By Sgt. Jim Greenhill, USA
Nov. 30, 2006 – Even as deployed National Guard members make history serving with Joint Task Force Guantanamo, they find history at the base's Northeast Gate. Minutemen and women helping fulfill JTF-GTMO's mission of providing safe care and custody for enemy combatants detained during the global war on terrorism can join Marine guides for an off-duty visit to a place where the world once seemed to hold its breath as superpowers stood eyeball-to-eyeball during the Cuban Missile Crisis. About 13 percent of JTF-GTMO is currently made up of National Guard troops, mostly from the Maryland National Guard.
The nation's oldest overseas naval base is also the only one in a country with which the United States does not have diplomatic relations. But the tensions that once surrounded the Northeast Gate, the only crossing point between the naval station and the rest of Cuba, have long since evaporated.
"We have a very good rapport with the Cuban army," a Marine Corps staff sergeant said at the gate in mid-November. He is not being identified for security reasons. "We talk to them quite often," he said. "There's no tension like there used to be."
A few feet away, a half-dozen uniformed Cuban soldiers trimmed grass and picked up trash on the Cuban side, preparing for the monthly meeting between naval station commander Navy Capt. Mark Leary and his Cuban military counterpart. The fence-line meetings alternate between the American and Cuban sides. One month, the two commanders meet in a former Marine reaction force room on the base; the next, they meet in a building on the Cuban side of the line. They discuss issues such as security, the fence and communications, the Marine staff sergeant said.
"We don't deal with politics," Leary said. "Even during the time of President (Fidel) Castro's recent illness, there was no discussion. It really is much more of a local and pragmatic relationship dealing with the base and the local area of eastern Cuba."
Once a year, troops from both sides perform a mass casualty drill, demonstrating both sides' willingness to set aside differences and help each other during a crisis.
Decades ago, the atmosphere was similar to that embodied by Jack Nicholson in a line from the movie "A Few Good Men." "I eat breakfast 300 yards from 4,000 Cubans who are trained to kill me," his character, a Marine colonel, said.
Tensions were so high that shots were fired, though there were no gun battles. Over several years, troops on both sides of the fence competed for national pride.
Cubans lobbed rocks onto the tin roof of the reaction room were Marines were trying to sleep, so the Marines built a 40-foot-high fence along a stretch of the base's perimeter.
Then Cubans hung coat hangers and other metal objects on the new fence to clatter in the night wind and disturb the Marines' sleep, so the Marines added barbed wire.
When Cubans raised their flag higher than the Stars and Stripes, Marines installed ever-higher flagpoles on the U.S. side. The Cubans ultimately won that face-off by moving their flag to the top of a distant ridge line on the Cuban side, an elevation the Marines could not achieve.
As tensions persisted, the Cubans beamed a powerful spotlight into the reaction room's windows. "Marines can't sleep, they're not happy Marines," the staff sergeant said. "So we've got to do something about it."
Vice Adm. John Bulkeley, the base commander in the 1960s, devised a way to deal with that problem.
For 30 days, laborers worked in a tent erected on a hillside below the Marine building. "On the 30th night, the Cuban light came on, the tent came down and if y'all walk this way you'll see what the Cubans saw that night," the Marine staff sergeant told a group of visitors to the gate area.
A giant Marine Corps symbol painted on a massive concrete slab remains on the hillside. When the Cubans turned on their light on that 30th night, it spotlighted a super-sized eagle, globe and anchor. "The Cubans said, 'We're not going to spotlight that,'" the staff sergeant said. "They shut their spotlight off."
But the Marines favored highlighting the symbol. Anticipating the Cuban reaction, they had installed a light of their own that shines on the crest but not into their windows. At night, the single light can be seen from high ground throughout the 45-square-mile naval station.
Tensions grew more serious in 1964, when the U.S. arrested 17 Cuban fishermen for violating territorial waters off the Florida coast and Castro cut the fresh water supply the U.S. had for years pumped from a river several miles north of the naval station. "We stayed here," the staff sergeant said. "We didn't leave. He expected us to leave."
So Castro accused the U.S. of stealing water. To counter this, Bulkeley invited media to watch as the cast iron water pipe into the base was cut near the North East Gate. He sent a piece to Castro, with a photograph of the ceremony. Visitors still can see the exposed pipe.
The U.S. had shipped water into the base until a desalination plant that uses the same technology used on submarines was completed. The naval station uses wind turbines and diesel generators to supply power. Supplies are shipped or flown in. "We're totally self-sufficient," Leary said.
Marines and Cuban soldiers still face off from watch towers on hillsides on both sides of the 17-mile fence. No one goes to the Northeast Gate without permission from the Marines. The drive there crosses salt flats once dotted with 50,000 mines, which President Bill Clinton ordered removed in 1996. They were replaced with motion and sound sensors.
The Marines' respect for their Cuban counterparts is reflected in the order to visitors to not photograph them, point at them or make any gestures.
Only two people cross the fence line each day. An 85-year-old and a 79-year-old Cuban, the last two who still work on the naval station, arrive on the Cuban side at 6 a.m., walk across, work on the naval station and leave again at 6 p.m.
Once, about 4,000 Cubans came through the gate to work on the base. But Castro cut off the labor supply, later relenting to allow people who were working there before the ban to continue. Twice a month, Marines escort cash to the fence line so retired Cubans can collect their U.S. pensions.
Today, most naval station labor is supplied by nationals from Jamaica and the Philippines who live at GTMO.
Once or twice a month, Cubans who have attempted to cross into the naval station are returned to Cuba.
"Throughout history, the base has kind of cycled in importance," Leary said. "In the end, it's always been a good investment for the United States. It will continue to be a good investment. I don't know what the future missions would be. There are certainly other ones, (and) an extended-stay detainee mission is certainly possible."
(Army Sgt. Jim Greenhill is assigned to the National Guard Bureau.)
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