News: There and back again: Guantanamo guards return 12 years later
Story by Staff Sgt. Carmen Steinbach
GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba - When the detention facility at Joint Task Force Guantanamo makes news or appears in a Hollywood movie, the accompanied images are generally the same: wooden watch towers, cells made out of chain link fence and detainees kneeling in a square, wearing orange jump suits while their armed guards look on.
What many fail to realize is that these portrayals are spun from footage over a decade old, taken mere months after the war on terror began. Witness to that initial scene were four members of the 339th Military Police Company, an Army Reserve unit based out of Davenport, Iowa, that were among the first Soldiers assigned to detainee operations at Camp X-Ray in 2002. Twelve years later, they have returned with their unit to carry out the same mission: the safe, legal and humane care, and custody of the detainees here.
Army Staff Sgt. Steve Prokup is one of the four retuning guards. He said the media often portrays detainees in Camp X-Ray, despite getting tours of the modern camps.“Doesn’t make a good news story that they’re being treated well.”
When the 339th first arrived in January 2002, Camp X-Ray was still under construction. Seabees were working day and night, welding all the cells together. The guard force actually lived in a tent city just above the camp called Freedom Heights which was located on a landfill and overrun with banana rats. Their showers consisted of a plywood box where they stood on a pallet and bathed with a garden hose strung over the top.
While there, the 339th, assigned as interior guard force, oversaw the in-processing of all detainees, taking them to identification and medical stations, and took care of their basic needs as well. This was difficult, as there was no indoor facilities until Camp Delta was opened and the detainees transferred there a few months later.
“The environment was different, definitely,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class Larry Nilmeier. “We were outside. We had to empty the feces out of the buckets ourselves and now they have flushable plumbing.”
“We still respected everything about them. We just did a job and we did our job humanely. We tried to keep the order and discipline of the camp and we did it together,” said Nelmeier.
Army 1st Sgt. John Nelson, a platoon sergeant during his previous rotation, recalled how a general would come through and ask for complaints from the detainees. In one memorable instance a detainee had spoken up and said that the water was bad; that it tasted odd. The general drank the same water straight from the garden hose to ensure that its quality was good for them.
In April, the detainees were transferred to Camp Delta, a location with indoor and communal living. The guard force were moved to Camp America and housed in wooden buildings called sea huts. While conditions improved for both parties, the mission remained the same.
“Since we opened in 2002, we actually treated every detainee humanely,” said Nilmeir. “We took care of them.”
Twelve years later, the returning members of the 339th are overwhelmed by the improvements made from their first tour at GTMO. Camps Five and Six are air-conditioned, quality facilities that are a testament to detainee care, comparable to detention facilities in the United States. There are medical treatment centers and a library, as well as recreation and entertainment capabilities.
“I was interested in seeing how things had changed down here since we were able to be here at the beginning and after 12 years see how they look now,” said Nelson. “Obviously things have progressed quite a bit. We now have state-of-the-art facilities that the detainees are housed in.”
The operational lessons learned have developed further for the guard force as well, especially with regard to Soldier and Trooper care.
“This is not your typical overseas deployment, but yet it can be mentally exhausting as you now see you also have things in place like JSMART,” said Nilmeir. “We didn’t have that back then.”
With JTF potentially closing in the coming years, there is no way of knowing how long the guard force will be in the business of caring for detainees, but until the last one is transferred, members of the 339th and their peers will perform all of their duties to their best of their abilities; carrying out the mission of safe, legal and humane care and custody of detainees.