SILVER SPRING, Maryland "I would like to share with you how one goes about becoming a concentration camp guard without having made many decisions," 24-year-old former Guantanamo prison guard Christopher Arent told a crowd of hundreds at last weekend’s Winter Soldier gathering outside Washington, D.C.
"I was 17 years old when I joined the Army National Guard," he said. "My family had just been displaced, and I was living with friends. My family was poor, I was poor, and I wanted to go to school. They promised me a significant amount of money toward that goal funds I have yet to receive."
Arent explained that he was initially happy with the Guard, but that his mood changed when he was deployed to the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2003. There, he served in the detention operations center of the prison, where he managed the movement of inmates from one part of the facility to another.
"I would get into the office at 4:30 in the morning and sometimes there would be an interrogation occurring in the interrogation room," he said. "Inside the interrogation room, it would be 10 to 20 degrees [F.] with loud music playing. And there would be the detainee shackled to the floor by his hands and feet with nothing to sit on, with loud music playing in the freezing cold."
After serving a tour at Guantanamo, Arent told the assembled veterans that he believes the mere existence of the prison is torturous.
"I’ve heard a lot of speculation about what torture is considered," he said. "First and foremost, I would like to ask everyone whether living inside a cell for five years without ever seeing your family or your friends, without ever being told why you’re being held there I consider that torture."
Arent was one of many former soldiers who served in U.S. military prisons abroad to speak at the Winter Soldier gathering. The event, which was organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War, aimed to show that their stories of wrongdoing were not isolated incidents limited to a few "bad apples," as the Pentagon claims, but were everyday occurrences.
Each veteran who spoke at Winter Soldier went through a detailed screening process before being allowed to testify. The process included providing Iraq Veterans Against the War with their military ID or discharge papers, and contacts of other soldiers they served with, who were then interviewed to verify the stories.
Former sergeant Domingo Rosas, who served in al-Qayim near the Syrian border from April 2003 to April 2004, told the assembled veterans he was ordered not to allow detainees under his watch to fall asleep.
"They were not allowed to sit down or lay down and anytime they started to doze off or they put their heads against the wall, I’d hit [the outside of their cell] with a pick ax handle and try to keep them up, keep them awake," Rosas said.
Rosas said he stood guard while interrogators tortured prisoners behind him.
"I witnessed one detainee rolling around in the mud being kicked again and again," he said. "I saw the interrogator pouring water on his face, waterboarding him. And another detainee was standing there with a bag over his head and was forced to carry a huge rock until he couldn’t do it anymore and collapsed. That image seared itself into my mind’s eye and I can’t forget it. I won’t forget it."
Former Iowa National Guardsman Andrew Duffy gave similar testimony. A medic at Abu Ghraib from 2005 to 2006, Duffy spoke about critical medical care being denied to detainees.
He spoke in detail about one prisoner, a diabetic Iraqi who was delirious and was not allowed to take insulin for days. Duffy said he asked his superiors if he could transfer the man to the hospital for treatment, but his request was denied.
His captain said he "could not transfer the detainee and that [the man] could drink water," Duffy said. "She also said he probably wouldn’t die but that it wouldn’t matter anyway."
A few days later, Duffy said, the man died from lack of care.
In response to an inquiry by the Washington Post, a Pentagon official argued that such events are not commonplace as the veterans claimed.
"When isolated allegations of misconduct have been reported, commanders have conducted comprehensive investigations to determine the facts and held individuals accountable when appropriate," Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros told the paper.
In response, Iraq Veterans Against the War released their own statement. "These service members’ and veterans’ testimonies are ultimately not about individual conduct, but about the nature of occupation," it read. "The military is being asked to win an occupation. The troops on the ground know this is an impossible task. Their commanders know this is an impossible task."
"We’re asking the Department of Defense to stop saying that it can achieve the impossible," IVAW’s statement concludes. "We have a political problem that cannot be solved with a military solution. This is not a war that can be won. It is an occupation that can only be ended."
(Inter Press Service)