As a tribute to how well the students did,” he said, “I was really, really depressed.”

Earlier in his career, the captain had a command position at a U.S. Navy base in Naples, Italy, which he said was in some ways similar to his current job.

There’s one big difference: Guantánamo’s base commander meets once a month with a Cuban military officer along an opening in the Cuban minefield and electronically monitored 17.4-mile frontier guarded by some U.S. Marines.

The meetings began in the 1990s to avoid tensions between the two sides, and Gray will go to his first one Feb. 20 accompanied by a U.S. State Department representative. The so-called Fenceline Meetings are separate from the recent Obama administration announcement that it is renewing diplomatic ties with Cuba — an initiative that the White House says will not include return of the base to Cuba.

“We can’t go outside that fence,” Gray noted. “Who knows what this new initiative with the Cubans will bring, but I don’t think it will bring anything any time soon. We’ll see how that plays out.”

Follow @CarolRosenberg on Twitter.

Listen to a 2011 WLRN Radio report by the Herald’s Carol Rosenberg about Radio Gitmo here.