Top nursing group backs Navy nurse who wouldn’t force-feed at Guantánamo

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

One of America’s leading nursing organizations is trying to save the U.S. Navy career of an officer, a nurse like them, who refused to force-feed hunger strikers this summer.

In a private letter, the American Nurses Association wrote Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel last month arguing that the nurse should not be punished for making an independent ethical decision. The Physicians for Human Rights set up a conference call for Wednesday with the Navy nurse’s attorney and the advocacy group’s president to disclose the letter, which has been obtained by the Miami Herald.

It says: “These actions are resulting from the nurse’s expressing an ethical objection to participating in the force-feeding of detainees who are engaging in a form of protest at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp.” The Pentagon has not responded.

The Miami Herald disclosed the crisis of conscience over the summer after a Syrian hunger striker heard the lieutenant declare he could no longer force-feed, told his lawyer about it, and the prison confirmed it happened.

Commanders cut short the deployment of the male nurse — who has never been publicly identified — and returned him to his base in New England. His boss ordered that a Board of Inquiry be formed to consider whether to discharge him from military service.

One issue, according to his attorney, Ronald Meister, is that he has spent nearly 18 years in the Navy, the first decade or so as a submarine sailor, and that early discharge would strip him of his service, his pension and possibly veterans’ benefits.

Meister, who continues to shield the officer’s identity, cast him as a caring nurse who volunteered to serve at Guantánamo and “saw the way it was done and had to think of his professional obligations and his professional ethics, as well.”

Meister practices commercial law but in the Vietnam War era served as a Navy judge as a lieutenant, like the nurse. As a civilian, he has represented Golda Meir before she became Israel’s prime minister, Spiro Agnew after he was U.S. vice president and was part of a team that disbarred Richard Nixon in New York.

Now he’s trying to help the nurse stay in service until he reaches his 20th year and can retire with benefits.

“I think he has acted in the highest traditions of the nursing profession,” Meister told the Herald by phone Tuesday, ahead of the conference call. “How can you condemn a nurse who takes into consideration everything he’s been taught about patient welfare and obtaining consent and making individualized decisions and acting on everything he’s been taught?”

Disclosure of the nurse’s dissent has recast attention on the long-running hunger strike by detainees, many of them long ago cleared for release, and criticism by civilian medical groups of the way Guantánamo conducts its forced feedings.

A senior military medical officer identifies candidates to be force-fed. The detention center’s commander, an admiral, approves each case. Then Army guards shackle each hunger striker into a five-point restraint chair for a nurse to insert the tube and a corpsman to control the flow of, typically, a can of liquid vanilla Ensure.

Detainees have complained through their lawyers that it’s torture, used gratuitously when they don’t need it. Prison commanders defend the practice as humane, medically sound.

But, if nurses can’t make individual decisions, said Meister, “Why don’t they have people from the motor pool inserting tubes into human beings? Maybe they would be better at this. Nurses have training and obligations more than the mechanical aspects of their jobs.”

In her letter to Hagel, the nursing group’s president, Pamela F. Cipriano, wrote Oct.17 that, based on its code of ethics, the nurse was within his rights to refuse to force-feed and should not face retaliation.

Moreover, she said, the nurse wants “to continue to serve his country without punitive effects.”

Once he refused over the summer, the military conducted an investigation and considered court-martialing the nurse for dereliction of duty. Instead, his commander decided to put him before a Board of Inquiry. It has not yet been set up.

The board would have three choices: retain his service; give him an honorable discharge, which would entitle him to veterans’ benefits but not a pension; discharge him other than honorably, which would deny him both pension and veterans’ benefits.

It was unclear how transparent the process would be once the board convenes. Meister said there’s nothing in Navy regulations requiring that the public be excluded, but one side or the other could request that the proceedings be closed.

The Physicians for Human Rights senior medical advisor, Dr. Vincent Iacopino, has been outspoken in his criticism of Guantánamo forced-feeding policy as practiced with “no clinical justification” and carried out in a manner he calls “inherently harmful.”

Follow @CarolRosenberg on Twitter.

About the American Nurses Association

It claims nearly 174,000 dues-paying members and calls itself “the only full-service professional organization representing the interests of the nation’s 3.1 million registered nurses through its constituent and state nurses associations and its organizational affiliates.”

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