GITMO

The Boeing DC-10 banked hard to the right and then hard to the left before coming to a landing at an extreme downward angle, aerial acrobatics courtesy of the fine line between Cuba and the 45-square mile Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, leased as part of the Cuban-American Treaty of 1903. There are two sides to the base, leeward and windward, the former separated from the latter by the mostly calm waters of the bay. The larger windward side was reached by a ferry boat from the leeward airport and contained the bulk of the base’s facilities and amenities.

Journalist Third Class Jake Silver met me at the terminal and helped get my stuff out to the van assigned to the radio station before driving us to the pier to catch the ferry across to the windward side. He had a wife and son who had accompanied him on the isolated tour of duty, so GITMO was more like living and working in small town America than an isolated tour of duty bereft of modern conveniences and amusements. For the rest of us, being stationed in GITMO was equal parts boredom and hedonism, doing the same awesome thing over and over again until shipping out 18 months later while earning double sea duty credit in the process.

The boat we were waiting for ended up being a large, gray LCU which stood for Landing Craft Utility and was normally used by amphibious forces to transport equipment and troops to shore. In GITMO, the LCU ferried people and cars and trucks back and forth across Guantanamo Bay on a defined bus-like schedule since most of the people who worked on leeward actually lived and shopped and played on windward. Silver drove us onboard at the direction of the seaman in charge of the influx. He set the parking brake and we settled in for the trip over. The process was reversed on the other side and we made our way toward the radio station.

Naval Station Guantanamo Bay is a dusty series of hills and valleys lining a gorgeous, serene bay on one side and the rougher Caribbean Sea on the other. Dozens of roads wind their way hither and yon, connecting the various service buildings and neighborhoods and recreation facilities that make up what is essentially a small American town of nearly ten thousand, including families and pets. The rest of the base borders mainland Cuba from behind a twenty-foot high fence topped in razor-wire with equally-spaced guard towers and a mine field more than a mile wide. The Cuban side had a similar fence with razor wire and guard towers. This stalemate had been in place since 1959 when Fidel Castro conquered the island and overthrew the more American-friendly government.

Navy Broadcasting Service, Detachment Guantanamo Bay is housed in a large radio and television studio near the last family homes before the long stretch of black asphalt road to the north gate. We were close enough to the larger Cuban cities nearby that Castro cited the subversive American radio station in speeches denouncing our presence on the island. The Officer in Charge of the det was a salty old Chief Journalist named Mike Gantry. Chief Gantry gave me a smile and a hearty handshake before grilling me extensively on my ambitions for my tour in GITMO and whether I had prepared for the coming for March 1994 JO2 exam cycle. I admitted that I hadn’t known I was eligible for advancement since I would have only been a Journalist Third Class for three months and some change by that time and needed a year to qualify for next rank. He explained that your year in rank was calculated from the moment you were promoted to the moment you were advanced.

Since spring exams lead to winter promotions, I would have my year in rank if I passed and could qualify for the test. It was an important lesson in semantics and logic. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that I could take the test before I had my requisite time under my belt when I took it. The chief smiled again as the realization dawned and handed me a Journalist Second Class rating exam study guide on my way out the door to get a ride to the barracks to check into my room.

The enlisted barracks stood on a hill overlooking the “downtown” area of the base. The cinderblock barracks were painted a dusty tan that blended seamlessly with the surrounding desert. Most of the POVs (Personally Owned Vehicles) parked in front of the three large buildings featured a patina of dust with the occasional shiny exception standing out amongst the rough and tumble. My 300ZX would be one of those when it arrived since we had the ability to wash our cars out at the station, but the majority of POVs were called “GITMO specials” and sold dirt cheap as sailors rotated off the island.

While I had the room to myself until the next single guy showed up at the station, all the rooms on each floor shared two large heads, bathrooms and showers in Navy parlance. The upgrade in freedom more than made up for the slight inconvenience of going down the hall to pee. The first thing I did was unpack my stuff and arrange the furniture in the fifteen-foot square space to accommodate the fact that I had the room to myself. A bed and nightstand was pushed toward one wall with my gear lockers along a second and a sectional sofa left by the last guy taking up the rest tiled floor area. A miniature fridge with a microwave on top rounded out the décor.

I changed from my summer whites to shorts and flip flops before stepping out into the afternoon heat to explore everything within walking distance, starting with a late lunch in the McDonald’s at the bottom of the hill. I would discover much better options before too long, but right then my grumbling stomach was happy with a two cheeseburger combo meal. Next to the fast food joint was the Navy Exchange, the main shopping in GITMO and every other base I had been stationed. I wandered the aisles for a while, checking out all the various and sundry options but only picking up a couple food items and some beer to take back to my room.

As I entered the barracks with my booty, a dude with the most infectious smile I have ever seen was stepping out of the door with an arm-load of groceries and greeted me with a fairly thick Puerto Rican accent, not that I knew the difference. He welcomed me to the building and asked where I was going to be worked, enthusiastic about my job as a disc jockey starting Monday morning. He told me to put my stuff away and come back outside if I didn’t have any other plans. He was joining a couple friends out at the beach for a cookout and volleyball, which sounded just like my type of fun. I came back outside with a twelve pack of Budweiser and a ready grin.

I jumped in the passenger seat and stared outside as we wound our way through dusty hills toward a secluded area of the base, out beyond the bare bluffs that would house prison camps in years to come. I was fortunate enough to have lucked into hanging with a group of guys who worked across the street from the barracks at the mess hall. Since they were all cooks, the food we enjoyed that afternoon was fantastic. The bungalows at Windmill Beach featured both grills, electricity and water, so it was possible to provide frosty mixed beverages as well tasty grilled meats and veggies. They were also pretty good volleyball players, so I had to step up my game a couple notches to keep up with the competition.

So began my first day of what would prove to be a wickedly diverse and dynamic career as a Navy journalist. Monday morning rolled around and JO3 Silver picked me up in his POV, totally out of his way but he was a pretty nice guy in most respects. It would be a few weeks before my own car arrived, so relying on the kindness of strangers became a bit of a mantra. I met the rest of the crew in the lobby of the station when quarters commenced at 0730 sharp. JO1 Bob Terry and JO2 Diana Brookings joined JO3 Jake Silver and myself to round out the creative staff reporting to Chief Gantry. Chief Jim Vance was an Interior Communications Electrician (IC) and was the station’s Chief Engineer with the rest of the ICs working for him including IC1 Scott Stone.

It would only take a couple days to get everyone’s name and rank down pat. I initially reported to JO2 Brookings, the news director responsible for filling ten minutes of airtime each hour and fifteen full minutes twice a day. I also had a “drive-time” DJ slot from three to five each afternoon before heading home around six, unless I had duty which kept me around until midnight or so to switch from spinning “live” recorded shows to automated programming until five the next morning when the whole thing started over again with the morning drive show.

We were the last generation of analog radio broadcasters, using razor blades to cut extraneous material out of the magnetic, reel-to-reel tape and splicing it back together to create the final version. I spent most working hours gathering news stories around base and bringing the recordings back for transfer to reel-to-reel and editing. Once my car arrived from the states, I started traveling hither and yon looking for scoops. Most days, that also meant stopping by the base Public Affairs Office under the able command of Chief Journalist Carl Dugger to see what they were working on and tagging along to get the radio news angle wherever possible. I would send stories their way as well as it made sense for their weekly newspaper audience. It also kept my photojournalism skills sharp while being stationed there as a radio broadcaster.

I settled into my clockwork routine at the station which left plenty of free time for evening college classes and weekends for partying at the beach and enlisted clubs or learning how to play softball on the station team. The latter actually earned me another broken nose the following year while crouching behind home-plate for the ball that had just been smashed to deep right field. IC3 John Buck snagged it from the fence line and spun a one eighty to snap the ball back toward me as the runner at third base had tagged up and was speeding home. I tracked the ball with my glove as it passed by the runner on its way to an epic out if I could manage to catch it and tag the guy barreling down on my position.

The ball made it in time, but my glove had dropped a hair too low and it streaked over the top of the leather to smack me directly between the eyes just before the runner crossed the plate and scored the tying run. Play was paused as everyone rushed to assess my condition. I stood up on rubbery legs and bent over to retrieve my glasses, blood leaking from a clean cut on the bridge of my nose but certainly not gushing. Someone broke out a first aid kit and applied a gauze pad to my nose before driving me to the hospital, fortunately just down the street from the ball field.

In May of 1994, a massive exodus of Haitians seeking opportunity in America were fleeing the fall of the military dictatorship that had deposed Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991 and were seeking refugee status. Rather than immediately returning them to Haiti, the policy was to process their applications aboard ship and then house them in GITMO while their disposition was being settled. Further complicating matters, Castro’s government decided in August to allow Cuban citizens to leave the country, causing another massive exodus. To accommodate the tremendous influx and outflow of what amounted to 60,000 Cuban and Haitian migrants and provide them a safe haven, the United States decided to shelter them at GTMO until the situation was resolved.

Joint Task Force 160 was created to manage the efforts between the base personnel and the various services brought down to help complete the mission, including both Army and Air Force units to provide camp security and construction assistance to the base’s Sea Bee detachment who had been building temporary housing at a breakneck pace. JTF-160 also included a Joint Information Bureau to direct and coordinate the communications efforts among the various public affairs teams now on the island. We interfaced with the JIB to provide radio and television coverage, the latter being the only broadcast-quality footage coming off the island until the Combat Camera Detachment showed up a few weeks later to provide documentary support services instead.

USNS Comfort was ordered to serve as a migrant processing center for Haitians and boasted a crew of 928 military and civilian personnel from various government and international agencies. When Comfort discontinued support operations and sailed for Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba to drop off its remaining 400 Haitians, I was still doing my afternoon show on the radio. I picked up the phone to field a song request, not expecting a voice from my past shouting, “Miller! What the hell are you doing on the radio?”

It was the distinctive voice of Kent Dupree, last seen packing his car following at DINFOS in preparation for driving to Virginia to see his girl and start duty at the public affairs office for Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland. He had deployed with Comfort to cover the nurses and doctors doing their thing off the coast of Haiti and provide regular reports back to the states for publication.

Once my shift was over, I cruised down to the pier to pick up Dupree and give him the grand tour of the base, including the local watering holes and sources of entertainment. I don’t recall the specifics of his short visit beyond the ubiquitous partying and volleyballing, though I vividly recall the tour Dupree gave me of the distinctive white ship with prominent red crosses painted on the sides and on top. Comfort is a floating hospital with hundreds of medical professionals staffing the wards and surgery theaters scattered throughout its massive bulk. I quickly got lost as my friend led me around, detailing various pieces of their unique medical mission in support of military operations. Suffice it to say, the place was immense and impressive.

As summer progressed and the populations in both the Haitian and Cuban refugee communities grew, it was quickly becoming clear that the family members of permanently assigned sailors and Marines would be sent back to the United States for the foreseeable future, turning GITMO into a true hardship duty station for all involved. The last straw dropped on a hot, dusty Saturday in August. Most of the camps were built in remote regions of the base, far away from the most populated areas, with the exception of a single Cuban camp smack dab in the middle of town on what used to be a fairly shitty golf course that was nonetheless a popular destination for whacking balls off of small green squares of Astroturf carried along for the purpose since the only real “grass” on the course was located on the greens around each hole.

The hill where the enlisted barracks and mess hall were located provided panoramic views of the town and bay, so when ten thousand Cuban refugees decided to leave their confinement at the golf course one morning and start walking toward the downtown area along the main road below, it didn’t take long before the entire barracks was buzzing. I heard the news as I came out of the head and ran toward the rear of the complex to find a stream of men, women and children calmly walking toward the main part of the base. I ran back to my room to get dressed, dragging my roommate, station manager JO2 Wayne Newton, out of bed to come with me.

As we drove past the end of the barracks and turned down the hill, I realized the only way to get to the station was directly through the mass of humanity at the bottom of the hill. It was then that I also realized my T-Tops were removed and stored in the hatchback. Though we were completely vulnerable to the Cuban refugees passing by on either side of us like the parting of the Red Sea before my low-slung sports car, they simply offered quiet greetings of “Hola” or “Buenos Dias” as we rolled on through and increased speed on the other side.

The security incident was settled without anyone getting hurt, but it was more than sketchy enough for military leaders back in the United States to order the first dependent evacuation since the Cuban Missile Crisis.The station went into 24/7 overdrive to support the enormous task of relocating over two thousand military spouses and children, school teachers and some civilian workers with their dependents to Virginia. We were the only mass communication method available to broadcast instructions via radio and television at a time when America Online and CompuServe were just sticking their toes into the shallow waters of the Internet. After that week of adrenaline and caffeine was successfully completed, we settled in for the Groundhog Day rhythm of ongoing contingency operations with no real end in sight.

I was now Radio News Director with Marine Lance Corporal Abby Smythe reporting to me and responsible for twenty-five minutes of produced airtime each weekday. My afternoon drive show was called Café Blitz, in deference to the extensive rebranding the station had gone through when Newton recruited Army Staff Sergeant Chris Brown from JTF-160 public affairs to record an array of show opens and stingers. The guy had one of those voices you immediately recognized even though you had never heard it before.

I also lucked into a great gig as the disc jockey for the main base enlisted club when the Marine who had the gig before me traded me his contract and gear for my 300ZX, now in need of repairs I couldn’t afford. In addition to being on the air most days, I was at the club most nights getting paid to drink and play music and flirt. I still needed to get around at will, so I bought a GITMO special from someone who was leaving the island, a Geo or something equally tiny and boxy with spongy shocks and sloppy steering. The gear would just pack inside, so on days I wasn’t at the club the car allowed me to make extra cash doing house parties.

It came as little shock to me when I was only a couple months into the contract and had one too many Corona-Cuervo combinations than would be advised if decorum was needed to negotiate a disagreement with a grumpy club manager who never really liked me as a replacement. Puffing up my narrow rooster chest when he told me to play country music for the half dozen people on a Friday night who might have wanted to hear that sort of thing, I threatened to leave rather than clear the dance floor with garbage. He encouraged me to do what I had to do.

I am not sure what point I was ultimately trying to make other than to display my well-honed ability to cut my nose off to spite my face with very little provocation, but I stopped Nine Inch Nails in the middle of fucking like an animal and packed my sound system into my tiny GITMO special. It wasn’t the first time I thought my hand was better than the cards I actually held. What I didn’t know was the club manager, a retired chief petty officer, had an old friend who wanted the enlisted club contract and was ready to drop-ship the needed equipment within days. This was the exact chain of events my fortuitous meltdown precipitated. I was left with a bunch of expensive DJ gear and no permanent gig to put it to use. At least I could store everything at the radio station in between the occasional house party or group function.

One fortunate aspect of this sudden free time was the ability to increase the number of college courses I was taking to make myself eligible to apply for the Navy Enlisted Educational Advancement Program. The military would pay me to attend the school of my choice for as many as 36 months to attain a bachelor’s degree in a rate-complementary major, so entrance was extremely competitive. This meant I needed to maintain my streak of good grades, complete a minimum of 30 credit hours and score well on the SAT.

I was able to do all of the above, and not long after being promoted to 2nd Class Petty Officer, I learned I had also been accepted into EEAP and could begin applying to colleges for admission to the fall of 1995. I was accepted into writing programs at Boston University and a small liberal arts college in rural Massachusetts called Bradford College. Both gave me full credit for my college work as well as my military experience, making the transition to full-time scholarship relatively easy. I decided on the tiny, secluded pond of Bradford where I could immerse myself in writing for the first time rather than the bigger party school in the center of a bumping Boston and old friends who liked to raise hell. Since I would basically become a civilian for the next three years while I attended school, coasting through the final six months of my tour in GITMO should have been easy. It wasn’t.

My 25th birthday was on a Thursday that year, but that never deterred me from going out to party. Thursdays were every bit as busy as Fridays, so it wasn’t long before the shots of tequila and beers were disappearing in vast quantities while I danced the night away on the floor I used to own. The guy who had taken over my gig was pretty good, too, so it was a bitter pill to swallow every time I went out to the enlisted club, which was often enough to be a regular despite the initial awkwardness following my ouster. We closed the bar down around two in the morning and stumbled outside for a cigarette.

One of my jarhead friends lived in the Marine barracks and asked me for a ride, notwithstanding the fact that I probably shouldn’t have been driving in the first place and the squishy steering of my GITMO special didn’t make staying between the lines any easier. All that said, I was driving more or less down the center of my lane on the main road leading toward the Marine barracks when the darkness behind me suddenly flared to life with flashing red and blue lights. Had I been pulled over by base security, a stern talking to and an escort back to the barracks would have been the worst of it for me.

The Air Force sergeant at the window wasn’t impressed with the minor “celebrity” he had pulled over that night. Turns out, he was using his position as a member of the JTF-160 military police to bolster his overall arrest record for when he transferred back to the states. No place better to find Airmen, Marines, Sailors or Soldiers to bust than in the midst of a contingency operation requiring more than a little letting off of steam most days and that more often than not meant drinking large quantities of alcohol with little regard for the rules of the road when it was time to go home.

The man was so confident he didn’t even bother giving me a field sobriety test that I would have likely failed anyway as he was confident I would submit to his commands. My companion was told to walk the last few blocks to the Marine barracks while I taken into custody and driven to the base security office near the main administrative buildings at the other end of the base near the piers. Sitting in the back seat of the camouflage Jeep Cherokee with my hands cuffed behind me, I ran through my various options. They seemed few and far between at that moment.

I was turned over Navy security since they had ultimate authority over my disposition. I knew most of the guys on duty and they were the ones who gave me the lowdown on the Air Force MP who delivered me to them for processing. This was long before “implied consent” became a part of the law enforcement lexicon, so when I was asked to agree to a Breathalyzer, I politely declined with the hope that no evidence would make a conviction that much harder. The cops seemed surprised by the move and asked me more than once to reconsider which I steadfastly refused to do despite their pronouncements of doom and gloom.

With nothing left but the obligatory paperwork, they called Chief Gantry to come get me. That was when things got real as I hadn’t considered what would come next. My boss coming to pick my dumb ass up from the police station hadn’t crossed my mind and a sudden sense of dread swept through me. I sat there sweating tequila on the hard wooden desk chair while the Chief Master-at-Arms dialed his Goat Locker (the place where all the chiefs hang out) buddy to wake him up and come retrieve his overly-sauced sailor.

Fuck.

I enjoyed precious few positive male role models growing up and even fewer I cared about disappointing. Chief Journalist Mike Gantry was one of those men. When he walked into the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station police station to retrieve me after being charged with my second DUI, the look on his face was more than enough to shame me to silence. The look on my face must have been enough to fully communicate that regret since he gave me a supportive smile in return and signed me into his custody.

We didn’t talk much during the short ride to the barracks where he dropped me off, though Chief Gantry assured me I would be able to weather this storm with a minimum of damage. The most painful loss was my appointment to EEAP being yanked immediately no matter what the outcome of my impending Captain’s Mast and a chance to go to school fulltime on the Navy’s dime vanishing as if it hadn’t ever existed. I sold my GITMO special to the new Journalist Seaman who needed the wheels since I wouldn’t be allowed to drive for the remainder of my stay.

Since there was conflicting accounts from eye witnesses, including a couple discrepancies in the Air Force sergeant’s story overall, and no field sobriety test or Breathalyzer results, the base commander said he had no choice but to find me innocent of the drinking and driving charges. That said, he was going to ensure I got the “help I needed” and ordered me to complete Level II alcohol rehabilitation treatment before reporting to my next duty station as one of two conditions of keeping my current rank. The other was to stay out of trouble of any kind for six months.

I breathed a huge sigh of relief and settled in to finishing off the last couple months of my tour, a provisional driver’s license allowing me to use the station vehicles in pursuit of my duties as Radio News Director, but otherwise went back to my roots with bumming rides to the beaches and taking the bus everywhere else. It wasn’t long before I was presented with three choices of shore duty since I had fulfilled my sea duty requirements between the Hunley and GITMO, which was considered sea duty for rotation purposes.

The one that sounded the most interesting was as the independent duty journalist for Submarine Development Group One in San Diego, California. It was home to the Navy’s deep sea research and submarine rescue programs and would allow me to basically create the job from scratch as I would be the first journalist to fill the position. I forget the other two choices, but I selected SubDevGruOne and prepared to move to San Diego in July of 1995.

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