When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, “the least worst place we could have selected” to keep the detainees in the war on terror, one might wonder what life is like for the military personnel stationed there.
Despite the considerable media coverage of the detainees, the base’s roughly 10,000 residents are essentially unaffected by their presence. Even on a small base where people know their neighbors, issues regarding the detainees remain top secret – so much that residents must watch the American news for updates. First housed in camps originally built for large numbers of migrants during the 1990s, the detainees are now kept in a new, off-limits facility removed from the main areas of the base.
Naval Station Guantanamo Bay was seldom in the headlines before the war on terror. Though it may seem that “GTMO” or “Gitmo,” as it is commonly called, was established recently, it is actually the United States Navy’s oldest overseas base, first leased in 1903 and renewed indefinitely in 1934. The lease, which costs the U.S. government just a few thousand dollars a year, can be broken only by mutual agreement of the U.S. and Cuban governments or if the U.S. abandons the property.
Located 400 air miles from Miami, Fla., and covering 45 square miles, Guantanamo Bay is home to a variety of commands, including the Naval Hospital, Branch Dental Clinic, Naval Atlantic Meteorologic and Oceanographic Command, Naval Media, Naval Communications Station and the Fleet and Industrial Supply Center (FISC). The FISC is the base’s lifeline, transporting every material item that comes to the base, including all personal property shipments, either on supply flights or the bi-weekly barge. Also at GTMO is the Marine Corps Security Forces Company, which provides anti-terrorism and physical security for the base and the activities it supports.
The most recent – and most noticed – addition to the base is the Southern Command Joint Task Force (JTF) Guantanamo. Established after September 11, 2001, this command is responsible for overseeing nearly 800 suspected terrorist detainees. Approximately 2,000 service members representing all branches of the Armed Forces currently reside in Guantanamo under the JTF.
From GTMO also comes important support, logistics and protection to Navy and Coast Guard vessels and aircraft operating in the Caribbean. The U.S. maintains an active military presence in the Caribbean, primarily to intervene with drug trafficking, protect legitimate shipping operations and aid migrants fleeing from the frequent political and social unrest in the region. During the 1990s, the base was used to house tens of thousands of Cuban and Haitian migrants, and even now there is a steady group of fewer than 50 migrants at a time who find refuge at Guantanamo.
Not surprisingly, Guantanamo Bay presents some unique challenges as a duty station. Though close to the U.S. mainland, the only way on or off base is on one of about six military-contracted flights a month that stop in Jacksonville, Fla., and Norfolk, Va. Reserved seats on those flights cost $600 per person and, while Space-A seating on supply flights is much less expensive, waits are often long and availability is not guaranteed. Visitors coming to the base must apply and be approved before making the trip. There is no access to the rest of Cuba (the 17.4 mile fence line is patrolled by guards on both sides at all times, and the area is fortified with land mines), so movement is very limited and, with a speed limit of 25 mph, it is also quite slow.
Communications in and out of GTMO are difficult, too. Mail is delayed, and phone use is expensive, with access charges even for toll-free and calling card calls. Calls from the U.S. frequently have difficulty connecting, so most contact must be initiated from the GTMO side, despite the expense. A new phone system in early 2005 should help lower costs and improve service. The Internet is available through a difficult-to-access dial-up connection or a limited number of cable modems, for which there is a lengthy waiting list.
Despite higher prices on nearly everything sold there, there is no cost-of-living allowance at GTMO. The Navy Exchange and Commissary carry only a basic selection of items, and no other in-store shopping options are available. Online shopping is very popular, though shipping to GTMO costs extra. GTMO residents advise that anyone preparing to move there stock up on their favorite brands and complete as much shopping stateside as possible, then ship the items with their household goods. Family and friends in the States can send things that GTMO residents can’t find on base.
GTMO is known to be a family-friendly duty station for its virtually non-deployable billets, safe atmosphere and activities for everyone. The DoD schools are well regarded, and students benefit from small class sizes and increased individual attention. A youth center offers programs for school-age children, and the child development center provides care for children up to age five.
The close-knit community at GTMO consists of both military and civilian personnel. The high-security requirements of the location also mean a super-safe living environment with virtually no crime and little tolerance for rule breakers. The native wildlife of Cuba lives on base, too, with resident tarantulas, banana rats, scorpions, brown recluse spiders, iguanas, poisonous toads, large land crabs and a variety of snakes and lizards.
Cuba’s tropical climate means that the base beaches are popular, as are water sports and outdoor activities.
The Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) office keeps a full calendar of events for base residents. The annual Jazz Festival boasts an impressive lineup, and various other performers are brought to GTMO for special shows. In addition, residents frequently organize their own activity groups to help provide an antidote to the feeling of isolation. As one newly-arrived GTMO resident found, “The active members of the community are happy.”
While life at Guantanamo Bay is a considerable change from the U.S. mainland, it is really not so different from many other overseas duty stations. The increased prices, interesting critters and inconveniences are common features of overseas tours. As with most duty stations, happiness ultimately depends on the person, not the place. And GTMO truly is a one-of-a-kind place.
Housing: Enlisted, officer and bachelor housing is available. Because there is no living “out in town,” lodging options are limited until housing is assigned, and assignments may be made based on availability, not strictly by eligibility (i.e., officers in enlisted housing of the appropriate size).
Schools: The child development center offers childcare and preschool services, and the DoD schools provide education for grades K-12. Home schooling also is an option. Online distance education is available to both active duty and family members. Credits earned are applied toward an actual college degree.
Employment: A variety of positions are usually available in locations around base. Listings appear weekly in the base’s newspaper, The Gazette,.
Entertainment: MWR organizes concerts and other activities, and operates clubs, bars, cafes, gyms, pools, a bowling alley, auto shop, ceramics shop, marina, golf course, library and paintball range. For single or unaccompanied active duty members, the Liberty provides entertainment and activities. Dining-out options are limited in number, but the chefs try to offer diverse menus. Snorkeling, scuba diving, sailing and fishing are available in the waters of the Caribbean. Various religious, hobby and interest groups meet regularly.
By Julie Dawson