At the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba nearly 500 detainees, most of them captured during the Afghanistan war, await release or trial. Many of them have been held for more than four years, and are suspected of being key figures in the al-Qaida terrorist network or the Taleban movement that gave the terrorists sanctuary when it ruled Afghanistan. Officials say most of the detainees are fairly cooperative with guards and interrogators, but sometimes the frustration of being incarcerated for so long boils over.
The Guantanamo detainees live behind fences and razor wire, the uncooperative ones restricted to a small cell for most of the day. Aside from each other, and occasional meetings with lawyers or interrogators, the only people they interact with are their unarmed guards, mostly young U.S. Navy seamen with special training.
And some of them are women.
"I've noticed that as I walk, a lot of them will look away from me, and a lot of them won't want me to do anything for them because I'm a female. But then there's some that actually want me to do whatever, and will actually holler for me instead of one of the males," said Cassandra Wiggins
Seaman Wiggins, 20, is petite with just over one year in the Navy. Her blonde hair is tied into a bun under her camouflage cap. She says some of the detainees who are willing to interact with her at all seem to delight in singling her out for verbal abuse.
"I've been called quite a few names, some pretty bad names that I've never been called before," she added. "I've had people tell me that they've never heard anybody cursed out or talked bad to as bad as I have when I've been on the blocks. Not all of them do it, because most of them won't talk to me, but the ones that do, if I don't do what they say they'll call me a name. They'll call me, like, a whore or, I mean, just anything that they think is going to make me mad."
Seaman Wiggins says many of the detainees speak English well enough to insult her in her own language. But others launch diatribes in their languages such as Arabic, Pashto or Persian.
"I've had a detainee yelling at me in their language. The interpreter would look at me and go, like, 'Whoa, he's really cursing you out,'" she said.
But not all of the interaction is vulgar. Aside from everyday requests, Seaman Wiggins says sometimes the detainees try to get her and other guards to discuss world politics.
"If we mess something up or they just feel like they're having a bad day, they'll sit there and talk to us about 9/11 and about Osama bin Laden and say this and that and blah, blah, blah. I don't respond," she explained. "If they start talking about it I just, I'll walk away. I mean, we're told not to respond. And if we walk away and we keep a straight face, like a poker face or whatever, they'll stop eventually."
That is Seaman Wiggins' main strategy for dealing with outbursts from the detainees at Guantanamo.
But how did a young woman who looks like she belongs on a university campus or at shopping at a mall back home in the Midwestern state of Ohio end up guarding alleged global terrorists? She decided to join the Navy after high school, and trained as a Master at Arms, the Navy's term for military police who guard Navy installations. But when she finished her training, she says she was sort of asked, and sort of told she would be going to Guantanamo.
"I was kind of 'volun-told.' But, you know, you've got to do what you've got to do," she said.
Seaman Wiggins acknowledges that she never expected any duty like this when she joined the Navy.
Pessin: Did it give you any second thought?
Wiggins: No. No, not really.
Pessin: What did you think you'd be doing?
Wiggins: Well, I thought I'd be like just guarding gates, standing gate duty. But this is what our rate [job classification] is going to, so, I mean, we kind of all have to expect to do this now.
After four months guarding detainees at Guantanamo, Seaman Cassandra Wiggins says while some of the experience is not pleasant, she doesn't mind all that much.
"Some of it, just, I'm like, wow, how can people actually call you stuff like that, and things. But, I mean, for the most part it's not as bad as we all thought it was going to be," she said.
Indeed, with eight months to go in her Guantanamo deployment, she says she might even volunteer to return someday, particularly if that would enable a married colleague to stay home with his or her family.