Guantánamo-bound MRI spent year in storage

A bus passes by Camp 6 in the early evening at the the U.S. Navy base, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
A bus passes by Camp 6 in the early evening at the the U.S. Navy base, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. WALTER MICHOT

The senior medical officer at Southern Command pulled the plug on plans to put an MRI at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, after a more than year-long review by medical staff concluded it wasn’t necessary for an aging prisoner population, an Army spokesman says.

The prison bought the $1.65 million machine from a Pennsylvania supplier in 2012 for delivery by Jan. 28, 2013, to a Jacksonville pier. From there a barge brings supplies to Guantánamo. Instead, it spent a year in storage near Norfolk, Virginia, while members of the military reconsidered the purchase, Army Col. Greg Julian, spokesman for Southern Command, said Wednesday.

Southcom, based in Doral, is headquarters for U.S. military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean, and has oversight of the prison.

In the end, the military’s medical command sent it to Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, which treats soldiers and their families — and runs Southcom’s clinic.

Julian said Southcom’s “command surgeon,” an officer responsible for collaborative health programs in the Americas, decided that Guantánamo should not take delivery on the MRI. The prison’s medical teams serve for six months at a time. One team proposed buying it, and got it through the bid process. Later, their successors questioned their wisdom. So, on March 4 of this year Southcom decided to “turn it back into the logistics system for reallocation.”

Part of the issue was staffing, maintaining technicians capable of operating the machine and medical staff capable of reading the results.

“The leadership determined that they needed one, went through the whole process and then they rotated before it was delivered,” he said. “The new team came on board, and when they discovered what it would cost to maintain one of those machines there, they said it’s not economically feasible.”

Most of that year of indecision straddled the now long-running hunger strike in the detention center, which drew participation by more than 100 of the then 166 detainees. At the time of the review, Southcom’s commander, Marine Gen. John Kelly, dispatched about 40 additional reinforcements to the 100 Navy corpsmen, nurses and doctors then managing detainee health.

Today, there are still about 140 Navy medical staff there assigned to duties caring for 149 detainees.

The military only disclosed the decision to send the equipment to treat troops rather than detainees after lawyers for a detainee who was waterboarded by the CIA sought a military court order for an MRI scan of the accused terrorist’s brain.

A Pentagon prosecutor wrote the Army judge that there was no MRI at the remote outpost.

The prison signed its contract to buy the MRI in September 2012 at the same time that it bought a mobile cardiac care unit in anticipation of an aging detainee population because Congress prohibits medical treatment of Guantánamo captives in the United States.

The youngest detainee at Guantánamo is approaching 30 and the eldest, with a history of heart disease, just turned 67.

Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg tweets @carolrosenberg

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