By Lt. Jeffrey S. Gray, Navy City Outreach, Chicago
CHICAGO (NNS) -- Students, faculty, and staff at two Chicago area high schools and members from local civic groups were provided insight into the operations of the U.S. military's detention facility at Guantanamo, Cuba, here on April 6 and 7 by the detention center's commander.
Rear Adm. Jeffrey Harbeson, Commander, Joint Task Force Guantanamo, came to the Chicago area to provide an overview of the "safe, humane, legal, transparent care and custody of detainees" to students from Barrington High School and the Hyman G. Rickover Naval Academy along with civic leaders from the National Strategy Forum and the Union League Club of Chicago.
By coming to the Chicago area, "I hope I gave the students and adults an appreciation for the tremendous professionalism of the men and women down at JTF GTMO," said Harbeson. "It's a remarkable job our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and civilians do day in and day out."
"The guard force," according to Harbeson, "is the most challenging job in the military today. You might think that is pretty bold statement. You might ask, 'How can you make that statement when we have people over in Afghanistan and Iraq fighting right now?' The reason I say that is because when our guards go on the cell block they can't fight back."
"When our troops go to Iraq or Afghanistan they're in their battle gear and when the enemy engages them they can shoot back. Our guards [at Guantanamo] can't," said Harbeson. "The enemy at Guantanamo is tough and battle-hardened because they've been here for the past nine years. When the detainees do something to our guards they can't retaliate - they have to maintain their professionalism."
In his discussions Harbeson talked about the need to provide detainees with a considerable quality of life that includes: communal living arrangements, practicing religion three times a day, three meals a day with six different meal options rotating every 14 days, three different newspapers (USA Today, a Saudi Arabia newspaper, and Egyptian newspaper), 21 satellite television channels, 11 satellite radio channels, telephone and online video conference calls back home on a quarterly basis, free exchange of mail, an extensive library with books in approximately 18 different languages, English and basic computer keyboarding classes, sports exercise equipment, athletic competitions, unlimited lawyer visits, and video games.
"A common question I get is, 'Why do you offer them so much?," said Harbeson. "When you have 172 detainees and 168 of them have not been charged with anything, they are defined as unlawful enemy combatants. I need to have them focused on an English or Art class. I need to have them thinking about the class and not thinking about how to assault or splash a guard with bodily fluids. No one should have to endure that. I need to protect my guard force."
Given the intensity and stress 12 to 14 hour work days associated with guard duty, students and adults inquired about whether there was any sense of normal American life that they could enjoy while deployed to Guantanamo.
Petty Officer 1st Class Daniel Resso responded, "The quality of life at Guantanamo is very good. The MWR [Morale, Welfare, and Recreation] has put a lot of money into gyms, sporting events such as intramural football, soccer, basketball - every sport you can think of. They constantly sponsor runs, 5K and 10K. As far as normal life there is a McDonald's, there is an A&W, there is a Taco Bell, Pizza Hut. Most people spend their time working out to relieve stress."
In addition to talking about the day-to-day operations of the detention facility, Harbeson also found time to provide senior mentorship to cadets at Rickover Naval Academy.
Speaking to a small group of cadets, Harbeson highlighted the importance of the values and attitudes they were receiving by attending Rickover. "You are cultivating some important values here. You've got a work ethic and you have high standards. No matter what profession you choose to pursue, the foundation you receive here is what you're going to rely upon for future success both professionally and in your personal life."
Cadet Mikel Sierra of Rickover Naval Academy remarked, "I was impressed that Rear Adm. Harbeson talked a lot about the failures he experienced, how he wasn't sure about what he wanted to do in life, and the importance of perseverance. Keep moving yourself forward and when you fall you need to pick yourself up and learn from your mistakes."
"This was the first time I've done anything like this. It was truly inspiring to see the hope on the faces of these young men and women and to see how they are looking toward the future and the opportunities ahead of them." Harbeson continued, "It was great to have had an experience like this because it reassures me that we have a great generation of leaders ahead of us."
Navy City Outreach is responsible for enhancing the United States Navy branding by creating opportunities for Navy representatives to engage and connect with youth, educational, civic, government, and business leaders within America's great cities; and, communicate the importance of educating and training future naval officers from diverse backgrounds for leadership roles within the United States Navy.