Operation Guantanamo

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Originally Published April 1992

Marine Corps units receiving specialized training are certified as Special Operations Capable. This additional training enhances their proficiency in low-intensity conflict tasks such as contingency response and counterterrorism.

But, in a broader sense, all Marine units are capable of conducting specialized and unusual missions. This is primarily due to the inherent flexibility of the Fleet Marine Force and its ability to task organize self-contained units. These units can go anywhere, immediately, and do nearly anything while taking care of their own needs for 30 days, or until follow-on support arrives.

Hence, when the requirement arose for a "special" operation force to care for the humanitarian needs and security of Haitian migrants at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, it was only natural that Marines would assume the lead role. . . . 

Political upheaval in the Republic of Haiti last year left many dead, as rebels and loyalist troops engaged in bitter battle over who had legitimate claim to the presidency.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Roman Catholic priest, was elected President in December 1990. But former members of the old "Papa Doc" Duvalier militia known as the "Tonton Macoutes," joined by supporters, attacked the presidential palace, forcing Aristide to flee to Venezuela. The rebels roamed the streets, doing their will. In three days, 70 people were killed, including women and children. The brutality continued.

Most Haitians are poor, with an average yearly income of $400. Most are uneducated and unskilled. Fearing for their lives and the safety of their families, many gathered up meager belongings and fled by boats for the United States Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The distance across the Windward Passage from Haiti to Cuba is about 80 miles.

American Coast Guard cutters roam the waters off Cuba, and in mid-November, one cutter crew spotted a 30-foot fishing boat in danger of sinking. "When we spotted the boat, we noticed the people on board were bailing water as fast as they could. The craft was in serious danger of sinking. The boat held 240 people, including women and kids," a Coast Guardsman recalled.

The cutter's crew picked up the Haitians and, because the fishing vessel was considered a "navigational hazard," sank it.

Colonel Gary A. Blair commands the Marine Barracks Ground Defense/Security Force at Guantanamo Bay. He recalled, "On November 13th, we accumulated three or four Coast Guard cutters out here in the bay, each with hundreds of Haitians aboard. Up to that point, there had been no resolution about what to do with them, and there were some real sanitation problems aboard the cutters."

In addition to Coast Guardsmen assigned to each vessel, the additional 150 to 200 Haitians rescued and living aboard for a couple of weeks not only taxed living and sanitation conditions, but made feeding the multitude and simply moving about the ship difficult.

"That's when Navy Captain William McCamy (Naval Base Commander) decided to bring the Haitians ashore. That would give the migrants room to move around, and permit the cutters to return to the Windward Passage to rescue additional Haitians leaving their country for economic or political reasons.

"We began bringing them ashore, and Marine Barracks personnel became involved. We escorted the Haitians to Camp Bulkeley, where Barracks Marines had established a tent camp. And that's basically how it all began."

More fishing boats tried to make the trip from Haiti to the American installation at Guantanamo Bay; some succeeded and others sank. The initial compound at Camp Bulkeley quickly filled to overflowing and on November 22, 1991, the Joint Task Force (JTF) arrived, commanded by Marine Brigadier General George H. Walls Jr. Five more camps were constructed at McCalla Field, using the emergency and helicopter runways.

The concrete expanse measures 6,750 feet and provides solid support to hundreds of tents erected for the migrants. Concertina wire separated the various sections. Lights and shower facilities were installed. Portable heads ("Johns") were emplaced.

"We came down here in a humanitarian role," BrigGen Walls explained. "We provided food, medical care and shelter for the Haitians, while demonstrating how versatile and well prepared the men and women of the Joint Task Force are.

"Many came down here with less than 48-hours notice, expecting to stay for a lot shorter period of time than they have. Some were unsure about what they were going to do when they got here, because this is a one of a kind operation that has never been done before.

"They came and worked 16- to 18-hour days, routinely, for the first couple of months, and they did an absolutely superb job. Many had just returned from Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm."

Prior to the start of Operation Guantanamo, BrigGen Walls was Commanding General, 2d Force Service Support Group (FSSG) at Camp Lejeune, N.C. "The Joint Task Force is a 'purple suit' organization," he explained. "We have squads down here, especially in the area of camp services, where Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines work together, and they might be supported by Seabees (Navy Mobile Construction Battalion members). We are truly as 'purple' as you can get."

An admiral toured the Gitmo Naval Base in early February 1992, and BrigGen Walls recalled, "After he visited the various camps and working sections, he remarked to me that this was probably the 'jointest' organization he'd ever seen.

"I won't tell you that we didn't have some rough spots. It took a while to smooth out the fact that Services operate differently, but once we reached that point, this operation began running like a Swiss watch."

To better appreciate the accomplishment of members of the Joint Task Force, a quick lesson in geography might help. The U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is relatively small, consisting of 19,621 acres (31 square miles) of land.

In addition to various naval activities and the Marine Barracks at "Gitmo" (as the base is known), there are American soldiers and airmen stationed there. In all, 6,605 military, civilian employees and a small group of dependents reside on the naval base.

The tide of Haitians flooded the base, and when the number exceeded 12,000, there were twice as many migrants as Americans at Gitmo. They were spread among six tent camps. As the population of migrants increased, the Joint Task Force was formed and ordered to assist in the humanitarian effort known as Operation Guantanamo.

Second Lieutenant Jeff Stewart of Louisville, Ky., enjoyed the Thanksgiving holiday at Camp Lejeune. He was a member of the 2d Supply Battalion, 2d FSSG.

"Most of the members of the battalion had gone to Twentynine Palms [Calif.] for a CAX [combined arms exercise]. I was the only deployable second lieutenant in the outfit, so here I am!" He smiled an "I still can't believe it" grin. He is the Joint Task Force supply officer, heading a staff of 18 Marines and four Navy medical logistic corpsmen.

"We're responsible for supplying the Haitian migrants and the JTF staff," Stewart explained. "Gunnery Sergeant Allen Dent is the warehouse chief, and Staff Sergeant Charles Gaines is the supply chief. When the Joint Task Force first arrived, they had a medical battalion with them, and we had their supplies, too."

Originally enlisting in the Navy in June 1985, Stewart was swayed to obtain a college degree and accept a commission as a Marine lieutenant by his high school rifle team coach, retired Lieutenant Colonel C. C. Smith. "Best move I ever made," the young Marine officer said.

"As Haitians continued arriving, relief items were palletized and loaded aboard C-5 transport aircraft at Charleston, South Carolina. The Air Force had 30 pallets of food, clothing and so forth for distribution to the migrants," he continued. "For some reason or another, there was a three-day delay in getting the stuff down here, and that created some problems."

Initially, the Haitians were housed at Camp Bulkeley, and when the emergency items arrived, they were taken by flatbed trucks to that camp. But the Haitians kept coming and it soon became obvious that additional space was required.

"When more than 2,500 migrants were billeted at Bulkeley, the overflow was admitted to camps at McCalla, and we had to move all the supplies over here [to McCalla]," Lt Stewart continued.

"We loaded the supplies and brought them here. The supplies were structured in increments of 2,500, and we had units of tents, cots and so forth, bundled and readied for issue."

Migrants were assigned tents, with families retaining integrity. Single, adult males were assigned a specific area, as were single, adult females.

"As groups arrived, we issued each person such items as a toothbrush, paste, shower shoes, towel, soap, pillow case, sheet and so forth. But we ran into unexpected problems, such as feminine hygiene products and baby formula which we obtained by purchasing those items on open purchase [civilian markets].

"And we also obtained soccer equipment, basketballs, dominoes (they love that game), and playing cards," he continued. "We had no idea of how long this was going to continue, so we prepared 30-day stockpiles."

The lieutenant and his supply personnel were putting in 18- to 20-hour days. Also, Marine members of the section stood duty throughout the night in the event an emergency issue was required. "Usually, we had advance warning of a group arriving, but not always," he added.

"This is really a trip," he said, smiling. "I've met so many good people down here. People from other Services, and they are all so dedicated and caring. I can't fully comprehend all that we've accomplished here, and I still find it difficult to believe that I was given this responsibility as a Marine Corps second lieutenant. But I was very fortunate by being in the company of some outstanding staff noncommissioned-and noncommissioned officers.

"I didn't say anything about the chow, did I?" he asked. "We supplied that, too. Paper plates, plastic utensils and lots and lots of hot sauce. We also provided toilet paper, shampoo, and laundry detergent.

"The medical people set up a field hospital nearby at an old restaurant called the Blue Caribe and we had their supplies."

As Operation Guantanamo continues. Marines are being replaced by servicemen of other units. Navy Storekeeper Chief N. J. Preslar reported in from the Polaris Material Office, Submarine Base, New London, Conn. He will become the warehouse chief, responsible for receiving and issuing supplies.

Navy Commander Charles B. Emmerton, an emergency room nurse, commands the JTF medical unit, assisted by Cdr Ralph W. Renken, a family physician. They and their staff man the "Blue Caribe" Medical Facility.

"We got here in the middle of November," Cdr Renken, the executive officer, explained. "This facility has 146 beds, a laboratory, pharmacy, X-ray capability, two operating rooms and a dental clinic. In addition to the care we provide for the migrants, we also conduct JTF sick calls.

"We screen each migrant, which requires a large administrative staff. Through a linguist, we assure that each Haitian receives a physical exam. We're finding tropical diseases such as malaria, which didn't particularly surprise us, but we are gaining knowledge of other diseases through blood studies, such as venereal diseases, the AIDS virus, elephantiasis and so on.

"Attached to us here are communicators, ambulance drivers, and more importantly, interpreters or linguists. Haitians speak a form of Creole; very few speak or understand English. Many are, however, fluent in French.

"We operate six aid stations; one in each camp. If the medic or corpsman determines that an emergency exists, the patient is transported here, by ambulance, for further examination by a doctor or specialist.

"So far, 23 babies have been born here. A normal day generally means that we'll see 50 or 60 walk-in patients here. Between the six camps, about 750 are treated daily, ranging anywhere from headaches to gastroworms."

There were patients with measles. There were Haitians who tested HIV positive. A few were tubercular. All were being treated.

"Our dental facility has been blessed by a group of volunteers from the Christian Dental Society, who came down here to help when the influx of Haitians reached its peak," Cdr Renken said.

Staff Sergeant Carl H. Rodriguez was born in Haiti. He now calls Massachusetts home. Assigned to the Engineer School at Camp Lejeune, he volunteered to assist with Operation Guantanamo last November.

"When the migrants began arriving, and the Marine Corps was looking for linguists/translators, I volunteered," he explained. "I speak Creole, French, Spanish and English. We have worked long hours with little time off, but it has been worth it. The experience and gratification are priceless.

"We have accompanied VIPs, translated programs originated by civil affairs units and we've stabilized or organized situations in the camps. We meet with tent leaders or block leaders to answer questions or pass along information."

SSgt Rodriguez served during the desert war in Saudi with the 8th Engineer Battalion. "I can't wait to get home to see our baby," he said.

Gunnery Sergeant Ronald Antoine was born in Haiti, arriving in the United States 15 years ago. He also speaks Creole and French.

"I was the maintenance management chief at New River [N.C.], and I heard linguists were needed down here, so I volunteered. Early on, we had 14 Marine linguists/interpreters helping during the chaotic stage, but as routines were established and the influx dwindled, many returned home to Camp Lejeune. The Army, Navy and Air Force have taken over.

"But in the beginning, you wouldn't believe! A 36-hour shift was not unusual. We were exhausted. Now I'm rested, growing bored and anxious to get home."

Second Lieutenant Ted McKeldin of Baltimore, Md., arrived in Cuba on November 28 with 72 men forming the Engineering Detachment Platoon. They are members of the 8th Engineer Battalion, Camp Lejeune. Most of the detachment are desert war veterans.

"We hit the ground running," the lieutenant explained. "As soon as we got off the planes, we began working on the Bulkeley base camp. We erected tents, strung 30 miles of concertina wire, built observation towers, constructed movie screens for outdoor movies, set up 14 shower units, floodlights, moved in generators and handled the distribution of fuel and water.

"We put in some hellacious hours," Lt McKeldin continued, "but things are slowing some, and more than 40 of our people have returned to the States.

"Gunnery Sergeant Don Batson has returned to Camp Lejeune. He was the construction chief of the detachment, and designed the showers and devised the stake [driven into cement runways and used for tying down tents]."

During the Christmas holidays, 10 members of the detachment were permitted to return home to be with family and loved ones. Another 10 went home for the New Year's holidays.

"It was in late December when a group of male Haitians tried to take over one of the camps," Lt McKeldin recalled. "I guess you could call it a riot. They held families hostage and forced a hunger strike on women and kids. They wouldn't allow anyone in the camp; no medical people, no translators, nobody.

"Our engineer detachment took the camp back, spearheading a breaching. We cut the wire and entered in four different areas, with the security Reaction Force behind us, taking control.

"We are proud of what we accomplished here," the lieutenant continued. "We did a good job. We worked long and hard. Hell, we didn't have time to wash our own uniforms. But for all we did down here, probably the only one of us who will be remembered is Lance Corporal Geary King [Canton, Ohio], who was our reefer [refrigeration] man.

"He's the mechanic who kept the air conditioners going for the communicators, the medical facilities and the Harvest Eagle base camp [JTF living compound where military personnel lived in Air Force general purpose, air-conditioned, waterproofed, nylon-lined tents]."

First Lieutenant Bob Jarousse of Philadelphia, Pa., served as an enlisted Marine for 11 years, attaining the rank of gunnery sergeant. He is the food services officer for the 2d FSSG.

He won't forget Operation Guantanamo. He arrived on Thanksgiving Day, along with 65 Marine cooks. They were joined by 96 additional food service specialists of the Army, Navy and Air Force, making a total of 161.

"We feed the JTF and the migrants three times a day," Jarousse explained. "Feeding the military was no problem, but we had a lot to learn in feeding the Haitians. Rice is their staple, and they eat it morning, noon and night, if they can."

The Marines learned. Through February 29, 1992, they served 153,119 meals to JTF personnel and 2,050,664 to Haitians. They served 11,000 Haitians in two hours!

"Our experience in Saudi was put to the test here," the lieutenant said. "We started out using the Korean War-era mogas [motor gasoline] stoves in the field mess. We had 34 of those suckers called M2 burners, and we had the M1959 field ranges. But while we were in Saudi, we noted that some troops were using propane gas stoves, and that cut a chunk of time and manpower out of food preparation.

"Twenty liquid-propane gas stoves replaced the other gear we had, and we cut our work force by 37 Marines and 19 Army cooks, who got to go back home."

According to Lance Corporal Anthony Sousa of the JTF Public Affairs Office, the propane gas devices are referred to as Iraqi Stoves because they were used by both the Iraqis and Saudis in the desert.

"Also, many of the migrants were bored, sitting around, doing nothing. Some had cooking experience and volunteered to help, preparing and serving the meals," the lieutenant continued. "We can't pay them, but they were satisfied having something to do. For others, they learned a trade."

A sampling of menus for the migrants:

Breakfast: rice, cereal, fruit, milk/ juice, bread, condiments.

Lunch: MREs (field rations, meals, ready to eat), snack, milk/juice, bread.

Dinner: chicken (beef stew, beef and gravy, or ravioli) and steamed rice, snack, milk/juice, bread.

"We were giving them too many calories initially," the lieutenant explained, "and their stomachs weren't used to the rich food, so we had to streamline the menu some."

There are three migrant mess halls, utilizing about 150 Haitian volunteers. Marine SSgt Steve Jesionka is the mess crew chief. "Never, in all my years as a cook or drill instructor have I had such an experience," Jesionka said. "Work for 60 days with no time off. And sometimes I'll be here working, preparing a meal or whatever, and I'll look around and I won't know a soul, and nobody here speaks English. An experience, that's for damned sure. . . ."

Air Force Capt Mike Waddell of the 341st Service Squadron, 301st Support Group at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., has replaced Lt Jarousse. SSgt Jesionka of Belle Mead, N.J., was being replaced by Army Sergeant First Class Guy Gallagher of Fort Lewis, Wash.

Major William L. Poggi is a tanned, bear of a man with firm handshake and quick grin. "You've seen the rest, now come meet the best," he quipped. He has been assigned as the commanding officer of Headquarters and Service Company, Provisional Joint Task Force.

He arrived in Cuba on November 25, from Camp Lejeune, where he served as executive officer of Headquarters and Service Battalion, 2d FSSG.

"You now know how the Joint Task Force takes care of the Haitian migrants? Well, our job is to take care of the Marines of the Joint Task Force. We provide them with administration, pay, promotions, family separation allowance, foreign duty pay and orders home."

Foreign duty pay applies only to enlisted personnel. A Marine PFC garners eight dollars a month; a sergeant major earns $22 monthly.

"When we first arrived from the States, there were 385 Marines and we were billeted aboard USS Tortuga and USS Pensacola. When the JTF camp. Harvest Eagle, was completed, we moved into tents.

"We have only about 150 Marines here now, in the Joint Task Force. The others rotated home. Anywhere from 30 to 60 Marines leave each week. Within my command are the support troops such as MPs, cooks, engineers and medical people. I have one doctor and 10 corpsmen. And as Marines rotate home, members of the Army, Air Force and Navy arrive to replace them."

Sergeant Major Clayton Brown is the senior enlisted Marine of the company. Upon returning Stateside, he will report to Marine Fighter/Attack Squadron 312 at Cherry Point, N.C. He was promoted while assigned to Cuba.

"All within the headquarters element came from the Second Wing, Second Division or Second Force Service Support Group," the sergeant major explained. "Many units sent parts of their battalions to form detachments during this operation."

Douglas E. Berry is the sergeant major of the Joint Task Force. He was serving as 2d FSSG sergeant major when assigned to Cuba. "An unforgettable experience," he said. "I have 27 years in the Marine Corps, but I've never met such dedicated young people. We had up to 1,900 members of the JTF representing the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and of course, Marines, My replacement, an Army command sergeant major, is due in shortly.

"But I tell you, these young servicemen and women down here, through their patience, understanding and hard work have given me an experience I shall never forget. They are a credit to their Services and their country."

At Camp Bulkeley, Cpl Michael Rinaldi of Hollywood, Fla.; Cpl Kevin Lehmbeck of Jacksonville, Fla.; and PFC Darrel Price of Freeport, Texas, raised the American flag. During the playing of a taped version of the national anthem, groups of Haitians rose to their feet; some placed their hands over their hearts. Some youngsters, wearing garrison caps made from the brown, plastic wrappers from packets of rations, saluted.

After the American flag was raised in front of the Marine headquarters building, the Marine Corps flag was raised and "The Marines' Hymn" played. Haitians and Marines stood tall and proud.

"You can see the difference in the camps, can't you?" asked SSgt Ulysses Brown of Myrtle Beach, S.C. A veteran of nearly 19 years as a Marine, he is in charge of the Military Police Platoon, MP Company, 2d FSSG, which arrived in Cuba with 38 Marines.

"Most of these men served during Operation Desert Storm. They were used to guard prisoners of war.

"Here, we split the Marines into three squads, 11 men per squad. They stand 12 hours on and 12 hours off. During the 12 hours off, the Marines stand ready as a reaction force. Now, technically I'm not part of the JTF. I am assigned to the Marine Barracks and, along with GySgt Wade Nesbit (a Tarheel of N.C.), we stand officer of the day. We flip-flop. He's on duty for 24 hours, and then it's my turn."

MPs at Camp Bulkeley patrol in pairs; one carries a military radio. The young Marines "walk and talk," answering questions and simply eyeballing the area. They stop frequently to shake hands, exchange "bonjours" or to cavort with children. They are in the camp to offer guidance, not to enforce regulations or to maintain order. Haitian tent- or block captains oversee their charges.

"You know, these young Marines here will return home with some pretty impressive awards," SSgt Brown said. "They'll receive the Humanitarian Services ribbon, the Sea Service Deployment ribbon (if they remain in Cuba in excess of 90 days) and add those to whatever they might have earned during the desert war. Not bad, huh?"

Capt Howard J. Laurie was serving in Cuba as the air operations officer and the public affairs officer for the Marine Barracks when the migrants began arriving. He became camp commander at Bulkeley and was nicknamed "Klinger."

"Initially we operated this camp with 30 sailors and Marines, but as the migrants soared in numbers, Gunnery Sergeant Murray Payne arrived with an additional 40 Marines of the MP Company.

"Right now, things are relatively quiet. Army First Lieutenant Nancy Jean-Louis is holding school on the hill for children. She teaches them geography, spelling and basic English. She's originally from Haiti, and the kids love her. She was one of our translators."

Army SSgt Frantz Ali from Fort Dix, N.J., a Haitian by birth, is another camp translator. "They [migrants] have a fairly easy schedule. They get up at 7, have breakfast at 8:30, and clean up their tents and adjacent areas until lunch at 11:30. The children attend school. After lunch, they relax, play games, do laundry or whatever until the evening meal, which goes from 4 to 5:30," Ali explained.

At night, there is normally a movie, usually from America. The Voice of America plays native music for the Haitians, interspersed with news of their homeland. At 10 p.m., the lights go out.

"Very often there are military or civilian ministers or priests here, attending their spiritual needs," Capt Laurie continued. "Generally, at 5 each morning, a Mass is held."

Capt Ron K. Shy of Milton, W. Va., is the commanding officer of the Marine Detachment, Camp Bulkeley. He replaced Capt Laurie in December.

Capt Shy enlisted as a Marine in December, 1984. As a lance corporal, he applied for the Enlisted Commissioning Program, and was later commissioned a second lieutenant of U. S. Marines.

"This was the first camp," Capt Shy explained. "When it began filling, Bulkeley was emptied and the medical and immigration processing began.

"On December 17th, single males in one of the camps at McCalla rioted. They tried to lay some demands on General Walls. That was the wrong thing to do. The single, male Haitians didn't feel they were moving fast enough and some didn't want to go back to Haiti.

"They tore the tents down and they made weapons out of the tent poles and such. They went on a hunger strike. The riot was quickly subdued and the ringleaders were rounded up and escorted to 'Camp Seven,' which is a very isolated area."

Migrants at McCalla are considered "out-screened," meaning they have been medically examined and are in the process of being investigated by federal branches of the government, including the Justice Department and immigration authorities. The "outs" have not been cleared for entry into the United States and probably will be escorted back aboard Coast Guard cutters for the return trip to Haiti.

Those presently at Camp Bulkeley are "in-screened." They have proven free of major diseases, have no police records and have relatives or sponsors in the United States who will assume responsibility for their care and well-being.

"Unfortunately, about seven percent of the migrants have been found testing HIV positive," Capt Shy continued. "They, along with those testing syphilis- or TB positive, will be placed in quarantine.

"Each migrant's blood sample is sent to Norfolk, Virginia, for screening. Each is fingerprinted and photographed, and these are studied. So far, 12 'bad guys' have been identified and returned to Haiti.

"So, the people in this camp pretty well know they are going to the United States. It might not be today or tomorrow; it might take a couple of weeks, but they know they are going. So their attitude is one of pleasure and hope. Now, we do have some people legitimately claiming political asylum in America. In other words, if forced back to Haiti, they would probably be tortured or killed.

"But those claiming economic asylum will not necessarily be permitted to enter the United States," he said.

On February 29, 1992, it was announced that more than 6,100 Haitians had been repatriated. The Coast Guard cutters Tampa and Confidence departed from Gitmo with "about" 500 Haitians returning to Haiti.

An estimated 6,100 migrants remained at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in early March.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I envision an assignment such as this," said Capt Shy. "We see the migrants come into this camp, knowing they are going to the United States of America. They are smiling; their eyes full of hope. There is promise in the future.

"And three times each week, a large commercial jet arrives, and another 160 Haitians fly to Miami. There they will be met by their sponsor, who will accompany them to new adventures in strange-sounding cities and states throughout America."