In July, word broke that a Navy nurse refused to keep force-feeding detainees in Guantanamo Bay. He refused, his attorneys said, to strap another suspected war criminal into a restraint chair. He refused to push plastic tubes down a detainee’s nostrils to his stomach. He refused, they said, because it felt wrong.
And today, as the national conversation turns to treatment of foreign prisoners, the nurse waits to hear if his 18-year military career is over.
What happened at Guantanamo Bay is distinctly separate from the CIA interrogation tactics outlined in an explosive, five-year Senate investigation released this week. But stories about Americans walking away from practices they deem unethical are surfacing — and trending on Twitter — as once secretive military and intelligence tactics are becoming more transparent.
The 528-page Senate report — which described, for example, one prisoner’s involuntary rectal feedings and subsequent suicide attempts — renewed debate about use of torture. A top CIA agent, disgusted by the practices, threatened to quit, according to the investigation.
The Navy nurse involved in Guantanamo Bay has decided to remain anonymous and declined to speak about his case until a Naval Board of Inquiry decides his fate, likely in the next six months, his lawyers said.
Storyline asked New York attorneys Serge Krimnus and Ron Meister (who is also Chairman of the Board of the National Institute of Military Justice) of the law firm Cowan, Liebowitz & Latman to shed more light on his case. They answered jointly. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Why should Americans follow this case?
“This case is about a U.S. Navy service member who has been honorably serving his country for nearly two decades, first as a submariner and then as a nurse. Our client acted in the highest standards of the nursing profession in refusing to violate professional nursing obligations and deserves a good defense.”
Why has the nurse chosen to remain anonymous?
“As an active duty Naval officer, it is not appropriate for the nurse to be making public statements about his case — at least before any hearings are held. Our client has duties to perform and is trying not to be distracted by the publicity surrounding the case.”
How did his story get out in the first place?
“Our understanding is that one of the detainees told his attorney that a military nurse was no longer force-feeding detainees. The attorney informed a reporter for the Miami Herald, who confirmed the story with the military.”
Why did he refuse to force-feed detainees?
“This nurse is a licensed professional required to conform to professional and ethical standards. He is subject to professional discipline for violating them. Many professional associations — including the World Medical Association, the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, Physicians for Human Rights — have condemned participation in force-feeding of competent patients.”
Had he previously force-fed detainees?
“He did initially force-feed detainees for a short period until the full details of the practice and the way it was administered at Guantanamo Bay became apparent.”
Have you visited the detention camp? What did you see?
Meister: “I travelled to Guantanamo Bay some time before this case arose. Guantanamo has all the charm of a military base with a maximum-security prison superimposed on it. I was not permitted to see the highest-level security prison facility. Neither was our client, who was asked to force-feed detainees who had been held for many years, were not charged with crimes and, in many cases, had been cleared for release.”
What punishments might the nurse face?
“If a Board of Inquiry is convened, the Board may recommend that the nurse be retained in the Navy, or that the nurse be discharged from the service after eighteen years.
If the Board recommends a discharge, it will also recommend whether the discharge be under honorable or other than honorable conditions.
The Secretary of the Navy will make the final decision on any discharge. If our client is discharged before serving 20 years in the Navy, he will lose his entire military pension and, depending on the level of discharge, he may also lose all other benefits — such as VA and G.I. Bill benefits.”
Why do you think medical workers should be able to act independently of orders they deem unethical?
“Because it is the right thing to do.”
What’s the status of your client’s case?
“Our client’s commanding officer, who is also a nurse, has submitted a request to the Chief of Naval Personnel that our client be made to show cause before a Board of Inquiry to be retained in the Navy. We have submitted opposition papers to the Chief of Naval Personnel, who will decide whether to convene a Board of Inquiry.”
What change do you hope to see come from increased national attention?
“When our client took the actions he did, he was acting to comply with professional nursing obligations. We certainly hope the military takes the professional obligations of its service members seriously.”