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Military Serving in Guantanamo Say Detainees are Treated Humanely - 2002-09-10

Since declaring war on terrorism, the United States has held combatants captured in Afghanistan at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. U.S. troops assigned to the operation have gotten a first-hand look at the detainees, believed to be members of the former Taleban regime and the al-Qaida terrorist network. For some of the troops, the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks has special significance and added impact, given their current duties.

The Guantanamo Bay facility holds 598 suspected Taleban and al-Qaida terrorists. Captain Sandra Orlandella has toiled here for four months. On September 11, 2001, she was on duty as a New York City police officer. She says she vividly remembers the chaos of that day, when the World Trade Center's twin towers collapsed.

The whole department was in shock and it was pretty scary to watch," Captain Orlandella said. "We all wanted to do something, but we did not know what to do. It was overwhelming."

The U.S. Army reserve officer says she anticipated the call to active duty, following the terrorist attacks, and was pleased when assigned to the detainee operation at Guantanamo.

"Being in New York and working in the department, I felt like that was not enough," she said. "I needed to take it a step further, whether it was in Afghanistan or here, did not matter to me. It was personal now. It is an honor, actually, to be here."

But despite the horrors she witnessed in New York, the captain says she was surprised by what she felt the first time her eyes met those of a detainee at Camp Delta, the high-security facility that houses the former combatants. Sandra Orlandella says she might have expected to feel hatred, but felt none.

Captain Orlandella: "It was weird looking into their faces, into their eyes. I had mixed feelings."

Bowman: "Did they seem like monsters to you?"

Orlandella: "No. I looked at them and I saw a person."

Brigadier General Rick Baccus commands the detainee operation. He says the September 11 anniversary serves as a reminder of what the effort at Guantanamo is all about.

"For the servicemen here supporting this operation, over 80 percent have been called up in support of the war on terrorism," he said. "For them it is very important to mark this anniversary because it reflects the fact that they have had to put their families and jobs on hold to come down here and do this mission."

Colonel John Perrone heads the security team at Camp Delta. He says tending to the needs of hundreds of former combatants, from dietary requirements to medical care, is no small matter. He says the military's ability to mount the detainee operation within weeks of the start of hostilities in Afghanistan stands as a testament to America's commitment to the war on terrorism.

"There is no question that there have been a number of challenges with this operation: setting up the operation in a short period of time, determining the detainees legal status, how to house them and how to provide for their care," Colonel Perrone said.

Like most Americans, military personnel at Guantanamo Bay will pause to reflect on the one-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Autumn Blewett, a military police officer who deals directly with the detainees at Camp Delta, says it is hard to let go of the anger she still feels about what happened a year ago.

"Being close to September 11, you feel a little more anger inside of you," she said. "But this is a job where you have to let go of your feelings at the gate and remember that you are not there to judge."

Ms. Blewett says she finds it difficult to decipher the expressions on the faces of most of the suspected Taleban and al-Qaida detainees with whom she has contact. But she says, if she had one wish for the September 11 anniversary, it would be that the detainees abandon any future thoughts of terrorist activity.

"I can only hope they realize that this should never happen again," she said, "And, how tightly-knit the United States is and how much pride we have in our country. And how we are not going to let this happen one more time."

Military police officer Blewett says, if her prayers are answered, the current detainee operation will be the last such effort the United States will ever be compelled to mount.