Navy reinstates nurse who refused to force-feed at Guantánamo

A Navy nurse explains how she inserts a tube into a hunger striker’s stomach at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014 in this photo approved for release by the U.S. military.
A Navy nurse explains how she inserts a tube into a hunger striker’s stomach at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014 in this photo approved for release by the U.S. military.

A Navy lieutenant nurse who refused to force-feed protesting prisoners at Guantánamo in the summer of 2014 has been restored to full duty and is serving at a Navy medical facility in New England, his attorney said Tuesday.

The case became a cause célèbre in certain circles that both honored the nurse’s defiance and defended the duty of a medical professional to let his ethics trump his chain of command if he disapproves of U.S. military medical decisions.

But it took nearly two years to resolve after the Miami Herald disclosed the crisis of conscience, as overheard by a Syrian hunger striker, and the prison confirmed it happened.

Thursday, the Naval Health Clinic New England confirmed the nurse “is back to duty caring for patients.” Spokeswoman Kathy MacKnight said that on Monday the lieutenant “started the reorientation to the clinic for the role of staff nurse,” a job that typically treats active-duty sailors, their family and military retirees until the age of 65.

In the interim, the Pentagon has released some of Guantánamo’s most determined hunger strikers and the U.S. military has maintained a blackout on its once exacting, daily disclosure of hunger strikers at the prison in southeast Cuba.

“A handful” of the last 80 war-on-terror detainees were on a Navy medical list to get up-to-twice daily nasal-gastric feedings, Navy Capt. Christopher Scholl said by email from the remote outpost on Tuesday. As described by prison medical staff, a captive who won’t voluntarily drink a medically prescribed nutritional shake, usually Ensure, is strapped into a restraint chair and fed it via a tube tethered up his nose and into his stomach.

Detainees have consistently told their lawyers in recent months that seven or eight captives are still on hunger strike and being force-fed at the prison, said Ramzi Kassem, a professor at the City University of New York School of Law whose legal clinic represents Guantánamo detainees.

Saudi Arabia on April 16 took in one long-term hunger striker, Yemeni Tariq Ba Odah. Kassem said on Wednesday that he believed the current number to be seven.

The nurse had his security clearance restored and returned to a Navy clinic Monday. He likely retires in December.

Also on Tuesday, Dr. Vince Iacopino, the medical director of Physicians for Human Rights, called the decision “a long-overdue vindication of the nurse’s integrity, professionalism and adherence to medical ethics in refusing to force-feed Guantánamo detainees.”

“With this decision, the Pentagon has finally acknowledged that no health professional should be punished for acting ethically. The first obligation of medical professionals is to do no harm,” Iacopino added.

The nurse, who has never been publicly identified, had been under scrutiny since the episode around July Fourth 2014. First, he was threatened with court martial for dereliction of duty, a prosecution that was dropped. Then the Navy had him formally defend himself on why he should keep his commission.

Once he won that case, the Department of Defense began proceedings to permanently revoke his clearance, meaning he could not treat patients because he was forbidden from accessing Pentagon computers.

A lawyer says the captives count 7 of the 80 war-on-terror prisoners as on hunger strike, getting tube feedings.

New York City attorney Ronald Meister, a former Naval officer who represented the nurse, said “the case had to be fought on many levels. It was a hydra. Every time we cut off a head, another one appeared.”

In late January, Navy Surgeon General Vice Adm. C. Forrest Faison III wrote the review authority in defense of the nurse, according to the lawyer, noting that if the nurse permanently lost his clearance he would be forced out of service, “a loss to Navy medicine.”

Meister declined to release the letter but said that, in it, the admiral “expressed his firm belief in the loyalty and trustworthiness of the nurse.”

On April 8, the nurse was notified that his clearance was reinstated and that he could return to full employment.

While the officer waited for permission to care for patients, the detainee who reported the nurse’s defiance was freed and the prison commander retired.

“He was not trying to embarrass anybody. He was not seeking the limelight,” said Meister, who has consistently refused to identify the man who joined the Navy in 1996 as a submariner and became an officer and nurse in 2007. “And that was part of our hope — that they would recognize he is a loyal officer who is doing his job consistent with what every responsible organization regards to be the rules of professional ethics.”

Now he’s on track to retire in December with 20 years’ service in the Navy — something any of the cascading military investigations could have denied him. His plans? Meister said the nurse is thinking about pursuing a graduate degree in nursing.

The lawyer said the nurse had an increased sense of professional pride because, throughout the inquiry, the nurse got the support of the American Nurses Association, as well as by Physicians for Human Rights.

In the meantime, the Syrian detainee who overheard the act of defiance has been resettled in Uruguay, and the former “Top Gun” admiral who ran the detention center at the time of the Navy nurse’s dissent has retired from the service.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg

Hunger Strike Tracker

Click here to see the Miami Herald’s Hunger Strike Tracker — the rise, the fall, the rise again before the U.S. Southern Command’s gag order in December 2013.