#2. We Were Always Being Watched
As I mentioned earlier, every new allegation of abuse, real and bullshit, draws the eyes of the world on a pretty regular basis, as it should. But that makes this job the psychiatric equivalent of performing nightly on the Las Vegas strip. Every medical decision we made was (and still is) monitored by the Red Cross. And the eyes of the world were on us -- every mistake was a potential international scandal.
Steven R. Shapiro / Getty
Less than 12 percent of baristas are monitored by the ACLU.
Our superiors knew this, so something as simple as handing out acetaminophen to someone prescribed Motrin could land us in serious trouble. We had to document every conversation we had, and God forbid you marked something down wrong. One of my co-workers got busted for "gundecking," which means he marked down that he'd spoken to a detainee but their records showed he hadn't. The guy maintained his innocence, but that didn't protect him from "non-judicial punishment," aka a captain's mast (the Navy equivalent of a trial by judge). Back in the states, my co-worker wouldn't have gotten worse than a talking to, but because we were in Cuba, he wound up demoted and put on half-pay times two (his salary was cut in half for two months).
Oh, and he got shipped back home. That's how thin the line is, because every journalist on Earth gets half an erection at the suggestion of a fuckup. Again, the scrutiny is earned, but it just makes it difficult, since I was a medical professional there to keep these guys mentally healthy. And that isn't exactly easy -- these are terrorists or accused terrorists who have been locked up for years, long enough to have read every book in our library twice.
AFP / Getty
Oddly enough, they didn't even finish playing this once.
One of my patients distrusted everyone, including the people giving him his necessary-to-survive medication. So you'd have to show him the bag, slowly open it, take the pill out, and set it down in front of him. Then he'd take the pill and put it in his mouth. Our whole goal during that time was to get him to realize our job was just to keep him healthy. We didn't want anything else from him. Weeks went by, and I came in one day to start our daily pill dance, only to have him stop me. He said "no no" and just held out his hand, meaning none of the other stuff was necessary. I didn't hang any banners from the deck of an aircraft carrier, but that felt like a pretty big victory to me.
Another guy had a habit of smearing his body with feces on a near-daily basis. Maybe that seems like crazy-person behavior, but it's actually something you see in abused kids who don't want their parents to touch them. We were able to earn a small amount of this guy's trust and eventually change the behavior by spending a lot of time with him in an utterly unthreatening way: hanging out and watching movies. He loved Jackie Chan. Whenever I walked by, he'd say, "Hey man, you have more Jackie Chan?" (He called Rush Hour "Jackie Chan and the [N-word] Movie," which was less endearing.)
But hey, at least he was a fan.
The point is, all of this probably sounds utterly insane to someone who wasn't actually there -- keep that in mind before making any judgments. But that just comes down to the big controversy surrounding the camp: "Why not just close it down?"
#1. Closing the Camp Isn't as Easy as You Think
Alex Florence / Flickrvision
Obama's first election happened while I was stationed at Gitmo. The detainees were psyched, and they kept asking, "Is Obama going to set us free?" He had promised to close the facility in a year, and obviously that didn't happen. I had come to like a lot of the detainees, and it was heartbreaking to see how hard they took it. We lost a lot of their trust, and that sense of betrayal wound up snowballing into the hunger strike you may have read about on your Facebook feed.
Nicolas Kamm / AFP / Getty
Or seen on posters held by angry people on the news.
But the truth is, as President Obama learned, "close Gitmo now" is easier said than done (and note that I happen to agree -- Gitmo should be closed. Its very existence makes more enemies than just not having it).
Think about it -- what can we do with these guys? Even if all of those repatriation issues fade away and, say, the Bahamas elects to take all the "safe" detainees, what do we do with the ones we can't release? Do we transfer them to American prisons? Two guesses as to what happens when we dump some poor bearded Afghan dude in lockup and tell his guards and fellow prisoners, "This fella's a terrorist."
Nicolas Kamm / AFP / Getty
Hint: it will not make these people happy.
Yes, quite a few detainees are either innocent or pose no continuing threat. Some were just conscripts who were drafted into the cause, and a lot of the rest saw their motivation disappear after several years in prison. Basic logic dictates that these people need to be released. But do you have any idea what a clusterfuck that actual process can be? Take the case of these two Algerian detainees who didn't want to go home because their status as former Gitmo inmates made them a target.
And on the other end of the spectrum, some of these men can't be released because they're fucking dangerous. The detainee recidivism rate is at 29 percent and rising. That means many or even most of the folks we let go have no desire to hurt anyone, but enough of them do that we have to be very careful about who we set free. The attack on Benghazi may have been planned by a former inmate, for example.
Anadolu Agency / Getty
In other words, the margin of error here is measured in explosions.
So yeah, keeping all of these guys locked up is stupidly unfair, but it's not as simple as letting them all go. And that's why, for the time being, Gitmo isn't going anywhere.
Related Reading: Speaking of stuff that's different than you'd expect it to be, get the real scoop on mental institutions. Life is also a lot different (and smellier) on a submarine. We've also talked to an escaped Scientologist and a survivor of the secret troubled teen industry.