My Time as a Guard at Guantánamo Bay
How Terry Holdbrooks entered GTMO a soldier – and left a Muslim convert.
"ERF team assemble, Tango Block." I paid no attention to it, as I had no idea what an "ERF" was. Brief training had been provided when I first arrived, but since I hadn't used that knowledge in the first months, I'd forgotten all about it.
"Holdbrooks! Get your ass off this block and get over to Tango Block! There is an ERF!" my block sergeant yelled at me. I didn't know what to do, so I ran out of the block into the sally port. A group of people were putting on riot gear and it was then that I remembered what an ERF was. ["ERF" stands for "Emergency Reaction Force", which the Guantánamo detainees themselves morphed into the verb "to ERF". It basically involves a team of guards in riot gear entering the cell and forcibly restraining the prisoners, often so that they can be dragged off to be force-fed. It looks a bit like this.] I didn't want to participate in this brutal activity but then the signs that the army might not welcome my worldview had been there from the start.
The idea to enlist into the armed forces came to me in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, but it wasn't about those attacks. Unlike many others around that time, a vengeful feeling about the events of 9/11 did not inform my decision. I believed that the Army training would give me a purpose in life and possibly pull my family legacy out of the Arizona dust. My upbringing had not instilled a sense of structure or order, but I did have a sense of duty to my country and a desire to make it a better place. In search of guidance and personal development, the idea of enlisting resonated. I decided to sign up in an attempt to " be-all-I-could-be".
I joined the Military Police and was deployed as a guard at Guantánamo Bay. As part of our two-week training course, we were taken to the Ground Zero site. There, on a wall, someone had scrawled, "This is the greatest tragedy to happen to all mankind". I chuckled and suggested to those around me that this might be going a little far. Blank, angry stares, admonishment and a question about my allegiance all followed my futile attempt to follow this throwaway remark up with a little reasoning. "Remember, these are not people! These are hate-filled, evil, terrorist dirt farmers, and they will stop at nothing to kill you! NEVER FORGET THIS! NEVER FORGET 9/11!" came thundering back at me.
I realised then and there that my career in the military was not going to centre around being a better American or improving the lives of my fellow citizens. Instead we were going to war with strangers from across the sea. Our job would be to get revenge for 9/11.
"A song by the nu-metal band Drowning Pool played loudly, accompanied by a video of explosions and images of captives with bags over their heads"
Revenge was the consistent message to us at GTMO. At breakfast, I remember the hard-hitting, pivotal part of the soundtrack from Terminator 2 played as we ate. The first time I heard it, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, my pulse racing. I felt a rush of adrenaline as though I were in the middle of watching some epic movie preview. As the next song came on soldiers looked around, smiling at each other while a blood-lusting yell blasted through the speakers in the ceiling corners of the room. It was the beginning of "Bodies", a song by the nu-metal band Drowning Pool. Played loudly, it accompanied a military video of F-14 fly-bys, explosions, images of captives with bags over their heads and aircraft carriers full of planes flaunting their power.
All while we were tucking into our eggs.
An intermittent message rolled in front of the "promotional video". Addressed to the Taliban in Afghanistan, it said: "The US Forces will seek you out and kill you if you don't surrender. We will kill you, bomb you and find you wherever you are." Peach cobbler and waffles sat untouched and I watched my fellow military policemen jump onto the table, holding their chairs above their heads and head-banging to the chorus, "Let the bodies hit the floor". This video was played every morning, reminding us that there were no rules here, feeding the vengeance of the soldiers.
BEING A 'GOOD OL' AMERICAN'
This mood of vengeance was clear as I prepared to carry out my first ERF-ing. We assembled on the block outside the prisoner's cell, the prisoner had a towel wrapped around his face and took an aggressive stance towards us. Along with those in the cells around him, he was yelling angrily. It was pandemonium. There was no time to think before acting. I looked over to the block sergeant and saw he was standing by and ready, along with all the guards who were working Tango Block.
The camp officer was talking to the prisoner, who was yelling about what had been done to him during interrogation. He said he wasn't going to take it any longer. What had happened during the interrogation had incited a riot on the block. The camp officer explained to him that if he did not calm down; he would be sprayed with OC [pepper] spray. The prisoner didn't calm down.
Procedure dictates that the guards administer the spray in a swift "Z" motion across the face, just enough to debilitate the prisoner and render him docile. The camp officer emptied nearly half the can of OC spray on the prisoner's face, his clothes, his Qur'an, and his cell. Waiting 30 seconds to allow the spray to take effect, the door swung open and the five of us in riot gear flooded in.
We hog-tied him with plastic zip-ties and in this position it was simple work for the other soldiers to twist his arms so far they might have dislocated them, put his face in the toilet, step on his hands and feet, and use his head to open the door on our way out. While we punched and kicked inmates like this, soldiers would shout patriotic declarations of revenge: "There's one for America!"
"We were going to put you in an orange jumpsuit and leave you there with all your sand nigger buddies, Holdbrooks"
When the Staff Sergeant heard about my participation, he patted me on the back and said, "You did good back there, Holdbrooks. I had my doubts about you, but you done good." The sergeant was commenting on a second-hand report but could well have viewed the video of the ERF. Military protocol in Gitmo was to take video footage of each ERF, in case we got sued or questions arose regarding unfair practices. It was largely for appearances, as the soldier in charge of filming would typically forget to remove the lens cap, charge the camera battery, press record, or place a tape into the camera.
I was shocked at my own adrenaline rush, at my participation in such an act and at how enthusiastic the other guards were about abusing the prisoner. One of my superiors turned to me afterwards and said: "Holdbrooks, you know we were going to put you in an orange jumpsuit and leave you there at the end of the day with all your sand nigger buddies so you could rot here just like them, but I guess I was wrong, you're a good ol' American after all." Others said similar things.
There were people in Gitmo – plenty of them – who thought the detainees, were just "hate-filled, evil, terrorist dirt-farmers". There was no instruction on Middle Eastern culture or the religion of Islam; we were shown nothing of the actual individuals we would be guarding, their culture or social customs. The first night I spent in the prison was also the first time I heard the adhān: the Islamic call to prayer.
Islam was ugly to those who presided over Gitmo and the adhān was intentionally exaggerated and stretched out of proportion, mutilated by the soundsystem. Just as with the Halal meats, the US Army wanted to project an image of being full of consideration for Islam while in reality making a mockery of it. The distortion of the call was not lost on the soldiers, who found it as caustic and abrasive as the sweltering heat. But tossing and turning through that first night, I kept hearing the mysterious Arabic "chant" in my ears. Blasted through the speakers, distorted and annoying to others, it touched a place inside my soul, a place that called to me.
Far from being the "towel heads" and "dirt farmers" I imagined, the prisoners were educated, polite and often able to speak a number of languages, and as time went by I spent more and more time talking to them, particularly Ahmed Errachidi, who was known as "the General". The more I learned about Islam, the more accepting of it I felt. It was neither the words nor the actions of the prisoners that pressured me: the impulse to accept Islam came from within my own heart.
I wasn't in a prison cell, I had all the freedom in the world and yet I was miserable. The detainees, with their living faith, were happier than I was. They had nothing but they were still happy. Their religion was holding them together. I wanted the peace that they seemed to have.
The General gave me his copy of the Qur'an. I was amazed at his sacrifice and I read the book in three nights. It made sense from beginning to end. It's a book that, for me, doesn't contradict itself. There is no magical thinking in it. It's just a simple manual for living and later, after I'd converted to Islam but was out in the civilian world, trying to drink my memories of Guantánamo away, I realised that I'd been happiest in the detention camp, when I was being a good Muslim.
The answer to the question I kept asking myself was clear now; it was the reason I was in Gitmo. My need for guidance was almost palpable. Although throughout my life I had ridiculed the importance placed on religious beliefs and practices; the truth was I needed religion.
I had already been implementing bits of Islamic practice into my life. With each change, life for me got better; for every door that I closed, more doors opened. My head was clearer, my time was being spent in more valuable ways, and my overall mental disposition was much more positive. My own implementation of the slightest changes had proven to me that being a Muslim was what I needed. I was on a mission.
One night, I found the General and told him, for the second time, that I wanted to accept Islam. When I'd first mentioned it, he'd simply said "No" but this time, we talked for hours.
"Listen, Brother," he said. "Do you understand all of the things that will change in your life if you do this? You will not be allowed to drink any more, to smoke any more, to eat pork any more, to have sex outside of marriage, or to look at porn. You will need to learn Arabic. You will need to pray five times a day. You will need to learn this religion, and it will be the governing factor in your life if you really submit yourself to the will of Allah. Your unit is going to look at you differently. You may end up in a cell with us. Your family will look at you differently. Your friends will look at you differently, and your life will become much harder."
He went on, discussing prayer and charity and observance of Ramadan. "If you are sure you want to do this, I will tell you how to say the Shahaadah and you will be a Muslim," he told me. "But there is no turning back after this. Once you have accepted Allah in your heart, and submitted to His Will, you will surely be condemned if you abandon Him. Do you understand?"
I told him I did and there, after midnight, outside his cell with his neighbour as a witness, I accepted Islam. Other soldiers made life hard for me for a time but the worst members of "the Regime", the group made up of the kind of guards who loved ERF-ing, were moved into less important jobs for the last half of my year-long stretch in Guantánamo.
A year as a guard in Guantánamo changes you. It would be nice to believe that some of the more disturbing stories that come out of places like this are not true. It would also be nice to believe that America does not sanction the use of torture or abuse of its prisoners of war. It would be nice to believe America doesn't tolerate the debasement of prisoners to extract information. However, life – and especially life in a place like Gitmo – isn't generally nice.
For years, I couldn't feel any sense of closure around some of what I had seen in the prison, neither with what I had done, nor with what I had been unable to do. My time there simply ended. Then it was the plane home. I was plagued by nightmares, I started drinking again and my marriage, which had begun just before I left to go to Guantánamo, broke down.
At Guantánamo, standing up for what I thought was right would have cost me everything: my career, my financial security and whatever else I valued. I am not a hero. I'm not a patriot, either. I feel I am a coward. A hero would have said, "No more!" and a patriot would have said, "This is wrong and we all know it!" A coward is one who goes along with the programme.
If everyone had left their hatred at home, Guantánamo could have been easy. There were sandy beaches, scuba diving and paintball. We had a movie theatre and a skate park, but so many of us just got drunk, drowning in our hatred.
I feel deep regret over participating in what happened at Gitmo, and shame for the other black-sites America uses to detain innocents. I feel personally responsible for how the world now looks at Americans. I want to tell people that not all Americans are bad apples. I don't understand how or why those committing the abuses and atrocities I witnessed are allowed to do so, or what happened to their humanity.