Interview with Terry Holdbrooks, former Guantanamo guard
Several current and former U.S. soldiers have expressed interest in speaking publicly about their experience at Guantanamo: including a CIA psychologist, interrogators, guards, and medical personnel. They are disgusted with what they witnessed or took part in at Guantanamo, but declined my request for an interview, because they fear opening themselves up to prosecution by the US government, which required them to sign a Non Disclosure Agreement.
I was also told that many are afraid of being prosecuted for war crimes, since low level soldiers are often the ones who shoulder the brunt of punishment and backlash; whereas higher ranking officials seem to escape scrutiny completely.
Terry Holdbrooks is a former guard at the Guantanamo Bay detention camps. He was stationed at GTMO in 2003 and 2004. During his time there, he converted to Islam. He is now a vocal critic of the camp.
Holdbrooks' testimony for UC Davis's "The Guantanamo Testimonials Project" can be read here.
In 2009, Holdbrooks was interviewed by Toronto Star reporter Michelle Shephard, the author of Guantanamo's Child, a book about Guantanamo captive Omar Khadr, who was a minor when he was captured and sent to Guantanamo in March of 2009. You can read more about that interview, here, here.
Tell me a little bit about yourself before you entered the military.
Before I entered the military I was an atheist. I came from an interesting background of a two drug using parents...biological parents...who decided to separate when I was seven...and pawn me off on my grandparents. And, my grandparents were left over hippies...and one was a cancer survivor.
Politics never played much of an interest in the home, neither did faith. They weren't really issues of importance. Issues of importance were good academic grades, strong worth ethic...things like that.
There wasn't really much of a care of anything else. My grandmother passed away about the time I was seventeen...just before I graduated And, her and my grandfather had moved out of the house just a couple months prior to her passing, so I had a house to myself. Which is kind of odd - a seventeen year old with a five bedroom house.
But when she passed away, my great grandmother changed that, and kind of gave me the ultimatum of go to college or get a job. And, there was really nothing that I wanted to go to college for. I hadn't found what I wanted to do yet. So, I had to look for a job, and I am not really much of a person that likes jobs to be honest with you.
I just don't enjoy a...I have an issue with people trying to have me do something the way that just seems to be redundant.
You know, if I could find a more effective means of accomplishing the situation, I would rather just do it the way that I am gonna do it.
So, yeah, I had a number of odd and interesting jobs when I was younger, but...in any case...I decided to enlist in the military.
9/11 had absolutely no bearing, whatsoever, on my decision to enlist in the military.
I know a lot of soldiers ended up joining as a result of 9/11, but as far as I was concerned. It was kind of a blessing. It was a wake up call for the United States that we are not untouchable.
Two oceans doesn't separate us from trouble. But, I am the only human I think in the United States who feels that way. A lot of people seem to call me a sociopath for not having these great overwhelming feelings of sorrow and remorse, and sympathy for the situation.
I understand it is simply what it was. One event that occurred, and you've got two choices: You can either be a survivor or you can be a victim.
Is that a response that is more for...are you positioning yourself against your critics or do you feel that in your heart?
No. No. No. I feel that in my heart: You can either be a survivor, or be a victim. I just can't stand it when people take the "Oh, pity me route."
If you lost a family member in 9/11, obviously I can understand that but otherwise just move past it.
I do want to talk about your time in the military. And, of course, I want to talk about your time about your time at Guantanamo Bay. And, I want to talk about where you are at, and what your stance is on that...but where are you now?
I'm starting my bachelors courses. I am hoping to have my book published in the next two or three months, hopefully.
And, that book is...?
The name of it is actually going through a change.
We were going to entitled it Traitor...kind of in response to my Newsweek article.
When the Newsweek article came out there was...I think...35 hundred comments in the first three days. Half of them were saying, you know, "We should have left this traitor, sympathizer, towel-head, sand-nigger, yada yada yada"....every other name you can think of that would be awful to call somebody..."We should have left him in Guantanamo with his buddies."
And, then the other half of them were giving me praise: "Thank you, This person is speaking the truth. This person is being honest. This is a great thing."
I just though "traitor" was an interesting title, because how many of these people who are condemning me...have they been in the military? Did they go to Guantanamo? Are they 35 years old playing Dungeons and Dragons and hanging out in their mother's basement?
So, I thought it was an interesting title, but we are changing the new title, and I am kind of personifying some more situations and providing more dialogue as opposed to telling you how somebody felt. I am trying to show how they felt.
Do you feel like you are a traitor?
No. But I also in kind wouldn't feel that I am a very patriotic individual either.
Fair enough. What do you think about patriotism? What do you think about that idea?
It's healthy in small doses.
Help me understand how you got stationed at Guantanamo, and what happened while you were there?
Well, nobody really chooses where they are gonna get stationed. The military kind of sends you where they need you.
Being that there are not that many individuals in the military who are correctional officers...the closest job...similar job would be military police.
So, they send military police officers in place of correctional officers.
That is how I ended up going down there was that I was a military police officer. And, they needed people to fill the units...to fill the missions so to say.
It was interesting, we had two weeks of ill prepared training from individuals who had never been to Guantanamo, and knew nothing about it. They were teaching us how to work in Guantanamo.
I just thought that was kinda funny, you know, choosing people who haven't been there, and don't know about it to train us how to work in an environment they have never been to.
That seemed interesting to me...
Did it seem interesting to you or did it seem like it was poorly managed?
Oh yeah. Absolutely poorly managed. It's the six P's - Piss Poor Planning Prevents Proper Performance.
So you are at Guantanamo and what happens?
It's just so much of a mass subject about it. Obviously, there's the various camps that are down there.
Then there is what the public knows, what the public doesn't know.
Somethings about it have been greatly published...other factors like Camp Iguana, I don't think has ever been discussed.
Camp 7 has never been discussed. These aren't really things that come out in the media all too often.
Well, lets talk about the things that aren't in the media. Let's talk about the things that people don't know. What don't people know about Guantanamo Bay?
Well, one, to defend it initially...it has exceptional health care...exceptional food. There is no invasion of ability to practice freedom of religion. There is no invasion of the detainees being able to practice Islam. They are allowed to practice Islam freely...loud and proud and everything else. But that never seems to be talked about.
Anybody, when they think about Guantanamo, the images that are conjured are torture and abuse, and water-boarding et cetera.
Water-boarding really isn't that bad of a torture mechanism in comparison to some of the other things that have happened in Guantanamo.
But Camp Iguana was always interesting, and that never gets mentioned in the news.
And on the flip side of that...Camp Seven (the camp that is clear does not exist). That was just actually recently published, I think in, say October or November...somebody did an article about it.
But, as soon as they did an article, the article was redacted and taken down from the Internet.
I think this was with the Huffington Post.
And, it was taken out quickly. It was only up for a few days.
And, as quickly as it was up it disappeared.
Camp 7 was where the individuals of maximum security...individuals that actually were worth having there. That is where they were at.
And, it wasn't many. A handful of people.
Do you have personal experience with those two places?
Camp 7 was...how do I explain this in civilian terms...it was a privatized situation.
We didn't necessarily have military looking at it. We had other individuals that were contracted to come down there and to work in it. Just simply due to the nature of it, and the security that was involved.
It wasn't something that was open to the general public, so to say. The general public being the military. It wasn't open to the military.
Food would get served to it daily, and the individuals who were working food, were obviously told not to discuss any locations of the camps.
Medics were told not to discuss any location of the camps. Things like that.
And, interrogators were obviously told the same things. So, were linguists.
One of the interesting things about Guantanamo, is that...if you were to look at it from sort of like an aerial view...metaphorically speaking...not literally...but, if you were to look at it from an aerial view...it's almost like a chess board...
...where you have army-military-police, and that's a pawn. And, then you have army-linguists, and that's a pawn. And, then you have CIA interrogators...you got a knight. FBI interrogators, you have a bishop. Military interrogators, you have a rook.
You know all these little working pieces...but none of these pieces intermingle. None of these pieces talk with each other.
You know, military does talk with...or Army doesn't talk with Marines...medics don't talk with linguists...interrogators don't talk with military police. Everybody was isolated to themselves...and being micromanaged and monitored.
Our mail and Internet activity and phone calls home were being monitored. And, if we said something that would perhaps violate op-sec, you know, your conversation would be terminated...or your computer would be terminated or something instantly.
Everything was being monitored.
And, it's as if there were this one great mastermind or perhaps two great masterminds playing a chess game with these moving pieces and each moving piece was being monitored and screened for intelligence incase, you know...the interrogators, aren't getting the intelligence...then perhaps the military police officers are getting, or some other situation...everybody was being monitored, and nobody was really trusted.
Who is the mastermind? Or what agency or group is the mastermind? Is there one, do you think?
I wish I knew that. (laughs) I wish I knew that. You have to understand my feelings about the whole "war on terror" is that it is a fictitious war.
We created a war and staged an attack to keep a president in power.
He had some horrible approval ratings prior to 9/11 and after 9/11 he skyrocketed and got elected again somehow.
At the end of the...there is just entirely too much proof that...that there is no way 9/11 could have happened from two planes.
You know, two planes doesn't take down three towers in the course of a square mile. It doesn't happen. Just not possible.
Let alone one of those towers being two blocks away from the two towers, and it got hit by debris, and supposedly started a fire and collapsed...rather imploded. Just like the other two towers. Imploded.
It's just...I don't know. I have a hard time talking with human beings that believe it honestly happened because two planes hit two towers. I just. I don't know...
Let's widen the space in the interview. Lets widen the space. Lets talk. Let's talk about what you think. Okay. So what I am getting from you is that your opinions about Guantanamo go beyond the issue of US torture or US ex-judicial processes.
Oh, yeah. Most definitely.
Guantanamo was our way of calming down the American public after telling them for months and months and months, " Terror alert elevated. Don't fly. Stay at home. Don't spend money." This, that, and the other.
You have to calm them down. And, you have to show them, "Oh! We got the bad guy. We got the results." It's like any magician. You know, when a magician does a magic trick, they're not really doing magic. They're just fooling you, and making you pay attention to the one thing while they do something else.
So Guantanamo was how the US fooled the public, and said, "Here, we got the bad guys. Don't worry anymore. Go back out. Spend money. Stimulate the economy."
The fact of the matter is that we don't have the bad guys. We didn't have the bad guys. I don't think we are ever really going to have the bad guys cause...to be honest I don't think there is that many bad guys that are out there.
Why haven't we gone to Saudi Arabia? Why haven't we even talked with Saudi Arabia?
Before your experience at Guantanamo Bay, where you were a soldier who converted to Islam, and the got a lot of flack for it....did you believe that there was such a thing as a fair or just political system?
I certainly think that my family raised me to not trust or believe in the government.
One can not trust or believe the government, and still believe that there is the possibility of having a fair and just political society.
We would like to all believe that.
I mean you certainly need to believe in that. Because, if you can't believe in that, and you have no faith in society, then that obviously creates a very lonely and depressing world to live in.
So, I think some people...whether they believe it or they just accept it...they choose to go with it, because its easier to have that then the alternative.
And I don't think that I have ever put entirely too much conscious thought to the situation prior to Guantanamo.
But, it's certainly not something that I think a 17 or 18 boy would be thinking about...you know, the idea of, "What kind of society do I live in? Is this a fair society? Is this an honest society? Is America truly the country that it says that it is, and that we claim to be?
Well, I disagree with you. Because, I think, I was thinking those things at age 17.
Oh, you were certainly far more intellectual than I am.
I don't know if it's an intellectual exercise...but, I don't want to go off on a tangent...I am not trying to bore the hell out of you.
(laughs) Go ahead and ask the questions you want. It's no problem.
Maybe you could actually tell me about your time personally as a soldier at Guantanamo Bay.
It was a very lonely year.
I had two friends the entire time I was in Guantanamo...and I have maintained friendships with the two of those people since leaving the military...since leaving Guantanamo et cetera.
I actually just saw one them last October. Spent a week with him in his home in Germany. He is still stationed in the military.
Flew out there. Found out he was in Germany. So, I went and saw him. Stayed with him for a week. And, we had a blast. We had a great time. It was almost as if the five years hadn't elapsed since we had spoke....like it was just a three day weekend...
But the two friendships that I have maintained from there...from the military have been very strong and very dear.
But, obviously with the excommunication that I faced for my unit...having an interest in Islam...having an interest in Arabic....wanting to know about the Middle East...wanting to understand more about this war....and all the working pieces of it...that really raised some eyebrows and makes people feel unsafe...
...or... questionable about your interests...and what not...questionable about your allegiance...
You know, when you are brainwashed, and told to believe that the...Islam is the enemy...that we are at war with Islam...and the Middle Easterners...and Arabs that hate us...and they hate everything about us... you know, that is what we were told, day in and day out...
And, I just...I had a hard time believing...you know...tell me I have to hate somebody...but you don't give me an adequate reason as to why...then, I am going to have a very hard time hating somebody...
It's a little hard for me to accept the idea that 1.3 billion people hate the United States. A good chunk of those people living...a fair chunk of those people living in the United States...
...If so many people had a problem with the US, the US would have a lot more issues than we do. That is just common sense as far as I am concerned, but...in any case...
No, I saw Guantanamo as an opportunity to learn from 45 different countries...you know, about this way of life all around the world. "What's your social inculturation like in your society? What is your education like in your society? What rights do you have in your society?"
There was no way that I was going to pass it up. There was a rule not to talk to detainees, but there was no way I was going to pass that up.
What did you talk about? Did you talk about those things? What else did you talk about with them?
Oh, we talked about politics. We talked about religion. We would talk about education. We would talk about society.
They would ask me questions about the US. I would ask them questions about whatever country they cam from.
We would go back and forth and what I found to be very interesting talking with non US people...is that when we would get into an argument as opposed to you know one party saying I am right, and you are wrong....and you have to believe me because I am right...
...a question would be posed to me such as, "You really believe that is how history happened? Do you really believe that this is what is going on? Why don't you go home and look into this book or look into this idea...or Google search this or that...and, read over it?"
Instead of them telling me that I was wrong in some circumstance they would just tell me, "Go look into this," or "Go research this."
You know, when you send somebody out with an objective and an open minded way, they are more likely to interpret and absorb information and take it in.
As opposed to being told to, "No you are wrong...go and work this and prove that I am right."
So I thought that was interesting. I mean that's a the dynamic that I was would finish when having conversations with individuals. It was also interesting to me that being told that they are the "worst of the worst, these dirt farmers, and towel heads." And, "These people who hate us..."
Let's talk about that for a second. Who told you that?
Oh, that was our military leadership. That was our direct leadership and individuals...
[The rest of the interview was conducted via email.]
Everyone from our squad leaders on up.
Did you sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement like Brandon Neely, former Guantanamo guard]?
No. I didn't, oddly enough.
What were the names of the three boys you mentioned who were captured and imprisoned at Guantanamo?
They were not public information.
Did you interact with them?
No, I did not work with them.
Why are so many soldiers hesitant to speak about their time at Guantanamo?
I imagine because many do not feel anything for the detainees...or they are still in the service...or they do not want the attention that comes with.
Half of the people who have heard my story call me a traitor, who would want that?
No one wants to step up, and do what's right, but that is part of being a patriot isn't it?
Why aren't you afraid like other soldiers to speak about your experiences at Guantanamo?
I am not afraid because I have nothing to lose. The army cannot do anything to me about it...and it needs to be spoken about.
The situation of GTMO is a skid mark on the underpants of American history, sadly.
Did you witness abuse at Guantanamo? If so can you tell me what happened?
Yes, I witnessed abuse many times...usually people getting their hands smashed or stepped on...or their heads used to open doors or flushed in a toilet.
GTMO is far more civil than those two in comparison. It is still sad though, and embarrassing.
Did you witness torture at Guantanamo? If so can you tell me what happened?
Yes and no. Torture is long-lasting, psychological and emotional damage, and that happened in interrogation.
We did not see that often as guards.
I saw stress positions being used...and other tactics that have been published already and do not come as a surprise to anyone.
Again, GTMO is not like its brother facilities. It is far more humane, somehow?
Did you witness anything beautiful at Guantanamo? If so, what?
(lol) No, not really. If you look at an aerial view of Cuba, GTMO is the ugliest part of Cuba...sure enough, it is where we own land.
Why did you feel separate from your unit? Looking back, has your opinion about your being ostracized changed or evolved?
I was separated and ostracized, because I was compassionate and thought about the situation.
I questioned what we were doing. I did not get my rocks off by abusing and being rude to helpless people...and I wanted to learn as much as I could about every one of them.
How many times in life can you learn about 45 different cultures and countries and ways of life? I wasn't going to let it pass, even if my unit was going to call me a "sympathizer" and a "traitor".
Why didn't you speak up or become a conscientious objector?
Because I had a wife and a job...a future career ahead of me, and my family was proud.
I wanted to be something, and I thought to myself, "If I could make it through having not done something I would regret, I would be ok."
I was wrong.
What is it about Islam, or Islamic culture (history, language, art) that you find special or endearing, or illuminating...?
Discipline...it is a very disciplined and regimented lifestyle. Islam is not just a religion, it is a way of life.
It is like still being in the military, and I find the simplicity that it delivers to be amazing.
Did you discover that at Guantanamo?