By MIKE MELIA
Associated Press Writer
Army Pvt. Brandon Neely was scared when he took Guantanamo's first shackled detainees off a bus. Told to expect vicious terrorists, he grabbed a trembling, elderly detainee and ground his face into the cement - the first of a range of humiliations he says he participated in and witnessed as the prison was opening for business.
Neely has now come forward in this final year of the detention center's existence, saying he wants to publicly air his feelings of guilt and shame about how some soldiers behaved as the military scrambled to handle the first alleged al-Qaida and Taliban members arriving at the isolated U.S. Navy base.
His account, one of the first by a former guard describing abuses at Guantanamo, describes a chaotic time when soldiers lacked clear rules for dealing with detainees who were denied many basic comforts. He says the circumstances changed quickly once monitors from the International Committee of the Red Cross arrived.
The military says it has gone to great lengths in the seven years since then to ensure the prisoners' safe treatment. "Our policy is to treat detainees humanely," said Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman.
After the Sept. 11 attacks and the swift U.S. military response in Afghanistan, the Bush administration had little time to prepare for the hundreds of prisoners being swept up on the battlefield. The U.S. Southern Command was given only a few weeks notice before they began arriving at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba - a locale thought to be beyond the reach of U.S. and Cuban law. The first arrivals were housed in cages that had been used for Haitian migrants almost a decade earlier.
Now President Barack Obama is committed to closing the prison and finding new ways of handling the remaining 245 detainees as well as any future terror suspects. Human rights groups say his pledge to adhere to long established laws and treaties governing prisoner treatment is essential if the United States hopes to prevent abuses in the future.
"If Guantanamo has taught us anything, it's the importance of abiding by the rule of law," said Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel for Human Rights Watch.
Or as Neely put it in an interview with The Associated Press this week, "The stuff I did and the stuff I saw was just wrong."
Neely, a burly Texan who served for a year in Iraq after his six months at Guantanamo, received an honorable discharge last year, with the rank of specialist, and now works as a law enforcement officer in the Houston area. He is also president of the local chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
An urge to tell his story led him to the University of California at Davis' Guantanamo Testimonials Project, an effort to document accounts of prisoner abuse. It includes public statements from three other former guards, but Neely was the first to grant researchers an interview. He also spoke extensively with the AP.
Testimony from the other guards echoes some of Neely's concerns. One of the other guards, Sean Baker, described in an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes" how he was beaten and hospitalized by fellow soldiers in a January 2003 training drill in which he wore an orange jumpsuit to play the role of a detainee.
Terry C. Holdbrooks Jr. told the Web site cageprisoners.com in an interview this month that he saw several abuses during his service at Guantanamo in 2003, including detainees subjected to cold temperatures and loud music, and he later converted to Islam.
Neely, 28, describes a litany of cruel treatment by his fellow soldiers, including beatings and humiliations he said were intended only to deliver physical or psychological pain.