In recent interviews, more than two dozen military medical personnel who served or consulted at Guantánamo provided the most detailed account to date of mental health care there. Almost from the start, the shadow of interrogation and mutual suspicion tainted the mission of those treating prisoners. That limited their effectiveness for years to come.
Psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses and technicians received little training for the assignment and, they said, felt unprepared to tend to men they were told were “the worst of the worst.” Doctors felt pushed to cross ethical boundaries, and were warned that their actions, at an institution roiled by detainees’ organized resistance, could have political and national security implications.
Rotations lasted only three to nine months, making it difficult to establish rapport. In a field that requires intimacy, the psychiatrists and their teams long used pseudonyms like Major Psych, Dr. Crocodile, Superman and Big Momma, and referred to patients by serial numbers, not names. They frequently had to speak through fences or slits in cell doors, using interpreters who also worked with interrogators.
Wary patients often declined to talk to the mental health teams. (“Detainee refused to interact,” medical records note repeatedly.) At a place so shrouded in secrecy that for years any information learned from a detainee was to be treated as classified, what went on in interrogations “was completely restricted territory,” said Karen Thurman, a Navy commander, now retired, who served as a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Guantánamo. “‘How did it go?’” Or “‘Did they hit you?’ We were not allowed to ask that,” she said.
Dr. Rosecrans said she held back on such questions when she was there in 2004, not suspecting abuse and feeling constrained by the prison environment. “From a surgical perspective, you never open up a wound you cannot close,” she said. “Unless you have months, years, to help this person and help them get out of this hole, why would you ever do this?”
Remember this piece when Donald Trump again calls for the return of torture, including waterboarding and “much worse.”