Navy nurse who refused to force-feed at Guantánamo keeps his job

A Navy doctor holds a feeding tube used to deliver a can of Ensure up the nose, down the back of the throat and into the stomach of a prison camp hunger striker on June 26, 2013 at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The military reviewed this photo as a condition of release.
A Navy doctor holds a feeding tube used to deliver a can of Ensure up the nose, down the back of the throat and into the stomach of a prison camp hunger striker on June 26, 2013 at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The military reviewed this photo as a condition of release. GETTY IMAGES

A Navy nurse who refused to force-feed Guantánamo prisoners will not face a personnel board and is being returned to regular duties, the nurse’s lawyer said Wednesday.

The development likely ends any possibility of a public examination of an episode of “conscience objection” by a Navy lieutenant, a nurse who abruptly refused to manage tube feedings of prison hunger strikers last summer and was removed from his duties treating captive patients.

The naval officer has never been named. His New York City attorney, Ronald Meister, has described him as an 18-year active-duty sailor, a one-time enlisted submariner who, at the Navy’s urging, became a nurse and commissioned officer, and won’t speak publicly about the episode that at one point threatened him with court-martial for insubordination.

Instead, the nurse “is going to be able to go back to work,” said Meister, “and, we have every reason to believe, finish up his honorable service in the U.S. Navy.”

The lieutenant had been sidelined from nursing responsibilities since before the Fourth of July.

Still, Meister said, a rough draft of criminal charges proposed by an admiral as well as the lieutenant’s written defense of his behavior are being inserted in his service record and could be used by future Navy promotion boards or security reviews — suggesting he could still be punished for the episode later in his career.

Medical and military commanders say the prison humanely handles the protesters among the 122 detainees who won’t eat and are categorized as “non-religious fasters.” But it no longer discloses how many captives get shackled to a restraint chair for the up-to twice daily feedings from Navy medical staff who snake a tube through each captive’s nostril into his stomach.

The episode has stirred controversy. A national nurses association backed the Navy officer in November. In March, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein wrote the Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, invoking new Defense Health Board guidelines and urging him to “end the unnecessary force-feedings of detainees at Guantánamo Bay detention facility.”

A medical ethicist who has been sharply critical of Guantánamo force-feeding practice said Wednesday the episode illustrates unethical medical practices being carried out at the prison camps.

“Force-feeding at Guantanamo has nothing to do with medical necessity or benefit. Instead it is a military policy that serves to silence detainees from protesting 12 years of indefinite detention without legal charges,” said Dr. Vincent Iacopino of Physicians for Human Rights. “Health professionals should never be used as a tool to carry out such policies.”

It’s a health-care provider’s ethical obligation to make independent judgment on what is in the best interest of a patient, not the prison system, Iacopino said.

Prison medical staff have said that they use a constellation of factors — ideal-weight charts, signs of malnutrition and numbers of missed meals — to decide when to strap a captive into a restraint chair and snake a tube up his nose, down the back of his throat and pump in a nutritional supplement. A doctor does the analysis but the commander of the prison, an admiral with no medical training, approves each order.

It was the admiral in charge of the Joint Task Force that runs the prison who first proposed that the nurse face trial, Meister said Wednesday. Once he was sent away from Guantánamo the New England Naval Health Clinic recommended that, rather than face military trial, the nurse should defend his Navy commission before a Board of Inquiry, a form of administration review that could have resulted in his expulsion.

No Board of Inquiry was convened and on April 22, Meister said, the commander of Navy Personnel Command, Rear Adm. David Steindl, notified the nurse that the Navy had concluded that no board was necessary.

Next, the lawyer said, the nurse is being reassigned to duties that allow him to treat patients.

Wednesday, Pamela Cipriano, president of the American Nurses Association, said the decision demonstrates support for the right of nurses “to recuse themselves without retaliation from participation in care they find ethically objectionable... regardless of the setting of care or the employment situation.”

The 13-year-old prison has experimented with different approaches to managing hunger strikes through the years. Some captives, for example, got comfy recliner chairs and communal video screenings as long as they were compliant throughout and didn’t resist he feedings, or regurgitate afterward. Others were allowed for long stretches to live in communal lockups, to pray together and socialize with other prisoners night and day.

Since April 2013, however, captives who refused to eat are kept in lone, single-cell maximum-security lockups, according to the military, for the good order and discipline of the war-on-terror detention center and to better monitor when they might be eating.

The Miami Herald, which obtained daily figures through much of 2013, periodically asks for hunger-strike figures to test the prison’s blackout policy. The Herald’s online hunger-strike chart passed 800 days on Tuesday.

On April 15, Guantanamo’s youngest detainee, Hassan bin Attash, 29 or 30 told his lawyer that he counted 14 men as getting daily forced-feedings — and identified many of them by prisoner number. The figure could not be independently verified.

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Earlier coverage: Case of Navy nurse who refused to force-feed could put Guantánamo hunger strike on trial, Aug. 28, 2014