My Time as a Guard at Guantánamo

Illustrations by ​James Burgess

"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 Extraction 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. 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 realized then and there that my career in the military was not going to center 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.

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 and my pulse raced. 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 digging into our eggs.


Growing Up Guantánamo

Mohammed el Gharani, a citizen of Chad raised in Saudi Arabia, had just turned 15 when he arrived at Guantánamo Bay in February 2002, shepherded off a military cargo plane wearing shackles and blackout goggles. He weighed 126 pounds, was too young to shave, and for months didn’t know where he was. “Some brothers said Europe,” he later recalled in an in​terview with the London Review of Books. Others thought the unsparing winter sun suggested Brazil. When an interrogator finally told him he was in Cuba, Mohammed didn’t recognize the name. “An island in the middle of the ocean,” the interrogator said. “Nobody can run away from here, and you’ll be here forever.”

Omar Khadr, age 14. Photo courtesy Wikicommons

Omar Khadr, born in Toronto, was also shipped to the offshore prison as a juvenile. The 16-year-old made an early impression on the Army chaplain on base, who, walking by his cell, found Omar curled up asleep, arms wrapped tightly around a Disney book with drawings of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy. “He definitely seemed out of place,” the chaplain told reporter Michelle Shephard, who wrote about Omar in her bookGuantánamo’s Child.​

Fahd Ghazy at around age 17. Photo courtesy the Center for Constitutional Rights

Fahd Ghazy, who grew up in a Yemeni farming village, was seized when he was 17. He had recently graduated at the top of his high school class. One of Guantánamo’s earliest detainees, he was initially housed in the jerry-built, open-air cages of Camp X-Ray. Around the time he was transferred to a permanent cellblock, Fahd learned he’d won a university scholarship to study in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. Nearly 13 years later, he’s still at the naval base—still without charge.