Don’t tell. (photo: Spectacle Productions via Flickr)

According to the transcript (PDF) of a February 19, 2002 meeting of the Armed Forces Epidemiological Board (AFEB), “[a] number of the detainees have died of the wounds that they arrived with” at Guantanamo. This statement came from Captain Alan “Jeff” Yund, a preventive medicine doctor and the Navy’s liaison officer to the AFEB, as he discussed “mortuary affairs” at Guantanamo, part of a larger discussion on health issues at the new prison facility.

During the meeting, Captain Yund identified himself as working directly with Admiral Steven Hart, the Director of Navy Medicine Research and Development, as well as “a number of other admirals.”

Yund’s full quote is as follows, on pg. 108 of the transcript (bold added):

Mortuary affairs is an important but hopefully small aspect of the activities of the [Guantanamo] hospital. A number of the detainees have died of the wounds that they arrived with. So there’s attention being paid to doing the things with the body that would be appropriate for their culture.

In a December 7 email interview with Captain Yund, who is now retired, Yund stated he does “not recall that I was ever very directly involved in detainee health issues” at Guantanamo. Accordingly, he said the following in regards to his statement about detainee deaths:

“I did not make that statement from personal or direct knowledge. It may have come from CAPT Shimkus’ presentation, or possibly from conversations or meetings with other Navy Preventive Medicine personnel colleagues. It is not the type of statement I would have made without having learned it from a source I considered reliable.”

The reference to “CAPT Shimkus” is to Captain Albert J. Shimkus, commanding officer of the U.S. Naval Hospital at Guantanamo at the time, and JTF 160 chief surgeon. Captain Lund explained that he remembered hearing a “a detailed and fascinating account” of “events and issues” at Guantanamo, though he couldn’t remember the date or place. This is the “presentation” to which Captain Yund refers in his explanation above.

In a telephone interview on December 13 with Captain Shimkus, who now is an Associate Professor in National Security Decision Making at the U.S. Naval War College, Shimkus expressed shock over the claims there were any deaths at Guantanamo while he was there. (Captain Shimkus left Guantanamo in August 2003.) He said that “no deaths occurred” while he was there, but that he did speak at the time of the task force preparing for possible deaths. He could not offer any explanation for what Captain Yund reported.  [cont’d]

In the AFEB transcript itself, there is no surprise or other comment or correction made on on Yund’s announcement concerning detainee deaths. The meeting was also attended by other military medical staff, civilian medical advisers, and upper-levels of the DoD bureaucracy, including Admiral Hart, and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Health Protection and Readiness, Dr. William Winkenwerder, and his deputy, Ellen Embrey. The meeting, held at the Island Club, North Island Naval Air Station, San Diego, was chaired by Dr. Steven Ostroff from the Centers for Disease Control.

By all accounts, in the initial days of prisoner transfer to Guantanamo, a number of detainees arrived with serious battle wounds. Notes from a doctor working at the facility, dated February 22, 2002, which I reviewed, discuss the previous day’s cardio-thoracic and neurosurgeries. A thoracotomy (excision of a portion of a lung) was said to have been performed on detainee “205.” The same day’s notes also describe an incident in which a detainee was handcuffed via a broken arm.

In response to my initial inquiry on 2002 detainee deaths at Guantanamo, Major Bradsher replied fully as follows:

The first detainee death at Guantanamo Bay was in June 2006. The [June 16] press
release is below:

The press release refers to the “three detainees who died of apparent suicides on June 10, 2006,” and is a summary of the disposition of the remains.

After receiving this first communication from DoD’s press operations office, I asked for further clarification, and in particular “as to why a Captain at an Armed Forces Epidemiological Board meeting in Feb. 2002 would refer to earlier deaths at Guantanamo, ostensibly from battlefield wounds.”

Major Bradsher responded, “I can’t speak for Captain Yund. As I have stated before, the first detainee fatality in Guantanamo was in June 2006.”

At this point, what we have is a mystery. There are no other reports regarding early battlefield deaths among the prisoners rendered to Guantanamo. We know that some of them arrived on litters, and needed immediate medical attention. We know that officials there even expected some deaths. But DoD maintains that no deaths prior to June 2006 occurred, and the principal reporter to the AFEB meeting on this subject, Captain Yund, does not remember the statement, though he notes “it is not the type of statement I would have made without having learned it from a source I considered reliable.”

Dr. Steven Miles, author of Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror, shared his reaction to news of the possible deaths reported here:

This is an enormously important event. I have tried, without success to have the DoD or the media, clarify the huge inconsistencies in prisoner death reporting to no avail. My article on this remains unpublished by the medical media and by Slate etc.

The uncertainty over what really occurred in the early days at Guantanamo was accentuated by recent revelations by and Seton Hall University of Law’s Center for Policy and Research on the mass administration of the drug mefloquine to detainees who arrived at Guantanamo. Ostensibly described as an antimalarial measure, there are numerous reasons to question its use, not least because of its well-known high rates of neuro-psychiatric side effects, and also because such mass empiric treatment of mefloquine has never occurred and experts found such use potentially harmful and without medical justification.

Truthout has promised further investigation into the mefloquine scandal, including interviews with some of the principles involved, in a report to be published in the coming week.

There is a tremendous need for Congressional and/or independent investigations that have full mandate and subpoena power to ferret out the truth about what has occurred at Guantanamo and other U.S. “war on terror” prisons. The biggest obstacle to this, besides the Pentagon and the GOP, is the Democratic Party leadership itself, which refuses to undertake or fund such investigations, and whose leader in the White House, President Barack Obama, opposes — against treaty obligations described in Article 12 of the Convention Against Torture — such investigations.

Jeff Kaye

Jeff Kaye

Jeffrey Kaye is a retired psychologist who has worked professionally with torture victims and asylum applicants. Active in the anti-torture movement since 2006, he has his own blog, Invictus, previously wrote regularly for Firedoglake’s The Dissenter, as well as at The Guardian, Truthout, Alternet, and The Public Record. He is the author of Cover-Up at Guantanamo, a new book examining declassified files on treatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo detention camp.