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Evil Sponge Bob and Satan: Inside a Guantanamo Bay Prison Riot

In this excerpt from his book Murder at Camp Delta, former Guantanamo guard Joseph Hickman describes putting down a prisoner riot — and how he earned the nickname "Satan."
Photo via DVIDS

After serving in the military for much of his adult life, former Marine Joseph Hickman re-enlisted in the Army National Guard after 9/11. The staff sergeant expected to be deployed to Iraq, but instead his company was sent to Guantanamo Bay in 2006 to guard detainees being held there as part of the global war on terror.

Watch VICE News interview Joseph Hickman here.

Doing quick reaction force (QRF) duty had been a big part of our training at Fort Lewis, where we practiced cell extractions of noncompliant detain­ees and dealing with other potential disturbances. The Guardsmen we replaced at Guantanamo had told us that during their year of deployment, they had done only one cell extraction, and a very simple one at that. One detainee had refused to leave his cell. As soon as they rushed his cage, he gave up, and they pulled him out. They described the QRF duty as "pretty mellow."


In our first weeks, we enjoyed QRF duty. Our squad was assigned to it about once every six days, and it was a nice break from the 12-­hour-day guard duties.

Behind Camp 4 at Guantanamo stood the behavioral health building: the clinic where detainees were taken when they had mental breakdowns. Next to this was another medical building, where, during the big hunger strike of 2005, they would bring detainees to force-feed them. Since there was no hunger strike going on when we arrived in March 2006, this served as the QRF staging area.

The room was creepy. It was still filled with cases of Ensure, the protein drink given to detainees during forced feedings, and against one wall were piles of medical equipment, tubing, and straps used to immobilize the hunger strikers. The place reminded me of Franken­stein's lab from the old movies.

We kept our shields and batons along another wall and the other tools of our trade — the pepper spray canisters, shotguns, M203 gre­nade launchers, and nonlethal munitions — in locked boxes.

Guantanamo now calls hunger strikes 'longterm non-religious fasts.' Read more here.

On the days when we were assigned to the QRF, we'd inventory the weapons to make sure that the previous squad had left them in good order, and we would spend a couple hours outside practicing cell ex­tractions and fighting techniques with batons and shields.

Most of our time, though, was spent inside the hut. It was air-conditioned and had a TV and a DVD player. QRF duty was almost like having a day off. We'd watch movies and help ourselves to the En­sure. We sat around like Maytag repairmen.


In late April we started training harder for cell extractions, and for a new command structure within our squad's QRF. Normally, Staff Ser­geant Hayes would command our QRF, but we found out that in mid-May he was slated to leave Gitmo for about two weeks. Each of us was allotted a two-week vacation during our deployment, but these were staggered across the units. In his absence, the other team leader in our squad, Sergeant Earl Pitman, would run the QRF. To augment our 10-man squad — down to nine men in Staff Sergeant Hayes's absence — we would borrow a guy from another squad.

My duty on the QRF did not change all that much. I was still in charge of my five-man team. Because we had Specialist Thompson, the biggest man in our squad and the designated doorman, our team trained to go in right behind him. This never changed.

The day before Hayes was slated to leave Gitmo on May 18, Ser­geant Pitman was injured. His loss meant that I would be the senior non-commissioned officer (NCO) in charge of our squad, but we'd be down two men. It also hap­pened to be our squad's day for QRF duty.

The morning of May 18, we showed up at six o'clock to begin our duty on QRF. We had two guys from the platoon augmenting our squad and spent about an hour going through drills outside our stag­ing area. Whoever had been on QRF before us had misplaced a baton. Since Private José Vasquez had proven himself such a good fighter, he was designated to go without a baton should we be called.


At about 11am, we were resting inside the staging area when the phone rang. I picked up and identified myself. Colonel Bumgarner was on the line. He said, "Hickman, get your men to Camp 1. There's a disturbance."

Everybody grabbed his shield and designated weapons and climbed into the Humvee truck assigned to the QRF. In the two or three min­utes it took us to reach the entrance to Camp 1, a number of concerns played through my mind.

If detainees were injured or killed in a confrontation with my QRF, it would be a major international incident. That was the paradox of Gitmo. In some ways, it was a rear-echelon, backwater deployment, but it was the flashpoint for America's policies in the global war on terror. Even though we didn't follow politics much in my unit, we un­derstood just how seriously the military wanted to avoid problems. Any interaction with a noncompliant prisoner offered the potential for some sort of problem, which I would be responsible for as senior NCO in charge of the QRF.

My biggest concern was the safety of the guys I was leading. Most of my guys were from tough neighborhoods in Baltimore, but I didn't know how they would react in an outright confrontation against a detainee with nothing to lose. In my corrections work in the US, I'd seen how quickly caged men could flip in a confrontation and fight like animals. PFC Stewart, for all his mouth, was just a baby at 18 years old. I didn't want any of my guys injured.


When we drove into Camp 1, we dismounted from the truck and lined up on the walkway leading to the cell block entrance. Even on a good day, the place sounded like bedlam, but the noise emanating from the cell block was much louder than usual. Also, more Navy guards than usual were stationed outside — perhaps two dozen of them.

Colonel Bumgarner walked over to me and filled me in. "Two de­tainees tried to commit suicide by overdosing on drugs they'd hidden in their Korans," he said.

He didn't elaborate about what kind of drugs they'd taken. Detain­ees were sometimes given different pills in the medical clinic or in the behavioral health clinic that could be toxic if saved up to be taken in large doses. The two detainees who'd overdosed were in the health clinic and in no danger of dying, but Colonel Bumgarner feared that other detainees in Camp 1 might also be hoarding pills.

My guys weren't angry enough. They were making polite shots toward the detainees' arms and torsos. We were starting to lose the fight.

The Navy guards had started to search their cells for hidden pills, but the detainees wouldn't allow the infidels to touch their Korans. One detainee had violently resisted, and those in the other cells went crazy, so they'd called us.

"I want your squad to go through the cell block, extract each de­tainee and restrain him, so the guards can search their cells," Colonel Bumgarner told me.


There were 27 detainees in 27 cells inside the cell block. I didn't like those odds. Even if each extraction went rela­tively smoothly, doing 27 in a row almost guaranteed that someone was going to be injured. There had to be a safer way.

As the colonel and I were talking about his plan to extract the entire cell block, I had an idea.The military contracted out to a company called Titan Corporation, which provided civilian interpreters to help deal with detainees. Because 99 percent of US military contact with detainees involved basics such as sliding food into their cells and marching them to exercise areas, we seldom saw interpreters doing much. They were on hand mostly to help at the clinics when detainees showed up.

How Guantanamo became America's interrogation 'Battle Lab.' Read more here.

I seldom if ever spoke to the interpreters. I'd see them in the chow halls, and while I was pretty certain that most were Americans, I also believed they were Muslim. Standing there talking to Colonel Bumgarner, I said, "Sir, would the detainees calm down if we used a Muslim interpreter to inspect their Korans?"

"That's a really good idea," he said.

He walked over to the senior NCO of the Navy guards and sug­gested using a Muslim interpreter. This guy thought it was a good idea, too.

I was surprised no one had thought of this yet, but the Navy guards tended to be bullheaded in their approach to the detainees. Colonel Bumgarner had been called after the tensions had escalated and had probably been in reaction mode. Seeing the possibility of an uprising in the cell blocks, he'd jumped at the idea of using our QRF.


We stayed on hand as they brought in an interpreter. When the interpreter explained that he, a fellow Muslim, would inspect their Korans, the detainees calmed down. I felt it was the most successful resolution to a QRF mission there could be. We returned to our stag­ing area without having to overpower a single detainee.

We would not be so lucky during our next call.

We barely had time to clean up and stow our gear when the phone rang again at the QRF staging area. It was about 5:30 that same day. The caller, whose voice I didn't recognize, shouted, "Disturbance in Camp 4! Disturbance in Camp 4!" He sounded panicky.

For all my criticisms of Captain Drake, I will say that back at Fort Lewis, he was the only one smart enough to identify Camp 4 as the most dangerous place to put down a riot. We had been studying a chart showing the layout of Camp Delta, and some other officer had skipped over Camp 4, saying it was the compliant camp and therefore the saf­est, when Captain Drake interjected, "Camp 4 is the worst place be­cause it has 10-man communal cells. It's the only place detainees can mass against us."

Once we arrived at Gitmo, we saw it was even worse. The commu­nal rooms were each about the size of a two-car garage. The cell doors opened to the outside and had solid walls. Guards couldn't just walk around like they could in the open cell blocks in the rest of the camp to see what was going on. Even worse, when you opened the doors, the communal cells had rows of built-in cots that the prisoners could hide behind like bunkers.


Camp 4 was the last place I wanted to confront detainees. When we drove up, the scene that greeted us was unlike anything I'd witnessed before at Gitmo. There were nearly 200 Navy guards lined up in formation in the exercise yard. Their show of force was pitted against a wall of sound that rose from the inmates, who were pounding the walls and screaming from inside the cell blocks. When we stepped off the truck, it felt like the ground was vibrating.

As we walked forward with our riot gear, I saw Colonel Bumgarner standing with a Navy chaplain. When I approached him, he shouted, "They're acting up in Whiskey block. They won't come out."

I marched my guys in formation toward Whiskey block, a 10-man communal cell near the end of one building. There were about 30 Navy guards standing outside the cell block — a solid-walled build­ing with a single door. We'd drilled for months for this procedure. I would lead the squad to the door. They would line up, with Thomp­son in front, and me — or whoever was senior NCO — directly behind Thompson. Once in position, I was supposed to open the door just enough to assess the situation, to either enter in force, take a pause to negotiate, or pursue another tactic, such as throwing in a concussion grenade before entering.

But before my men got within reach of the door, a Navy guard shouted, "There's a detainee in there hanging himself!"

The guard opened the door and jumped back. We had no chance to assess the situation. We were still a good 10 to 15 feet from the door, which was now wide open. Suddenly we were faced with the prospect of detainees rushing out the door. To prevent this from hap­pening, I shouted at my men, "We're going in!"


Watch VICE News interview Joseph Hickman here.

I ran, with Specialist Thompson in front of me, to the door. As the senior NCO, I had no shield or baton, just my riot helmet with a Plexi­glas visor, two cans of pepper spray secured to my vest, and a couple of flash-bang grenades that would be useless, or dangerous, to set off once we entered the cell. Thompson was my shield. I held his shoulder with one hand as we went through the door.The other eight guys from the squad followed and formed a line on either side of us.

The basic tactic was to move forward in a line, pressing the detain­ees with our shields. The more we squeezed them, the harder it would be for them to fight. Those who resisted would be beaten with batons. Those who ceased fighting would be pulled down our line to be flex-cuffed, one at a time, and then thrown out the door.

We had two guys with shotguns and a third guy with the M203, but because the room had a depth of only 20 feet, we weren't supposed to use them. At such close quarters, these so-called nonlethal rubber and plastic projectiles could inflict fatal injuries.

Like me, the guys with guns did not have shields. They were sup­posed to stay in the back and help flex-cuff detainees who surren­dered — or, in the event of a lethal attack on one of my guys, use their weapons. This meant that only six of the 10 guys would be in front with shields.

Each of the eight guys from my squad had trained so often that we knew the drill by heart. The guys who augmented our squad — one of whom carried the M203, and the other a baton and shield — had no problem keeping up as we entered.


But the moment Specialist Thompson and I set foot in the room, our situational awareness was severely diminished by a volley of piss, feces, and metal objects. The detainees had smashed apart a security camera in the room, the light fixtures, a fan, and an air conditioner and were using the shattered pieces as projectiles. There was no sign of a hanging or an attempted suicide. This was an ambush.

The detainees had prepared a small cache of feces and cups of urine to throw at us, and they'd covered the first five feet or so of the floor with soap. As we tried to form or line up, we skidded around like Key­stone Kops, clutching at one another to keep from falling over.

Because Specialist Thompson was the biggest, he set the pace for our advance. We'd moved only about five or six feet forward when Thompson stopped. I shouted, "Keep going!"

I heard Thompson shouting over and over, "Motherfucker!"

I finally saw that one of the detainees was armed with a metal pole taken from a fan. It was maybe six feet long, and he'd targeted Special­ist Thompson with it. He was just pounding and thrusting at his shield, trying to strike Specialist Thompson on his helmet or drive it into his face. But Thompson was able to duck the blows. He stood his ground but was unable to advance.

On our outlying flank, one of my men struggled with two detainees who attempted to take his baton. Both of them were pulling on the weapon, and now a second guy from my squad had joined in the melee to prevent the detainees from grabbing it.


Meanwhile, another two detainees were trying to rush past them to grab at our shotgun.

The detainees had either planned this or instinctually understood elemental tactics. They'd used their heaviest weapon — the pole — to stop our biggest guy, Specialist Thompson, and they'd probed our flanks for weakness and were now trying to push through the breach.

When we entered the fight, it was a shock. Being better armed and equipped was almost a disadvantage in the kind of close-quarters fight in which we had found ourselves. The shields made it tough to ma­neuver and, psychologically, created an instinct to hide. In the Marine Corps, they sometimes called this tendency "cocooning." When some­one had a good fighting position or a secure-feeling vehicle, there was a natural instinct to cling to it for safety when attacked. We were co­cooning behind the security of our shields.

The detainees seized the initiative. They were crazy from being caged up for all those years. They weren't intimidated by our shields or the handful of baton blows a couple of my guys landed. They didn't seem bothered by pain or worried about the guys in back carrying guns. Most of them were shouting in English, "Come on, motherfuck­ers! I'm going to kill you!"

My guys weren't angry enough. They were making polite shots toward the detainees' arms and torsos. We were starting to lose the fight.

My biggest fear was that the two detainees rushing our flank might grab a shotgun or the M203. I ran toward them. I grabbed the detainee closest to the shotgun by his shirt. As he turned, I got my right arm on him and pulled him into me. At the same time, I threw an overhand left and hit him right in the face. It was a very good connection. I threw him back, and he fell over, bleeding.


I threw several punches at another detainee who was grabbing for my guy's baton. I didn't connect with his face as well as with the first detainee's, but I landed two or three blows, forcing him to back away.

The fight appeared to be over, until the guy with the pole rose up and tried whacking us again. The detainee was like the Energizer Bunny of Islamic jail fighters.

A third detainee tried bulling through our line and tackling me, but I came up with an elbow punch, starting my swing low from my stom­ach. I was able to put a lot of hip into it, and when I connected with his forehead, I busted his skin open. When you break skin, it makes a loud snapping sound. Suddenly there was a lot of blood mixed in with the rest of the filth on the floor.

I shouted, "OC!" — an abbreviation for pepper spray's active ingre­dient, oleoresin capsicum — at my men and fired a blast at one of the detainees closest to me. He went down. Then I tried squirting the guy with the pole, who was still beating on Specialist Thompson's shield. I used the entire can and never got him.

Yes, tear gas used in Ferguson is banned in warfare — but not in war zones. Read more here.

Before I could start on another can, four of the detainees raised their hands and came forward. Two of them were guys I'd beaten in the face. They were bleeding profusely, their long beards wet and red. The other two were coughing and wheezing from the pepper spray. It had panicked them. One was vomiting.


My guys were so disciplined that when these wretched detainees ap­proached, nobody struck or kicked them. Privates Stewart and Vasquez made a space and grabbed each combatant one at a time. They handed them to me, and I turned them around and flex-cuffed them before I pushed them out the door.

From my jail transport experience in the States, I could flex-cuff a person in about five seconds. We cleared out the four guys who didn't want to fight anymore in less than a minute. As I pushed the last one out the door, he looked at me and said in perfect English, "You fight like the devil."

(Later, a detainee would say to me, "You fight like a demon. You're Satan." Word spread, and for the rest of my time at Gitmo, detainees and Navy guards alike called me Satan.)

Unfortunately, so did his friends. I had hoped the first four surren­ders were the start of a trend. But as we pushed the last surrender out, the hail of hard objects increased. The remaining detainees had taken positions behind the built-in beds and were using them as cover as they aimed for head shots with hunks of metal. That son of a bitch with the pole was crouching low and still whacking Specialist Thompson.

Two of the detainees leapt up and rammed themselves into my guys' shields, trying to knock them over. This was their most ferocious as­sault yet. Anytime that we pepper-sprayed a roomful of people, those who didn't give in to hysteria from the shock of it tended to come back with great anger. On these types, using pepper spray was like kicking a hornet's nest.


From the corner of my eye, I saw Private Stewart's shield rising into the air, as if in slow motion. I thought, "What the fuck is he doing? Throwing his shield away?"

Stewart brought the shield over his head, exposing his body from the chest down. A detainee rushed him. As the detainee got close to tackle him, the private brought down the hard bottom edge of the shield, slamming the detainee on the head. It was like hitting him with a shovel. When the detainee tried to throw his arms around the bot­tom of Stewart's shield, the private brought it up again and slammed the guy once more. Defeated, the detainee crawled away. One of his buddies attempted to take his place, so Stewart raised his shield and clocked him. It was not any tactic we'd been trained in, but PFC Stew­art was going nuts with it. I almost started laughing at the sight of this tall, skinny kid from Baltimore going crazy with his shield.

Stewart inspired all my other guys. Everybody started fighting like an animal. Private Vasquez was using his shield like a ram to try to knock over guys. Stewart's warrior spirit, as well as the pepper spray — which was burning us now as badly as it was burning the detainees — had riled up everybody. But these die-hard detainees didn't cave. My guys were now beating the snot out of them, but they kept coming back for more. Worse, we still had that one detainee with the pole hitting Specialist Thompson and anyone else who tried to maneuver toward him.


Two badly beaten detainees managed to knock down one of my guys. They piled on him to grab his shield and rip at his face and body with their hands. This had turned into a savage dogfight. One of the detainees was trying to bite my guy's arm and hand. As we were rushing to defend him, I saw a detainee crawl over the bunks holding a shank: a shard of metal about 10 inches long made from a light fixture. The detainee was getting in position to stab whomever he could reach first.

Once I saw that blade, I made the decision to end the fight. If they didn't stab one of us, my men were reaching a point where we might beat one of the detainees to death. These prisoners would not surren­der.

I grabbed the guard with the shotgun and pointed at the detainee with the shank. I shouted, "Fire!"

He hesitated. Shooting at such close range went against our train­ing. I shouted, "Shoot him to death if you have to! Fire that fucking shotgun now!"

The gunner complied. The impact of the rubber buckshot lifted the detainee and threw him back five feet. The man was bleeding from the chest, but he was still holding the shank.

"Hit every one of them!" I shouted to both of my guys with shot­guns. I wanted this fight over immediately. They let off four more rounds, making a total of five shotgun discharges. Every detainee but one was down, all of them howling in pain. Several were moan­ing, "Allahu Akbar!" Some of their holy pleas were mixed in with Navy cuss words, so it came out, "Allahu Akbar! Motherfucker! Asshole! Allahu Akbar!"


A couple of these detainees, curled up in fetal positions and rolling in pain, were still threatening, "I'm going to beat your ass!"

The fight appeared to be over, until the guy with the pole rose up and tried whacking us again. The detainee was like the Energizer Bunny of Islamic jail fighters.

I'd had it with him. I shouted to the man with the M203, "The guy with the pole! Hit him. Fire!" The M203 sounded almost like a cork popping from a champagne bottle when it was fired. The 40 millime­ter round — which we'd nicknamed "Evil Sponge Bob" — hit him in the chest from less than 10 feet away. The shot lifted him two feet off the ground and carried him back six.

After we demonstrated what Evil Sponge Bob could do, even the detainee still clutching the shank let go of it. We heard it fall to the ground with a clink. Instead of taunting us, they started crying, "Help me! Please!"

The fight had gone out of them. We flex-cuffed the bleeding detain­ees one at a time. Some of the blood came from blows to the head de­livered by my guys. Most of it came from the rubber shotgun buckshot. As I cuffed the detainees and saw them up close, it was obvious that "rubber" buckshot was a misnomer. The buckshot pellets are more of a hard plastic. It had ripped through their clothes and shredded or punc­tured their skin.

Thankfully, none of the detainees had lost an eye from the shotgun blasts. The man hit by Evil Sponge Bob was badly jacked up. My guess was that several of his ribs were broken, but he would recover.

My order to fire our weapons had been a gamble. But I still believe today that had we kept fighting with fists, clubs, and shields, we might have killed or permanently injured the detainees. Had one of them suc­ceeded in shanking one of my guys, not only could one of them have been injured or killed, it would have been a lot tougher to rein in ev­erybody else and prevent them from getting even more savage. It was dumb luck that none of the rounds had been lethal. I gave orders to use lethal force and stopped the fight, but nobody had died. Despite being covered in blood and filth from the detainees we'd fought, my guys were all up and walking. For me, that was the most important outcome.

'Guantanamo: Black Out Bay.' Watch the VICE News documentary here.

I wanted my team out of that room as fast as possible. Our lungs and faces were burning from the pepper spray. But in rushing to leave, I committed a serious blunder: I failed to order a final sweep of the room. The room was filled with smoke from the gun blasts, and I hadn't ordered anyone to walk between the rows of built-in beds. I was sure that we had cuffed and sent out 10 men, but as we were turning to leave, PFC Vasquez kept his head. He said, "We need to clear the room."

He walked into the rows and found a man we'd missed: a stocky detainee in his 60s. He was hiding under a pile of torn blankets, with his face pressed down in a puddle of urine and blood. I wondered, "Is he the reason the guys in the room wouldn't surrender?"

I couldn't be sure. All I knew was that Private Vasquez saved my ass from a serious screwup. Had we left that man alone in the room, God only knows what he might have done.

I checked my watch. The entire time we'd spent in that room was no more than 12 minutes. It felt like a lifetime.

Watch VICE News interview Joseph Hickman here.

From MURDER AT CAMP DELTA: A Staff Sergeant's Pursuit Of The Truth About Guantanamo Bay by Joseph Hickman. Copyright © 2015 by Joseph L. Hickman. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.