Guantánamo gets new fighter-pilot base commander

Then-Commander David Culpepper in a Nov. 19, 2011 U.S. Navy photo being greeted by his daughter on return to Atsugi, Japan, from a deployment on the aircraft carrier USS George Washington.
Then-Commander David Culpepper in a Nov. 19, 2011 U.S. Navy photo being greeted by his daughter on return to Atsugi, Japan, from a deployment on the aircraft carrier USS George Washington. U.S. NAVY

A career Navy fighter pilot and former Top Gun instructor takes charge at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in a low-key ceremony on Friday, completing a transition that started in January with the unceremonious removal of the base’s last commander.

Capt. David Culpepper, 45, was already in the pipeline to take over this summer when Capt. John “J.R.” Nettleton was ordered to desk duty in Jacksonville amid an investigation into the death of a civilian on base. That investigation continues.

Culpepper, a 1992 Naval Academy graduate, comes to Cuba from a distinguished career that included combat missions in the Iraq War, 900 tailhook landings, command of a fighter squadron aboard the USS George Washington, and stints with the U.S. Special Operations Command and NATO operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Based on Culpepper’s official biography, he trained on F-14 Tomcats during the “Top Gun” school’s final year in California, the site made famous by Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis in the Hollywood hit, then subsequently served as a flight instructor at its new home in Fallon, Nevada.

Culpepper replaces Navy Capt. Scott Gray who since Jan. 21 filled in as base commander after their boss, Rear Adm. Mary Jackson, fired Nettleton “due to a loss of confidence” in him.

The body of commissary worker Christopher Tur, 42, was found in the bay near the base airstrip on Jan. 11. He’d gone missing a day earlier, after last being seen in the Officer’s Club. The base undertook a massive search that included having troops go door to door in the trailer park housing U.S. forces on temporary prison duty before his body was found in the water.

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service conducted a still-open probe, according to NCIS spokesman Ed Buice, and advertised on the base’s internal TV network asking people to come forward with tips.

On Thursday, both NCIS and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner’s office said the autopsy report was complete but would not release it, citing the ongoing investigation.

At the time of Tur’s death, his wife was working as the base commander’s director of the Fleet and Family Support Center which, according to a Navy site, provides counseling and crisis intervention “during some of the most stressful and challenging times of a military career.”

Nettleton, meantime, was still assigned this week to Jacksonville, awaiting the outcome of the investigation.

“No action has been taken,” said Nettleton’s attorney, retired Marine Lt. Col. Colby Vokey Thursday afternoon. Vokey added that, even before Tur’s death, Nettleton had submitted his paperwork to retire from the Navy after he completed his tour at Guantánamo — scheduled to be this summer — and moved back to the United States.

Nettleton’s household goods were due to depart Guantánamo on Friday, according to Navy Southeast spokesman Mike Andrews, on the regular supply barge that twice monthly brings supplies to the base from Jacksonville.

Culpepper takes charge of the base ahead of the arrival of Rear Adm. Fernandez “Frank” Pond as the 15th commander of Guantánamo’s best known tenant — the sprawling prison operation of 122 captives and at least 2,000 troops and civilians that work there.

Culpepper, who is assigned to Guantánamo for the next three years, will have no role in the running of the prison, which is inside a Detention Center Zone behind a gate at the 45-square-mile base in eastern Cuba.

As Guantánamo base commander, the captain runs the seaport and airport and handles largely benign military relations with the Cubans across a 14.7-mile fence line made famous by Hollywood by another Cruise film, “A Few Good Men.”

Some commanders have likened the job to that of a mayor because the base has suburban-style neighborhoods, a school system for children of people living at the base, as well as an expansive recreational program of sports, diving, bars, restaurants and nightly first-run films at an outdoor theater.

Others liken the base to an aircraft carrier at sea because, now cut off from Cuba’s mainland by a minefield, it makes its own water, generates its own electricity and relies on regular resupply missions.

At the White House Thursday, Press Secretary Josh Earnest reiterated that the Navy base was not part of ongoing normalization talks with Cuba. “It is not our intent to return control of the military base at Guantanamo Bay to the Cubans,” he told reporters.

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