Murder at Camp Delta
No Sleep Till Gitmo March 10, 2006
THE flight to Gitmo from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, should have taken an hour. It was about four hundred miles away as the crow flies. But because of the long-standing hatred between America and Fidel Castro’s communist regime, American planes were required to fly the long way around Cuban airspace to prevent an international incident, adding another two hours to the flight. My unit, the roughly 120 men of Company E from the 629th Military Intelligence Battalion, had flown overnight to Fort Lauderdale from Fort Lewis, Washington. None of us slept on the way into Fort Lauderdale. We’d been occupied the day before dealing with our gear, and spent the dark hours at the airport waiting for the four-in-the-morning flight to Gitmo. I’d been up for more than twenty-four hours when I climbed aboard the Boeing 727. It should have been a miserable flight, but I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep. Very few of the guys on the plane to Gitmo were able to sleep, either. The sun came up about an hour into our flight, and I could hear the younger men in the unit laughing in the adjacent seats.
“So what do you think the place will really be like?” I heard a voice behind me ask.
“Absolutely nothing like what we’ve been told,” came the reply.
“There’s a small seed of wisdom in that,” I thought. As a team leader in my platoon, I was worried about what we’d face when we landed. Mine wasn’t a top command position, but one thing I learned in the military was a sense of responsibility for the men under me. It’s a responsibility I took to heart. As our plane drew closer to the landing field at Gitmo, my heart was not completely at ease. We had all become close during our eight-week training, and I had no worries about any man on my squad not doing his job. We had been briefed repeatedly that we were being given a potentially tough mission, and we were ready for the challenges ahead. We were told constantly in our training that the detainees would take any chance they could to kill us, and that they were highly motivated fanatics. My worry wasn’t that any guy on the team would flinch but that someone might get hurt.
Company E was divided into three platoons, with each platoon divided into four ten-man squads, and each squad broken into two five-man teams. I was in First Platoon, second squad, and team leader of its five-man Bravo Team. Everyone from my squad sat together on the plane. Most of them were good soldiers, as far as I was concerned.
The guys in my squad covered an extreme range of ages and experiences.I
Phillip Bradley, who was fifty-one years old, was a former Army Ranger, but that was decades ago. He’d spent most of his working life with the coroner’s office in Baltimore, picking up and delivering bodies from autopsies and crime scenes. “We tag ’em and bag ’em,” he’d say of his civilian duties. The youngest in our squad was eighteen-year-old Specialist Jamal Stewart, whom we all called “Young’n.”
One of the guys I was closest to was Private First Class José Vasquez, thirty-eight years old. Vasquez was from DC, where he worked as a private investigator. I’d met him a year earlier in Japan, when he’d deployed there with my unit on a training mission. Everything that came out of his mouth was a joke. Sometimes I had to watch it with Vasquez, because he tended to speak his mind to officers. Even if my guy might
be in the right, a blunt-speaking enlisted man could get the whole squad in trouble.
The one person we all had faith in was our squad leader, Staff Sergeant Michael Hayes. When not on guard duty, Hayes was a cop at Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore. Before that he was a marine, and in my experience, former marines tended to be among the best leaders. He was six years younger than me, and though he stood, at most, five feet ten inches, Hayes carried himself like a giant. In my military career, he taught me more than any other leader I ever served under. With him leading our squad, I had as much confidence as possible.
Our squad was predominantly African American. In fact, after two white guys were pulled from the platoon—one because he was needed for another mission, and the other because he couldn’t get along with black people—I was the only Caucasian left. Vasquez was light skinned but a proud Mexican. Like most people in the military, race and ethnicity didn’t concern me. Soldiers were soldiers. But everybody else in our platoon was white, and that bothered all of us. They had segregated all the black guys and the Mexican into one squad. I guess they figured I belonged because I was from Baltimore. It was wrong, and all of my guys knew it. The military has spent decades integrating its units. For commanders to segregate a unit was almost unheard of in 2006. Worse, it made us very uneasy about the overall wisdom of our company’s officers. Despite my positive impression of Staff Sergeant Hayes, the leadership of our company was the biggest concern on my mind. Our training experience at Fort Lewis with our commanders had been, in a word, awful. I
. I have changed the names of the personnel at Guantánamo with the exception of the command officers whose names have been widely reported.