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Ten Years Ago, I Saw The Real Guantanamo And It Changed My Life

Ten years ago today, I was on duty as the sergeant of the guard at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO). While I was standing in a watchtower inside Camp Delta overlooking the detainees, I saw something that would radically change my life.

I witnessed three detainees leave the camp in a white van and be transported to a top secret CIA facility, only to return to the camp a few hours later, dead. Over the next few hours, after the bodies returned to Camp Delta, I watched a cover-up being orchestrated by the GTMO Command. My commander flat-out lied to the media about what happened, claiming the detainees committed suicide in their cells as a form of asymmetrical warfare.

That day ten years ago shook the foundation of all I thought to be true. Prior to that night, I was a “true believer”—I was a proud soldier in the U.S. Military, I was one of the good guys in the Global War on Terror. After that night, I began to question those beliefs.

When I first arrived at GTMO a few months prior to that evening, I had my doubts about whether GTMO was a humane place. I was appalled at the conditions of the camp and the treatment of the detainees. But somehow I always found a way to rationalize what I saw. The treatment of the detainees was harsh and their living conditions inhumane. They looked more like poor farmers than the “worst of the worst” terrorists in the world; but my country told me they were and I believed them.

On June 9, 2006, all of that changed. Three men died on my watch. I knew the three detainees did not die in their cells. I knew they were murdered outside of the camp at a top secret CIA facility that the U.S. government denied existed. This was inexcusable. It was a war crime.

Even though going against the U.S. military’s official story of what happened that day would most assuredly end my military career, it was my duty as a soldier to report it. I went to the U.S. Army Inspector General and the Justice Department and reported what I witnessed. After I reported it to the Justice Department, they opened an official investigation and the FBI spent almost a year looking into my allegations.

They finally contacted my attorney and told him that while “the gist of what I reported was true,” they were closing the case, and were not going to pursue any charges against those involved.

Shortly after the Justice Department decision, I left the military. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about that night. I have spent years investigating the deaths and other issues concerning GTMO. I wrote a book laying out all the facts about what happened that night, hoping that one day another investigation will be opened and truth and justice will prevail. Though my hope for that is fading, I will never give up.

Since that night, a lot has changed at GTMO. Most of the detainees have been released and sent home or sent to different countries to try to start a new life. Unfortunately, there are still dozens of people being detained in GTMO with no evidence against them, living the nightmare of being held without charge or due process.

GTMO needs to be closed. Yet it remains open, and the GTMO command claims it is transparent and has nothing to hide. They even set up VIP tours for reporters, politicians, and attorneys. The tours are rehearsed for weeks prior to the VIPs’ arrival on the Island. They show the VIPs only what they want them to see, making it appear as if they are hiding nothing.

In reality, GTMO is shrouded in secrecy. No reporter, politician, or attorney, has ever seen the real GTMO. The only people that have seen it are the detainees, the guards, and the GTMO command. If they ever did see the real GTMO, maybe then justice would be served.

David Petraeus (CIA Photo)
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Joseph Hickman

Joseph Hickman

Joseph Hickman spent most of his life in the military, first as a marine, then as a soldier in both the army and the National Guard. He has deployed on several military operations throughout the world, sometimes attached to foreign militaries. The recipient of more than twenty commendations and awards, he was awarded the Army Achievement Medal and the Army Commendation Medal while he was stationed with the 629th Military Intelligence Battalion in Guantanamo Bay. He is currently working as an independent researcher and Senior Research Fellow at Seton Hall Law School’s Center for Policy and Research. His revelations about the abuse of prisoners at Gitmo resulted in a National Magazine Award–winning story in Harper’s magazine and a 2015 book, Murder at Camp Delta. He has also written for TIME, VICE News, and Al-Jazeera America.