By Peter Jan Honigsberg a professor of law at the University of San Francisco and Director of the Witness to Guantanamo project. He is also the author of Our Nation Unhinged, the Human Consequences of the War on Terror (University of California Press).
Adnan Latif, a Yemeni citizen, died at Guantanamo in early September. The military has not revealed how Adnan Latif died, but only that he was found unconscious in his cell. However, like the detainee described below, Adnan Latif had lost hope, attempting suicide several times at Guantanamo. He was the ninth man to have died in Guantanamo, six reportedly had committed suicide.
Adnan Latif had been held in the detention center since early 2002, although he had never been charged with a crime. Both the Bush and Obama administrations recommended his transfer out of Guantanamo. In addition, in 2010 a federal district court granted Adnan Latif’s habeas petition for release. That decision, however, was overturned by the federal court of appeals last year, and the Supreme Court would not hear his further appeal. After Adnan Latif’s death, I decided to write the following piece about another tragic incident at the naval base.
A young man barely out of his teens had tried to commit suicide by hanging himself in a Guantanamo prison cell. Although the prison guards were required to walk by the cells every 5-10 minutes, the guards did not discover him in time. When the guards cut him down and carried him to the clinic, he was brain dead. Prison guards, hospital corpsmen and other military staff who passed by him in the clinic saw the inert young man with his head slumped on his chest and his body shackled to his bed.
The military staff nicknamed him “Timmy,” after the disabled character in the animated show “South Park.” He was fed through feeding tubes pushed up through his nostrils and down into his stomach. Ensure and similar liquids were poured into the tubes at mealtimes.
The Witness to Guantanamo project has interviewed 97 people in 14 countries including former detainees, as well as people who had lived or worked at the naval base or who had worked on Guantanamo issues, such as prison guards, interpreters, chaplains, medical personnel, psychologists, prosecutors, JAG attorneys, habeas attorneys, interrogators, FBI agents, NCIS agents, high-ranking government officials, high-ranking military officials and parents and wives of former detainees. Recently, the project interviewed the hospital corpsman who told us about “Timmy.” We asked him for his thoughts on “Timmy” and why he thought the young detainee had tried to commit suicide.
The corpsman explained that he could see why the detainee, who had been there for five years, tried to commit suicide. The corpsman speculated that perhaps someone had told the detainee he would never be released, or perhaps the detainee was thinking these thoughts on his own. In either case, the corpsman continued, “If you thought that you would never go home and that this was going to be the rest of your life, why wouldn’t you kill yourself.”
Many of the young soldiers who worked at the base were overwhelmed by what they experienced and witnessed at Guantanamo. Naming the young man “Timmy” was, perhaps, an unconscious technique the soldiers adopted to shield themselves from the horror they were witnessing.
The hospital corpsman had a difficult time working at the clinic in Guantanamo. Although he felt honored to serve in the military and enjoyed his work, seeing “Timmy” near comatose, with a feeding tube in him 24/7, was not what the corpsman had expected when he signed up to work at the base. Nor was the sight of “Timmy” the only disturbing experience the corpsman had. He described the mental unit in the clinic as something that looked like a milking barn, with beds housing mentally unstable detainees on either side of a walkway. To the corpsman, working in the Guantanamo clinic was a far cry from working at a humane medical facility.
The corpsman could also not accept that he was ordered to refer to the detainees by a dehumanizing number, and not by their names or by such words as “gentleman.” He and the other hospital corpsmen and prison guards were instructed not to talk to the detainees in the medical facility but rather to fear them as “the worst of the worst.” All the detainees in the facility, no matter what their state, were shackled.
Although he spent six months working in the clinic in Guantanamo, the corpsman never spoke about his feelings and his intense discomfit with what he was observing. When we asked him why he did not share his feelings with others, he said that the culture at the base did not encourage such talk, or at least the men he knew did not communicate such things. He was not sure whether the women shared such feelings among themselves when they were together. What he understood was that military personnel at the base went out each night and drank. At some point, he no longer joined the drinkers. However, at no time did he find someone at the base in whom he could confide his worries and doubts of the mission.
Then on the day he was to leave Guantanamo, one of the newly arrived medical personnel asked his group whether they had any advice for the new arrivals. A female nurse spoke up and said, “Be true to yourself and don’t let this place warp you.” The corpsman was surprised to hear these words from someone he knew, and wished he had voiced the words himself. We asked him whether he then reached out to the nurse, who seemed to have an understanding and sensitivity similar to his. Oh no, he responded. Even at the end of his tour, he could not bring himself to express to others the depths of what he was feeling.
When he returned home, his parents took him out to dinner. They asked him about his mission and stay in Guantanamo. Overcome with emotion, he replied, “It’s bad, really not a good place.” But, other than that, he told them little to nothing of what he had witnessed.
By speaking with us, this caring corpsman took a risk. He was afraid that his nightmares and flashbacks would surface again. Nevertheless, he understood the bigger picture -- that the world must know how Guantanamo has shadowed the lives of everyone who has set foot across its borders.