GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- The commander of this remote outpost said Wednesday night he would move two Nativity scenes from U.S. troops' cafeterias to the base chapel, ending a daylong controversy kicked up by a few troops who protested to the Pentagon in secret.
"No one's ever complained to me about it. We've been doing it for 10 years," said Capt. J.R. Nettleton, commander of this Navy base, which has a school, a golf course and about 6,000 residents, a third of them civilian contract workers from Jamaica and the Philippines.
Still, he said, he took a look at the two creches in the dining rooms and concluded the more suitable place to put them was, as recommended, in the base chapel on a hilltop above the McDonald's.
"The spirit of the Navy's policy on this is, if it's religious, it goes to the chapel," Nettleton told the Miami Herald after a day of controversy. "It's more appropriate there."
A total of 18 U.S. service members stationed here, five of them officers, appealed to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation after an agonizing, secret meeting earlier this week about what to do about the two creches and other Christmas decorations that festoon the main prison and base dining rooms, the rights group's president, Mikey Weinstein, said Wednesday.
Weinstein said eight of the protesting American troops work inside the detention center zone that this week held more than 150 Muslim prisoners. Weinstein said the protesters included 11 Christians, both Protestants and Catholics, and said the other seven included Jews, Muslims, agnostics and atheists from a variety of services, including the Army and Navy.
At noon Wednesday, the doghouse-sized Nativity scene was on display at the Navy base's main cafeteria, Gold Hill Galley. Over at the prison camps, a civilian snapped a photo inside the guards' cafeteria showing figurines of the Holy Family outside a gingerbread house and the message "Merry Christmas!!!"
Typically, members of the U.S. military are encouraged to take such protests "up the chain of command," said Weinstein, who published a letter from the protesters on his organization's website. But these 18 service members fear they will "face terrible retribution on themselves, their careers and their families" if they were identified.
"There's a witch hunt going on down there at Guantanamo right now to find out who the 18 are," he said by telephone from Albuquerque, N.M.
Nettleton said only that he wished they had come to him directly with their concerns, noting that base residents have a way to register complaints anonymously too.
Weinstein, a Jew and graduate of the Air Force Academy who said his dad graduated from the Naval Academy, said some of the troops mentioned they were uncomfortable with the decorations and were told to eat at Subway or McDonald's.
The Gold Hill dining room is a cafeteria-style facility not far from the base chapel complex. It serves troops, contractors, base visitors and students from the high school for sailors' children.
Seaside Galley is located on a bluff overlooking the ocean inside a closed sector of the 45-square-mile base where the 150 or so war-on-terror detainees are confined in a series of prison buildings.
The captives' halal meals are made in the kitchen behind the dining room and sent to the prison, where an undisclosed number of prisoners were on a long-running hunger strike on Wednesday. Prison staff meals are cooked at Seaside Galley, too, in a different section of the kitchen and served in the dining room where the creche was reportedly located.
The service members' letter made specific reference to the hardship of work at the prison, where a staff of 2,100 military and contractors serve on rotating, temporary deployment.
"Our military members here endure many hardships including being away from family, being verbally abused and having unspeakable items thrown on them during the performance of their duties," it said, an apparent reference to protesting prisoners who fling excrement and other bodily fluids.
It identified other stress factors on Guantanamo service as "media and national pressure, and less than ideal living conditions."
"When they finally have time to relax with their military family," it added, "they should not have to feel uncomfortable, out of place, or insignificant because their beliefs are not represented."
Signs of the Christmas holiday season abound on the base, which has a holiday parade with floats and a hillside is decorated with holiday lights that depict Santa Claus, a sleigh, a Christmas tree and candy cane among other holiday symbols.