A psychiatrist who has treated former military personnel at Guantánamo prison camp is telling a story of prisoner torture and guard suicide there, recounted to him by a National Guardsman who worked at Guantánamo just after it opened.
Dr. John R. Smith, 75, is a Oklahoma City psychiatrist who has done worked at military posts during the past few years. He is also a consultant for the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Services, and is affiliated with the Veteran’s Affairs Administration Hospital in Oklahoma City. The court-appointed psychiatric examination of Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the Murrah Federal Building in 1995, was conducted by Smith. A few years ago, he became a contract physician, treating active duty members of the US military in need of psychotherapy.
Smith spoke on February 22, 2008, at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, held in Washington DC. His presentation dealt with the psychological impact on guards of working at Guantánamo . He focused on a chilling case history, of a patient he called “Mr. H.”
Smith described Mr. H as a blue-collar Latino in his 40s who had done routine service in the National Guard for years before being called up to Kuwait. Then, shortly after 9/11, he was diverted from Kuwait to Guantánamo . The detention camp had just opened. Mr. H was deployed there to work as a guard.
Untrained for the job, Mr. H was taken aback by the detainees. They threw feces and urine on him, said Smith, and tried to get him to sneak letters out, telling him that if he didn’t, “they would see to it that his family suffered the consequences.” The prisoners also mocked Mr. H, that his being in the military made him “a traitor” to Latinos and other minorities. Mr. H was confused and terrified.
Meanwhile, according to Smith, “this good Catholic man with a family who had pretty much always followed the rules” was called on to participate in torture. One of his jobs was “to take detainees to certain places and see that they were handcuffed in difficult positions, usually naked, in anticipation of interrogation.” Mr. H often watched the questioning. He saw prisoners pushed until they fell down, then cut. They responded to the torture with “defecation, vomiting, urinating,” and “psychotic reactions: bizarre screaming and crying.”
Smith noted that Mr. H said he was “required to handcuff and push to the ground detainees who were naked.” The prisoners were also made to “remain on sharp stones on their knees.” Detainees, Mr. H told Smith, would try to avoid interrogation by rubbing their knees until they bled in order be taken to the prison hospital.
According to Smith, Mr. H’s comment about these events “was poignant and simple: ‘It was wrong what we did.'” While still at Guantánamo , he responded to being a participant in torture “with guilt, crying and tears. But of course it was forbidden to talk with anyone about what he was experiencing.” He “became more and more depressed.” Apparently, so did other military personnel. Smith said Mr. H told him that in the first month he was at Guantánamo , two guards committed suicide.
Smith said that by the time he saw Mr. H, he “had become very ill. He was suicidal, terribly depressed, anxious,” and “riddled with insomnia and horrible dreams and flashbacks.” He had already seen two military therapists and not improved. But those therapists “were active duty and he didn’t dare tell them” what had happened at Guantánamo . Smith was not active duty, and after two or three sessions Mr. H opened up. With medication and psychotherapy, he became less suicidal but was still too sick to do any more military service.
Three years later after treating Mr. H, Smith got three new patients who were guards at Guantánamo on later tours. They said conditions were much improved –“they loved it at Guantánamo and went swimming in the Caribbean.” Still, one guard was having problems directly related to his work there. He “described having to cut down a detainee” who tried to hang himself after chewing through an artery in his own arm. There was blood everywhere. When the guard left Guantánamo , he was suffering from “anxiety attacks, panic attacks.”
Smith said his presentation at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting was the first time he’d ever spoken publicly about his Guantánamo patients. He decided to talk, he said, because he is concerned that veterans are generally ineligible for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) disability benefits if the condition is not caused by combat. He considers the guards of Guantánamo “an overlooked group of victims.” But in making that case, Smith stepped into a unique role. Heretofore, almost all accounts of torture at Guantánamo have come from non-governmental human rights groups or detainees and their defense lawyers. The FBI accounts in 2004 were contradictory. Smith, a prestigious physician, relayed accounts from inside the military.
DEBBIE NATHAN is a New York City-based journalist who writes frequently for CounterPunch. She can be reached at email@example.com