GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- For years, Navy medical staff boasted to visiting reporters that the relationship was so cordial with hunger-strikers that they let the prisoners pick their flavor of nutritional supplement. Butter pecan and strawberry were alternately identified as forced-feeding favorites.
Flavor makes a difference, according to the Navy medical staff, if a detainee burps and gets a taste of the backwash.
But it's five months into the hunger strike by the prison's count, (six according to the detainees' lawyers) and medical staff are no longer so good-humored. All nutritional supplement supplies are just one flavor -- vanilla.
And it's culturally appropriate. A visiting reporter recently asked if the nutritional supplements met Islam's dietary restrictions known as halal -- meaning made without certain gelatins derived from animal byproducts that are forbidden to both observant Muslims and Jews.
Absolutely, said the Pentagon's cultural adviser, himself a Muslim who displayed a printout showing the products were approved by the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America. Plus, a visit to the detention hospital showed supplements bearing kosher markings as well as, in some instances, that of halal.
"Top Gun' pilot grounded on 9/11
Navy Rear Adm. Richard Butler, a career "Top Gun" fighter-jet pilot, took charge recently as the 13th commander of the prison camps, including the secret lockup where the five accused architects of the Sept. 11 attacks are awaiting their death-penalty terror trials.
Butler said in an interview that he was at a Seattle airport hotel awaiting a commercial flight on Sept. 11, 2001 when the nation was attacked and, along with most of America, found himself grounded. That's not where you want to be when you're in command of an F-18 squadron.
He and other pilots rented a van, he recalled, and drove 15 hours south to the Lemoore airbase in California and soon went wheels up flying combat air patrols to prevent other attacks.
He then went on to serve aboard the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan with tours in support of the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions and said he didn't specifically ask for the Guantanamo job but "was very pleased" to get what is arguably one of the most high-profile assignments a one-star Navy officer can get.
"There's a lot of attention," he said, "but I get a lot of support."
The job lets him bring his wife along and comes with one of the nicest, older homes on the base. The job also comes with an unusual collection of visitors -- from members of Congress to foreign intelligence and International Red Cross delegations to reporters who flock especially for pre-trial hearings in the 9/11 case.
Accused mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four alleged conspirators are awaiting a death-penalty trial that is likely to start after Butler's one-year assignment ends.
Butler said in an interview that he lost two friends in the attacks, "former Navy guys" both in New York City. One was an airplane passenger, he said, another was a hijacked pilot -- but he said that's "not going to make any difference in the way I do the job."
Grim profile of prisoners
Marine Gen. John Kelly, Butler's boss, recently marked the installation of the new admiral with a rousing speech to the prison camp troops that thanked them on behalf of President Barack Obama and cast media reports of what goes on at Guantanamo as the product of an "agenda-driven chattering class" and "self-serving and misguided pundits" who ought to be "ashamed of themselves for reporting in the way they do."
The audience included guards and other prison staff. So Kelly, who is commander at the Pentagon's Southern Command in Miami, used the occasion to assure them that he knows their prisoners as insult-hurling, America-hating terrorists who are "occasionally compliant, most often defiant and often times violent" men who "splash you with cocktails of filth."
Guantanamo has 166 captives, 86 cleared for release or transfer, and a 2,000-member mostly U.S. Army staff, including a public affairs team that produced the audio tape of the nearly 14-minute speech.
Kelly struck a far different tone than his March testimony to Congress that cast the captives as "devastated" by the president's failure to close Guantanamo's prison camps. Since then, cooperative captives covered up their surveillance cameras in protest and troops stormed the cellblocks and put much of the prison under lockdown. Some captives retaliated by hurling excrement on the guards, who had to burn as contaminated 50 U.S. Army uniforms.
In his speech, the Marine general told the troops that they don't make policy, just carry it out, and told them he knows they all treat the captives with "respect, humanity" and "dignity."
Guantanamo guards aren't allowed to know each captive's story -- not his name nor his status as approved for release in 2010 or held indefinitely. So Kelly filled them in on who they're guarding: "They are among the most violent and hateful men on the planet. Terrorists, extremists, al-Qaida leadership who are in most cases still at war with our country, men who would do us immeasurable harm if they could only find a way."
In June, Kelly disagreed with President Obama that the troops at Guantanamo were "force-feeding" detainees. He called the protest a "hunger strike lite," said all the captives eat sometimes -- and cast as consensual the "enteral feedings" that deliver a dose of nutritional supplement into a captive's stomach via tubes snaked up a prisoner's nostril and down the back of his throat.
The captives "pretend" to be on hunger strike, said Kelly in a military produced audiotape, then treat with contempt the U.S. Navy medical staff who provide "life-giving and at times lifesaving care."
Guard getting new profession
A 21-year-old soldier who has spent less than a year in the toughest of Guantanamo's prisons -- the Camp 5 maximum-security, 100-cell lockup -- has decided that being a guard is not for her. Some prisoners "call you names" or "refuse to talk to you," she said in an interview, asking that she be publicly identified only by her rank, a specialist, and the first initial of her family name, P.
"It's not for everyone," said Specialist P., who joined the Army at 19 and got trained as a "31-Echo," the Army's classification of MP. She began her guard duty at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, America's lockup for criminally convicted members of the military, before she was sent to Guantanamo.
"It's been a good experience. I don't regret it," she said. But, "I don't want to do this for the rest of my life."
Rather than return to civilian life once she finishes at Guantanamo, the military is letting her reclassify in a different U.S. Army military occupation -- a "68-Tango." That's what the Army calls an "Animal Care specialist" -- the category of soldier who mostly works out of veterinary clinics on U.S. bases, caring for Army family pets or the dogs of special K-9 soldiers.