- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2003

GUANTANAMO NAVAL BASE, Cuba — Thanksgiving arrived replete with an all-you-can-eat meal of turkey and pumpkin pie for forces guarding America’s main detention facility for al Qaeda and Taliban suspects held in the war on terrorism.

Troops and commanders marked their holiday away from home by cutting the ribbon on a newly built mess hall for prison guards working inside the fences and barbed-wire rings that surround Camp Delta, where about 660 Muslim detainees are kept.

Menu fare included the staple Thanksgiving fixings, including cranberry sauce, glazed sweet and mashed potatoes, 450 turkeys and baked Virginia ham.

Eating in the new building is “the nicest Thanksgiving gift [troops] can get for being away from their families,” said Sgt. Tecia Molisani, the noncommissioned officer in charge of food service in the new air-conditioned chow hall.

As a special treat for enlisted soldiers, the meal was dished up by the top brass. One- and two-star generals from the states with National Guard troops posted here made the trip for the holiday to partake in the tradition of officers serving their men on Thanksgiving.

Not only did the troops get a kick out of that, but the food was something worth writing home about, too.

“It’s good. The turkey’s fantastic, better than I thought it would be. It’s definitely an upgrade from our usual fare,” said Lt. Geoff Metfooney, 25, who commands a unit of the Massachusetts Army National Guard at Guantanamo as prison and base security guards.

Noting that he especially missed his family and perhaps even the cold and drizzly Massachusetts weather yesterday, Lt. Metfooney said he was “doing the next best thing, which is spending Thanksgiving with these guys, my platoon down here.”

Sgt. Sean Fitzgerald, 24, and others with the Massachusetts unit, the historic 1-181st Infantry Battalion, decided to bring a little extra spirit to the feast by showing up in costumes. One soldier wore an Elvis mask and another a black beard and top hat like Abraham Lincoln.

“It’s our day off. We don’t get days off that often,” said Sgt. Fitzgerald, from beneath a 20-inch-high headdress of red, black and white feathers.

“It was Thanksgiving, so I put on the Indian costume,” he said, adding that he and the others were making the best of missing out on a home-cooked meal with their families.

Sgt. Fitzgerald said his favorite dish on Thanksgiving is his mother’s mashed potatoes. “Good Irish family,” he quipped.

The National Guardsmen are posted here as part of Joint Task Force Guantanamo, which includes military police, infantry and military intelligence units from six states and the Virgin Islands.

Since January of last year, Guantanamo has housed the task force, maintaining and watching over Camp Delta. Commanders say all those held at the camp were arrested during U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan and that the detainees represent 44 countries.

Interrogations of the detainees, whose status as indefinitely held “enemy combatants” has prompted ample criticism by legal and human rights organizations, are ongoing. Military officials maintain that key intelligence continues to be gleaned from them.

Although the prisoners received no turkey yesterday, they were given a special meal Wednesday night in honor of Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday that ends the monthlong daylight hours fast of Ramadan. The menu consisted of double rations of dates, honey packets, baklava and Egyptian lentils.

The environment inside Camp Delta, where the detainees are kept on 24-hour watch inside their 8-foot-by-6-foot-8-inch cells, also is confining and difficult for the prison guards.

They are working in a “high-stress environment,” seeing the “face of evil 24 hours a day,” said Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, the commanding officer in charge of the camp and the interrogations of the detainees.

“We’ll do the best to make it the best Thanksgiving possible,” he said. “It’s difficult to be deployed from your home and your family and loved ones on Thanksgiving, but we’re doing the business of the country.”

The 52-year-old naval base here is the oldest U.S. base overseas and the only one located in a communist country. Guantanamo is on the southeastern edge of Cuba, where the weather yesterday was sunny and hot.

While the Muslim population of detainees ate their special Ramadan-ending feast, about two dozen soldiers, officers and wives gathered at the makeshift chapel just a few hundred yards from the rings of barbed-wire surrounding the detention and interrogation facilities.

“Many of us would like to be home enjoying loved ones and family,” Gen. Miller told the small but devout religious gathering. “But you’re down here with us. … Tomorrow, we’ll eat enormous portions of turkey.”

With the sliver of a new moon setting slowly overhead, the group clapped and sang along to songs “hailing the power of Jesus” and prayed together.

The same moon was hanging above the detainees celebrating and praying to mark a special and religious night of their own. It also hung above the wind-scraped hills less than a mile away that separate Fidel Castro’s Cuba from the goings on at Guantanamo Bay.

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