2011-04-02 Interview with Brandon Neely, former Guantanamo prison guard and Iraq veteran. "All these people on the streets that are dead...and we have a battalion guarding the oil refinery." (Part 4 of 8)

ImageThis is our first interview in a series of interviews with former Guantanamo Bay detention camp guards and detainees.

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.

Brandon Neely, has been a vocal critic of both Guantanamo Bay, and the war in Iraq. And he speaks from experience, since he was both a guard at Guantanamo during the the first six months the camp was open, and served in Iraq during the US invasion. In the course of his advocacy, he has offered testimony to the Center for Human Rights in the Americas, and appeared in numerous articles and on television programs, including a BBC program that recounts how he contacted two of his former prisoners on Facebook to express remorse for what he did. You can also find him, where I did, on twitter, @BrandonTXNeely.

What happens? You leave Guantanamo, and you are basically stationed...?

Yeah. I was at Fort Hood, when I left Guantanamo...I was at Fort Hood.

We go back to Fort Hood in June of '02 and then early March of '03 is when we leave and we are in Iraq in March of '03 to March of '04.

And, what was that like?

It was just an experience. It was just like you say, "War is hell."

As a soldier, you train, and you train, and you train. Okay, you train for war. You train for war. And, you've grown up with a military father. You know him, you know, 20 years, retired and him never going. He never had to go to war.

And, usually with training it was kinda like, "Wow! I'm going to get to do what we was trained to do." So, it was kind of like...I didn't want....I wanted to go. It was nervousness. But I had...when I left home like, I wasn't okay...I was leaving my wife and my kid...but I wasn't upset about it.

You know, you don’t want to leave them, but at the same time I was excited about going. Like, "Okay, man. We're really going to do this."

And then once you get involved in it, and once you really see what happens, and once you see the outcome of the war...like, what the outcome is when you have to point your rifle really at a person and pull the trigger...or you look over and see this IED going off and you see the effects...then you realize that you were told what you were going to war for...and you kind of think, "Wow! This isn't what the real reason is." And you're seeing all this violence and all this loss of life and what it's really like...

...I think the violence is enough that it effects people...but, then you're put on top of it that you really felt like you were lied to. And, it's just...there's no way to explain. It's just like the lowest thing in the world.

And, you join the military to defend your country, and you are patriotic. And, you realize that you basically were lied to. The is no lower feeling than that.

I mean you know...like I said before...it was my main reason for getting out.

You know, even now, I'm not anti-American and I'm not anti-military, but...I couldn't...I mean a mass of guys that had been in 12-15 years....after getting out the military, around that same time, when they got back from Iraq. They were like, "I'm not putting my life on the line for this. I'm not doing it. There's no way I'm going back."

You say you were lied to, right? Okay? So, did you get a sense of why you where there? Or is it just a question of we don't know why? What is your sense why we were there?

Well, my thing was, if they knew from the beginning like...the first letter...lets go back a little bit...the first letter that I ever wrote home was probably two to three weeks in.

I actually had a chance to write. I wrote to my father, and I told him, "This is BS, pretty much," from the first letter I sent my father.

Then, you know, after I came back and years later...well, before I had went, I remember asking my Dad on the phone "Hey, why are we going to Iraq technically?" Cause my Dad follows politics.

He, like, "I can't give you a real answer. I have no clue." But, I just kinda blew him off...like, okay...whatever.

But, I can remember going into Baghdad in Iraq thinking, "Okay. They know where these weapons of mass destruction are at. There is no reason we can't find them quick."

Then, like a year later we still hadn't found them. I'm like, "What's going on?"

But, I can remember going into Baghdad...early days in the war. I can remember going to this oil refinery...and there being a masses of soldiers, I don’t know if it was a battalion, and them being a mass of soldiers. I don't know if it was a whole battalion, but just crazy a amount protecting this oil refinery.

We had a hard time even as soldiers getting into the headquarters. So, where are we supposed to stay at. And, we're out on the streets of Baghdad and there are no soldiers.

All this shooting is going on and all these people on the streets that are dead and all this hell going off in the middle of the streets, and there's no soldiers.

They all at oil refinery.

I'm like, "What are doing to protect these people? When we are supposedly spreading democracy when all were doing is out guarding these oil refineries that is right down the road here?"

I didn't understand that part. That's really what had me like, "Yeah. I don't know if it's all about oil, or what...but I really got a bad taste in my mouth...along with other people.

They were like, "We're out in the street in four Humvees getting shot at, and there's a whole battalion of people at the oil refinery. Why aren't they out here?"

So, that was probably....that was the early days in the war that kinda made me: "What's going on here?"

What do you think the effect or the consequences of that kind of lack of common purpose...or just purpose does to a soldier?

The morale! Especially in a combat zone...low morale is a horrible thing to have. A lot of guys...It's just not like one or two people...

You know, there was like a lot of people going, "Man, what is going on here? What are we doing?" They were questioning themselves.

At the same time, you have to go out and do these missions. You have to do it. So, you end up fighting not because you are fighting for what you believe in. You are fighting for the guy next to you...the guy to the right of you and the guy to the left of you. So all y'all can get home in one piece.

You know, it's what it turns out to be is...it's what guys end up fighting for.

Out of the whole platoon of guys that I went with, which would be about 41 people, I think 11 are still in the military. And, the other ones got out...I don't know if it is solely based on the war...but a lot of them will tell you it has to do with, "I was going back."

...and that's out of 40 something people that I was with the whole year...like constantly with...not at the company but I was with them every day

You know, I still talk to these guys and the effects this...I mean just going there has had on their lives is like outrageous...

I was talking yesterday to a buddy of mine about it. We were talking one of my other buddies, who was like, 'You lose your innocence. You go there as an innocent kid, and you come back different."

My wife made that comment to us yesterday when we were talking. She is like, "Your facial expressions have never been the same." I mean it's just something little like that change forever...

I suppose that is probably pretty common for any man or woman who goes to war or witnesses war...


Do you think there is something particular about being in Iraq or being at Guantanamo that's different than just a soldier going to war and seeing what war is like?

Well, I don't know about Guantanamo. I think going there and actually you are in a war zone. You might get shot at and shoot back. You might even kill somebody. You might never get to see them face-to-face. You might just, you know, shoot what you got to do and go on.

Like Guantanamo you're coming face to face with these guys. And, you talk to them so it kind of get humanized. So you kind of see them as humans.

Then you start seeing some of the stuff going. I guess, at Guantanamo you would see it more first hand like. You would actually see the General and the Colonel on down there, giving his orders.

I guess it was more personalized. Like you actually got to see more of the action. I don't know, I just think that in general that war is hell, like you said in the comment earlier.

I think its already hell just to go to war, if it's something you truly believe in, but when you put on top of it, you know...like you sais, you were lied to. It just makes it that much worse. And, makes you...

I know guys who were taking peoples lives, and they were like, "You know, if I really believed in what I was doing it might not bother me as much. But then you put on top of that...with you feel like you were lied to...it makes it a hundred times worse.

Like, "Okay. Is this guy even fighting before we got there? Or, did he fight because he thought we were trying to do something to him ordeal? So, it makes it just like 10 times worse.

No. I can definitely...I can feel that. I get that.

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