GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba – With President Donald Trump signature on an executive order to keep the detention camps housing detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, open, members of our local military will continue to be deployed to support that mission.
News4Jax was allowed to tour the detention camps at GTMO in March of 2015, and with Trump's signature, which reverses former President Barak Obama's plan to close the controversial camps, we want to share some of our never-before-seen video and never-before-heard interviews from those who know first-hand what it is like to be deployed there.
Inside Guantanamo Bay
From talking with people in the local community, we found much of what people think about when they hear the words "Guantanamo Bay," is attributed to the original outdoor Camp X-Ray. They also remember hearing or reading about enhanced interrogations of detainees or waterboarding.
We can tell you after spending four days at GTMO, the detention facilities are now indoor and modernized, and we saw guards -- including some from Northeast Florida -- taking care of detainees with the standards they uphold.
"I think the important takeaway that I want the folks in Jacksonville to understand is: What we're operating is in complete compliance with U.S. and federal laws," said Rear Admiral Kyle Cozad, who was the Commander of Joint Task Force, Guantanamo when we were there nearly three years ago.
"It's modern. It's state of the art. As you look around, these facilities are as good as they get and they're modeled after similar facilities in the United States," he explained.
Joint Task Force Guantanamo is a separate entity from Naval Station Guantanamo. Mission areas for the JTF detention operations encompass supporting war crimes investigations -- and can mean intelligence gathering for the safety and security of both detainees and personnel working in the different facilities.
Cozad has now moved on from that position at GTMO, but while there, he took us on a tour of both the medium and maximum security facilities.
"Our primary charge is safe, legal, transparent and humane custody of the detainees who are housed here," Cozad said.
Camp 6, the medium security-style detention facility, is communal. Detainees are able to eat and pray together, they have greater access to outdoor recreation areas, as well as access to books, movies, and video games.
Camp 5 is a maximum security camp, with detainees housed there considered the most dangerous. Because of their status, they are more limited to the activities they can do.
At its peak, there were about 800 detainees at GTMO. When we were there in 2015, that number was down to 122. Currently, there are 41.
We spoke to guards there, who the military would not let us identify for security reasons, who told us no matter how the detainees treat them, they always do their work humanly and with pride -- despite what people on the outside may think.
"You can't react, that's the problem. If you react they are going to see that and feed off that. That's their whole goal. They're trying to mess with us and everything else. You have got to keep a professional with them at all times. You can't let them get in your head," said a soldier from Orange Park.
Leaders admit, a deployment to GTMO can be challenging.
"The detainees will manufacture, that's as good a word as I can figure, their bodily fluids. Whether its urine, vomit, blood, semen, feces, and use that to try and throw that on the guards," explained Col. David E. Heath, the commander of the Joint Detention Group at the time we were there.
"It's very mentally challenging," a soldier from St. Augustine told us. "Just the stuff that we have to deal with. Getting splashed and all of the stuff inside the facility. It's very mentally tasking."
Despite that, these men and woman who are tasked to provide security and care for the detainees are proud of the job they do and the uniform they wear.
"I am in the United States Army. I wouldn't have it any other way. I say to myself and my wife reminds me all the time, I could be making so much more money if I get out and get a state job. But I want to be able to wear the uniform and serve my county. That's what I am here for. I am very proud of my country. I am very proud of the United States," said a soldier from Gainesville, who was on his second deployment to GTMO.
"I would say the best thing about being here is pretty much walking out of here, holding our heads up high knowing that we did our mission and we did it honorably, maintaining discipline," he added.
Heath told us that while he was in charge of the camps, he never had one guard react or try to retaliate to any aggression from detainees.
"I have approximately 1,400 soldiers from all three components of the Army. Army National Guard, Army Reserve, and active duty, the regular Army," Heath said.
He told us the men and women under his command don't deserve scorn for the images and accusations that surfaced years ago with Camp X-Ray, and he commends the members of the Joint Task Force for rising above what others may not be able to tolerate.
"They teach the importance of self-discipline, and what are the effects of losing control. Things that happen here, quickly get to the White House," Heath explained. "So we emphasize that, the importance of self-control, self-discipline and professionalism."
Liaison to detainees
There is a liaison for detainees who are being held at GTMO. We interviewed that person, "Zak," who goes by Zak only for security reasons. He described to us the need for cultural understanding and how it improves compliance and safety for everyone.
"If I were to summarize my job, it would be, just to be the middle man," he said.
Zak is a naturalized American citizen and his role as "middle man" means protecting the detainees and members of the military assigned there.
"To help the military understand the detainee's culture and religion," said Zak.
He said many Americans don't understand the culture surrounding Muslims, and many of the terror suspects detained at Guantanamo Bay practice that faith
"I have access to all the military personnel, all the way down. I have access to the detainees. What I do when I meet with the detainees, I bring whatever they're saying to me, and filter. Say, 'Okay, this is what they're saying.'"
Zak works to translate cultural needs and differences. Based on our conversation with him, it also sounds like he filters out any manipulative tactics from anyone. He told us he works to accomplish the mission statement for the JTF -- which is safe, humane care of detainees.
"The humane part is what I get involved with, which is, okay, what's important to them? What's important to them is eating together, praying together, what kind of TV stations can we bring to them, what kind of media material, newspapers and other things," he said about his job at GTMO.
Zak said when he started in 2005, there were about 575 detainees. As we mentioned, when we visited in March of 2015, there were 122. He said he found the key to peaceful relationships with the detainees has been offering mental and physical stimulation.
"Since we have managed to keep their minds stimulated, their hands busy, keep their time full, they've tended to keep the guard force alone. Just respect the guard force and not assault them. Yes, we still have 10 percent of the detainees we're busy with 90 percent of the time. We will never be able to change them," Zak explained.
One of the camps at GTMO stores a library. Detainees get a certain amount of limited media to view or use when they are non-compliant. But, when they follow the rules, Zak said they get more independence and opportunities to learn -- even to express themselves through art. He said that expression shows a change.
"When they go to class and start drawing, like at the beginning, they used to just draw military stuff, and wars and weapons and everything. Now, they start drawing buildings and life and everything."
We want to add, during the four days we were at GTMO, everyone knew there were conversations about possibly closing the detention facilities for good. At the time, the leaders would not share their personal feelings about the issue, but did say they all felt GTMO is a valuable national security asset.