It was a misty Monday morning when a knot of lawyers, both U.S. troops and civilians, gathered beneath a flagpole at Camp Justice to hear a 14-year Air Force veteran swear to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.”
Tech Sgt. Michael Badilla, 32, a paralegal who started his career as a crew chief on the B-2 Stealth bomber, raised his right hand to reenlist in a time-honored tradition on a date specified by the military.
At Guantánamo, where thousands of soldiers come and go each year for temporary duty at the detention center, troops have sworn the oath underwater in SCUBA gear, at the base kennel with a guard dog bearing witness and at the Marine-patrolled fence line opposite Cuba’s minefield.
But Badilla works between the prison and court compounds — on the legal team defending the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Sheik Mohammed — and chose the site not far from the courtroom flanked by Air Force tents typical of those used on battlefield air bases.
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There was a solemnity to the occasion if not exactly a celebration at a time when attorneys are digging through grim reports about what the CIA did to the alleged 9/11 plotters, admittedly reviled men, in the years before they got to Guantánamo.
“Frequently you feel like it’s literally you against the world, or you and your crew against the world,” Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker, Chief Defense Counsel, told the gathering before administering the sacred oath. “It’s moments like this and men like this that make it so worth it.”
What his kids know: “I’m a paralegal, and that I go to Cuba and that I help people.”
Badilla’s duties include drafting legal documents, meeting with Mohammed and lawyers, helping coordinate travel and managing case evidence. One-on-one meetings with the man accused of orchestrating the hijackings that killed nearly 3,000 people, he said, are not much different than when he helped others get legal aid before this case, characterizing it this way: “Pleasantries, business, more pleasantries.”
Before, it was American airmen he was helping, and “regardless of the heinousness of the acts that were alleged, I knew that this person needed assistance and I was there to help,” he said.
“There’s a gravity to it,” said Badilla, who aspires to get a law degree. But the job’s the same. “I serve my client with the same amount of tenacity and drive and dedication and pride as the lowest private.”
There’s a certain solidarity here among these U.S. troops. They call themselves the Defense Community, and argue that fighting to defend their clients is as much a duty as an honor. They sometimes sound defensive, in no small measure because of their frequent conflict with the prison over conditions or with the prosecution over evidence.
Badilla was assigned to Team KSM, as it is sometimes called, in 2013 — a job that has meant frequent travel from defense headquarters near Washington, D.C., to this remote base — long periods of separation from his wife and children, 5 and 8, too young to understand exactly what Dad does.
“They know I’m a paralegal, and that I go to Cuba and that I help people,” he said.
He was asked whether he could have refused the assignment.
“Probably,” he said. “But that’s what I’m tasked to do. And I’m not the type of person to say no.”
Frequently you feel like it’s literally you against the world, or you and your crew against the world.
Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker, Chief Defense Counsel
Attendance was optional at the dawn ceremony, which drew a couple dozen soldiers and civilians, fellow paralegals like Badilla and four lawyers on Mohammed’s defense team, including his learned counsel, David Nevin, a civilian from Boise, Idaho. Two reporters wandered up to watch, having been invited the night before in the base bar where enlisted troops can go.
“People wonder why we serve,” said General Baker. “It’s not for the money. It’s not for the cool clothes.”
Instead, he said, it’s out of a sense of community and devotion to fellow service members “like Tech Sergeant Badilla.”
Many of the men and women in service you meet at Guantánamo say they signed up after the Sept. 11 attacks out of a sense of duty. The prison and war court were created because of that day. But Badilla — the son of a paralegal and grandson of a Marine — got his mother to sign for him at age 17, and formally joined Sept. 4, 2001. As it happened, his ID card was issued on 9/11/2001.
For the ceremony, Badilla stood below a 4-by-6-foot flag he’d brought from home to fly for the occasion — his personal Stars and Stripes. He’d taken it on assignment to such far-flung places as Afghanistan, England and Minot, North Dakota, where he served until joining the defense two years ago.
For this occasion, his wife and kids were home, back in the United States, and there was work to be done. So he kept his remarks short. “Thank you very much for coming out and braving the mosquitoes and the day,” he said. And the group headed in different directions to get ready for another day at the war court.
Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg
I, Michael John Badilla, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States, and the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, so help me God.