March 10, 2014

Guantanamo Bay Diary #1: Sacrifice and Splashers

Gary Thomas — 
(Left to Right: Drs. Steve and Rebecca Wilke, and Lisa and Gary Thomas)

(Left to Right: Drs. Steve and Rebecca Wilke, and Lisa and Gary Thomas)

Baron Miller

Baron Miller

Lisa and I are familiar with landing in Houston and being immediately slapped by the heat as soon as we step off a plane, so it wasn’t a surprise when Guantanamo Bay welcomed us with the same courtesy. We were met by the chaplain, Baron Miller, who informed us that we were lucky to be arriving during the “coldest season of the year.”

The unrelenting heat was the first picture of the sacrifice that thousands of soldiers make in service to our freedom. That may sound corny to some of you, but life in the military really is built on numerous sacrifices, large and small, beginning with the fact that these men and women live where they’re assigned—climate included—not where they choose.

photo (2)Maybe it began with the boat trip from the airfield base to the main Naval Station. The waters were choppy, with liquid moguls that reminded me of the Winter Olympics we had just watched. They threw water over the boat with a seeming relish, and Baron stood there in his fatigues, getting drenched, to block the waves from hitting us. We traveled with our good friends, Drs. Steve and Rebecca Wilke, and Steve jokingly said he was “hiding” behind Baron (now a chaplain, but also a former Marine) to get out of the spray.

“That’s what the Navy does,” Baron laughed. “We move toward danger, not away from it.” (There’s an ongoing dialogue between the Navy and the Marines. When Navy members remind the Marines that they are, after all, a department of the Navy, the Marines are fond of saying, “That’s right. We’re the men’s department.”)

Or maybe it was going to Baron’s house and seeing a larger-than-life cardboard photo bust of his head and shoulders.

“What’s that?” Lisa asked.

Flat Baron“That’s flat Baron,” Baron replied. “When I was deployed in Afghanistan, Cristina and the kids took that to the restaurant and other places so I could be with them.”

Maybe it was talking to the service members the first night, talking about how dangerous long separations can be to a marriage, because you get used to living without each other. I throw that out all the time in “civilian” settings, but many of these people have to be separated, usually nine months at a time. What do you do when the separation isn’t chosen? What do you have to say to those who take that risk because our country’s defense demands it? What then, Gary?

Or maybe it was talking on sex the final night, when I got to the section about a guy’s “sexual window” that wives need to be aware of (those of you who have attended a Sacred Marriage conference know what I’m talking about ). Once I threw this info out there—something I’ve done hundreds of times—it occurred to me how silly I sounded.

“I fully realize,” I confessed right then, on the spot, “that there are guys here tonight who have been away from their wives for 4 months and have five months to go, and I’ve never met a guy whose sexual window is nine months long…”

We talked about some ways to cope, but mostly I just thanked them for doing something most of us husbands could barely tolerate.

Perhaps the sense of sacrifice hit me even harder when I heard of the 19-year-old female detainee guard. She works in a bloc where they keep the “splashers.” “Splashers” are detainees who save up their urine, mix it with feces, add some semen and saliva, and throw it at the soldier bringing their food. They hate being served by women guards, and since you can’t keep urine, feces, semen and saliva from the detainees, it’s sort of their “homemade bomb” of choice.

The detainees had berated her for weeks. The guards wear Velcro name badges which they take off and trade for code names when they go into the cells, because the detainees threaten them. Even an innocuous piece of dialogue can become a threat. One real example, from very early on (that would never be repeated now):

Guard A: “I hear you’re getting leave soon.”

Guard B: “Yeah, can’t wait.”

Guard A: “Just in time for the Minnesota mosquito season!”

Detainee: “So, you’re from Minnesota. We have people in Minnesota. I’m sure they’d like to meet your family.”

We’re not holding boy scouts at Gitmo.

Anyway, after being splashed again, verbally berated, and threatened, the female soldier—younger than both of my daughters—let slip a simple, “Shut! Up!”

She was reprimanded.

Yeah, you’ve read stories about prisoner abuse in other times or places, but what’s happening now is that a simple “shut up!” from a guard isn’t tolerated.

This isn’t a political blog. None of you reading this care about who I vote for or what military policy I hold. No institution—not even the church—escapes elements of corruption. That, of course, would include the military. But while in Gitmo I felt so grateful for what these men and women are doing, and so much empathy for the sacrifices that they make.

Military families pay a price while serving us, and if this blog can inspire a few more prayers for their safety, a few more offers to watch the kids when a soldier returns home for a couple weeks of leave, a few more acts of serving a military family while a mom or dad is on deployment, that’s really all I’m after.

When you subscribe to Gary’s blog, you will receive blog posts directly to your e-mail inbox. You will be one of the first to learn about the latest in Gary’s writing.

2 responses to Guantanamo Bay Diary #1: Sacrifice and Splashers

  1. Torie Pendleton March 10, 2014 at 5:29 pm

    Thank you!

    We are an 18 year USAF family currently in the middle of deployment number 7.

    Bless you for recognizing the sacrifice and praying for us.