The human toll of Guantánamo necessitates its closure: Reflections on an interview with a GTMO guard

This post is one in a series covering the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent CERL’s official views.

An often neglected dimension of Guantánamo Bay’s (GTMO) enduring story is the stress and psychological toll inflicted upon the U.S. military personnel and contractors who operate the detention camp and interact with detainees. After working as a guard stationed at GTMO, Steve Wood became a fierce advocate for the facility’s closure. In the Pulitzer-prize winning New Yorker piece “Guantánamo’s Darkest Secret,” the former guard spoke about his afflicted conscience while working at the detention center.

As interns with the CERL Summer Internship Program, we had the opportunity to conduct a remote interview with Wood. In that interview, he spoke openly about the psychological and emotional trauma of the prison experience for both the detainees and those who oversee them. “You’re supposed to be proud of your service, but you can’t be proud of something that’s morally wrong,” he said. Arriving in 2004, Wood’s 10-month stint at the base gave him a glimpse into the dark reality of detainee abuses and the lack of accountability at GTMO. “It felt wrong,” Wood commented, “but not everyone opened their eyes.” When asked how his work at the base affected his mental health, Wood admitted that he became somewhat “antisocial” and largely “kept to himself.” There were beautiful beaches near the camp, but he only went twice. According to Wood, the level of trauma he experienced was not comparable to “someone coming back from Iraq,” but it has “definitely affected [his] life,” because “once you see that corrupt system, you can’t stop thinking about it.” When asked if he thought others had similar feelings, Wood recalled a conversation he had with another guard: “At first [he] was very proud of it [his guard work], but when he realized it was wrong, it was hard for him to accept it.”

Upon his arrival at GTMO, Steve Wood was charged with guarding Mohamedou Salahi, one of the highest-value detainees at the time. Salahi was initially detained in Mauritania at the behest of the United States government after voluntarily reporting for questioning on his suspected involvement with terrorist activities. The United States then had him transferred to prisons in Jordan and Afghanistan, before he arrived at GTMO and was subsequently tortured. Salahi spent 14 years without charge at GTMO before his eventual release. During the 10 months Wood was stationed at the facility, he and Salahi became close and opened up to each other, often having elaborate discussions about history, religion, and philosophy. “It’s hard to explain,” Wood stated when asked how he balanced his duties as a guard and his growing relationship with Salahi. “You’re told to treat them with respect,” Wood elaborated, “but at the same time you’re told these people are guilty of serious crimes.”

The former guard made clear that a similar contradiction is true for the detainees as well. “Because of a thin balance of power, he [Salahi] couldn’t fully trust me while we were there. He didn’t know if one day I’d put a mask on and grab him,” Wood said, referring to the torture Salahi had already experienced throughout his detainment at the facility.

Over time, Wood and Salahi were able to overcome some of the barriers posed by their respective roles, leading Wood to question his job. At first, Wood thought Salahi’s treatment was “justified.” The longer he spent with Salahi, however, the more this feeling began to dissipate. “He just seemed sincere,” Wood said about his conversations with Salahi. After learning more about Salahi’s case and the torture he endured, Wood began to “question everything else our government was doing,” adding “nothing made sense anymore.”

Steve Wood’s observations and experiences are shared by many others who are deployed to GTMO. In 2008, journalist James Randerson wrote that life at the detention facility was, in some cases, making “guards suicidal and prompted a variety of psychiatric symptoms, from depression and insomnia to flashbacks.” Randerson also discussed the experiences of Professor John Smith, a retired Air Force captain, and “Mr. H,” Professor Smith’s patient and a former guard at GTMO. Mr. H revealed that he suffered from panic attacks, insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks, and depression while working at the facility and even after his deployment and return to the United States. The guard told Professor Smith that during his service he felt simultaneously guilty about how he was ordered  to treat the detainees and frightened by the threats detainees routinely made toward him. When speaking to the American Academy of Forensics Sciences, Professor Smith boldly stated , “I think the guards of Guantánamo are an overlooked group of victims.”

Between 2009 and 2011, the Guantánamo Joint Task Force secretly evacuated 19 troops who worked in detainee operations due to “behavioral health reasons,” according to a study conducted by the Army Institute of Public Health. The study combined two internal military reports regarding mental health and incorporated the testimonies of two former guards. The institute found that the troops deployed to the detention facility suffered symptoms closely resembling those that develop from combat-related deployments. In fact, 565 of the 1,422 troops surveyed developed behavioral health conditions and exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Furthermore, 20% of all those screened were considered a “high behavioral risk,” which means they were experiencing suicidal thoughts and severe behavioral health conditions, such as anxiety or depression, that required “intensive medication management and/or therapy.” 44% of those surveyed also reported that they engaged in “potentially hazardous alcohol use.” The Army Institute of Public Health’s study illuminated the profound effect working at GTMO has had on military personnel.

Wood described GTMO as a “black eye for the U.S.” Marred in controversy since its inception, it is clear working at GTMO has negative consequences for U.S. personnel at the facility as well as those detained there. There are multitudes of reasons why GTMO should be shut down, yet the impact on the soldiers deployed there is rarely discussed. It is imperative that the United States shines light on this issue and prioritizes the health and wellbeing of those who commit to defending their country. Every day GTMO remains open, more American soldiers are subjected to mental and emotional hardship, with some developing life-long behavioral health complications. There is no question that keeping the facility open will continue to have a detrimental impact on the people who operate it.

After speaking with Steve Wood, our eyes were opened to the many unfortunate realities of working as a guard at GTMO. What struck us most, however, was how his deployment to GTMO colored his views on America’s foundational ideals. What he saw at the facility went against the very values he wanted to protect by joining the National Guard. From our interview, we learned that the history and continued operation of GTMO is an insult to America’s commitment to freedom, equality, and human rights. In the words of Wood, “the place needs to close.”

Mihir Mulloth is a recent graduate of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), earning a master’s degree in public administration with a concentration in Human Rights and Data Analytics. Mihir worked as a 2021 summer intern at the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law.

Gloria Lyu is a junior at Yale College majoring in History and Ethics, Politics, and Economics. She worked as a 2021 summer intern at the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law and intends to pursue a graduate degree in political theory and a JD.

Mark Antonio Williams is a graduate student at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, working toward a Master of Law and Diplomacy with a focus on Public International Law and International Security. Mark worked as a 2021 summer intern at the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law.

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