In the coming year, more than 800 soldiers and airmen in the New Mexico National Guard will be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. They will join what has become a seemingly endless flow of armed Americans to foreign war zones and back.
Last month, more than 70 New Mexico guardsmen came home from a year-long deployment to the US military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba—one of the most controversial outposts in George W Bush’s “war on terror.” President Barack Obama has promised to close the prison there within a year.
The New Mexico Guard had many responsibilities at Gitmo, from the logistical (running the motor pool) to the legal (prosecuting detainees in closed military courtrooms). They had side missions, too, like preparing for Fidel Castro’s death or for a possible refugee crisis in advance of the hurricanes that struck the island last year. Most of the time, their weapons were locked away.
“It’s not what you expect. When you deploy, you expect to get shot at,” Capt. Steven Holder, who returned home to Rio Rancho last month, says.
Though Cubans didn’t traffic the base, there were plenty of Jamaicans and Filipinos and Haitians who worked for the private military contractors there. Considering that the detainees hailed from everywhere from China to Australia, Guantanamo Bay was surprisingly cosmopolitan. At Christmas, the New Mexican contingent decorated the base with a large Zia symbol made of luminarias.
Returning home was both a relief and a shock to the system.
“It’s kinda surreal. You come back and everything looks the same,” Holder says. “When you come back and start dealing with people, you realize you have changed—your own personal self, the way you view things. Life is different for you. You don’t get upset about the same things. You don’t have a false sense of hope about the same things. A year on deployment really changes a person.”
Still, Holder, whose wife was left to care for their two special-needs children, believes deployments are even harder on soldiers’ families.
“Going on deployment, all we have to worry about is our jobs. Our families are left with the huge void of doing everything at home,” Holder says.
Since returning from Cuba, Sgt. 1st Class Richard Ortiz of Rowe has been glad to see his son’s high school basketball team and get reacquainted with his 4-year-old granddaughter.
“It really was a good deployment,” Ortiz, 47, says. “Some people do ask me, ‘How is it, about this and that?’ The only thing I hear is, I hear they’re gonna close it.”
For what it’s worth, Ortiz says, “I wouldn’t close it. Those guys are safe there. If they release them, they’re going to go back to their old habits.”
Holder’s friends and family ask questions, too. “They always want to know about the detainees. They always want to know what your perspective is on closing it,” he says. “It’s a politically sensitive subject. It’s irrelevant what my views are. My job is to support the command.”
Still, it’s not as though Holder hasn’t given any thought to what happens when the prison at Gitmo finally shuts down. “My biggest concern is to make sure they do a good job finding jobs for the detainees, finding places where we can put them, and make sure that’s done safely and humanely, and make sure the American people feel it’s done the right way,” he says.
Luckily, perhaps, that wasn’t their problem to worry about; that was their superiors’ job.
Since returning to Albuquerque, Army Brig. Gen. Greg Zanetti, who was the top New Mexico officer at Guantanamo and deputy commander of the base, has been “doing the Gitmo talk.”
From the military’s perspective, he says closing the prison is “fairly easy.” All it takes is a few airplanes. But then, what do you do with the prisoners? “The complexity of it is what most Americans don’t understand,” Zanetti says.
For example, soldiers at Gitmo checked on prisoners every few minutes to “make sure they’re not doing anything crazy”—or attempting suicide. That level of supervision, Zanetti says, is impossible in the federal prison system—a possible next destination for the detainees—because the Department of Justice simply doesn’t have the manpower for it.
After the November elections, the Department of Defense hosted a “Worldwide Detainee Conference.” Zanetti was there, as were officers from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. “They’ve got 15,000 detainees! We’ve got a little under 250 at Guantanamo. They’re saying, ‘Why are you getting all the attention?” Zanetti recalls.
Then President-elect Obama sent representatives to the conference, too. It was there, Zanetti believes, that “they began to realize some of the enormity of this.”
“You didn’t see a whole lot of people clamoring to become the detainee affairs executive director on the Obama team,” Zanetti says.
Would he take that job?
“No,” Zanetti says. “Would you? You’ve got one year to get this done. If you get it done, you’re out of a job. If you don’t get it done, you’re out of a job.”
Zanetti’s take on the situation echoes what has become an inescapable conclusion in so many areas over the past few years: America can’t do it alone.
“The President is going to need help from Saudi Arabia and Yemen and other countries in the Middle East who are going to take some of these detainees back. Then he’s going to need domestic cooperation for detainees who are coming [to America for] trial,” Zanetti says.
He’s optimistic because Obama “may have a reservoir of goodwill that President Bush did not have.”
Despite the last administration’s insistence that the prisoners were too bloodthirsty and ingenious to treat according to long-standing laws and treaties, not all were cut from the same cloth. “Some detainees like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed are willing to nuke Los Angeles with no remorse at all. Then there are others who’ve aged, they’re done with the jihad, and just want to go home,” Zanetti says.
Then there were the 17 Uighur Muslims, members of a Chinese minority group who wound up at Gitmo, though a US judge ruled last year that they never fought Americans. “What do you do with them? We can’t really send them back to China. The human rights groups are very concerned that they’ll be killed,” Zanetti says. Finding another home for the Uighurs has proven difficult because “no countries want to offend China” by hosting people considered terrorists by the Chinese Communist Party.
As with so many leftover messes of the Bush era, there is no perfect solution. Couldn’t all this have been avoided had Guantanamo Bay never become an extrajudicial prison camp in the first place?
“Oh, sure,” Zanetti says. But after 9.11, “we were an angry nation. Angry nations do things that five years later, you say, ‘Why did you do that?’”
On the question of torture, Zanetti lapses into the kind of self-interrogation popularized by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: “Did things that happened at Abu Ghraib happen at Gitmo? No. But did people make that link? Yes.”
Public opinion doesn’t get to him. “New Mexico went down and did its duty honorably and professionally,” Zanetti says. “You can’t worry about what other people think. Lots of people support us as well.”
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