Spec. Sean Baker

An army specialist who played an uncooperative detainee in interrogation training at Guantanamo was beaten to the point of sustaining permanent brain injuries. The Army tried to cover it up.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden gets the prize for finding the most depressing story of the month. (Patrick, in turn, credits Looka!, which balances the story with excellent news about the Planxty reunion album.)

The story in a nutshell: an Army National Guard specialist at Guantanamo who was ordered to play an “uncooperative detainee” in an interrogation-training exercise was so badly beaten by the trainees that he had to leave the service with permanent brain injuries. When he applied for disability retirement, he was turned down on the grounds that he had left the service for “unrelated reasons,” despite Army medical records contradicting that assertion.

Since the story broke in the press the Army has reversed itself.

I don’t want to downplay how hard this problem looked from the Army’s viewpoint.

Was it wrong to do some pre-interrogation training? Just the reverse.

Was it necessary to use our soldiers as the “detainees” in those exercises? Sure, unless some of the contractors wanted to volunteer.

Was it reasonable to have the trainees believe that the “subject” was actually a detainee? Not an easy call, but you can certainly make a good case that the training wouldn’t be realistic otherwise.

Obviously, whoever ran the training screwed up big-time in not watching it closely and blowing the whistle once Spec. Baker used his safeword. It’s hard, sitting at my desk, to see how that could have happened, but that’s one of the differences between a desk and real life. (It would be interesting to know whether someone was disciplined for this.)

Okay, now it’s happened. Our guy is hurt, gets discharged, and wants the retired pay he’s entitled to for having to leave due to a service-connected injury. It’s the position of the United State Government that, despite not having any rights, the detainees at Guantanamo are being treated consistently with the Geneva Conventions. The Supreme Court is about to issue a major decision.

Giving our guy his disability retirement and admitting he’d sustained the injuries playing “detainee” in a training exercise would be a gift to the plaintiffs in those cases. Are you absolutely certain that you would have done the right thing? Nobody who has never spent a chunk of a career inside a long-service bureaucracy can fully grasp how severe the pressures can be to go along with the official story in a case like that one. I wish the folks making the decision had made it the other way, but it’s hard to work up much outrage against them personally.

It’s even (barely) possible that the incident was used properly in the training process, to remind the interrogator trainees how easy it is to lose control.

But anyone still defending the “few bad apples” theory of mistreatment of prisoners is really going to have to work hard to explain this one away.

Baker’s injuries should have raised a red flag about the way the real detainees were being treated. Instead, pressure to keep a lid on the story was so intense that pressure apparently got put on the folks making the decisions about disability retired pay to pretend that Spec. Baker’s injuries weren’t from the beating.

Former Soldier Disputes Army Denials That He Was Beaten During Training Exercises In Cuba

A Georgetown resident and former Kentucky National Guardsman is angry that the military is denying his claims that he suffered brain injury while being severely beaten by U.S. soldiers during a training exercise at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in January 2003.

In a story with international implications first broken by LEX 18’s Leigh Searcy on Monday, Sean Baker says that while serving as a member of the 438th Military Police company in Guantanamo Bay during Operation Iraqi Freedom, he was ordered to pose as the enemy for a training exercise. Baker said he received a severe brain injury because of the subsequent beating he received.

Baker claims that he was ordered to put on one of the orange jump suits worn by the detainees. “At first I was reluctant, but he said ‘you’ll be fine…put this on.’ And I did,” said Baker.

“I was on duty as an MP in an internal camp (at Guantanamo Bay) where the detainees were housed,” said Baker.

Baker says an officer in charge issued the order because he wanted the training to be as real as possible. Baker says what took place next happened at the hands of four U.S. soldiers – soldiers he believes didn’t know he was one of them – has changed his life forever.

“They grabbed my arms, my legs, twisted me up and unfortunately one of the individuals got up on my back from behind and put pressure down on me while I was face down,” said Baker. “Then he – the same individual – reached around and began to choke me and press my head down against the steel floor. After several seconds, 20 to 30 seconds, it seemed like an eternity because I couldn’t breath. When I couldn’t breath, I began to panic and I gave the code word I was supposed to give to stop the exercise, which was ‘red.'”

But, Baker says, the beating didn’t stop. “That individual slammed my head against the floor and continued to choke me,” he said. “Somehow I got enough air, I muttered out, ‘I’m a U.S. soldier, I’m a U.S. soldier.'”

Baker says it wasn’t until one of the soldiers noticed what Baker was wearing did the exercise stop. “He saw that I had BDU’s and boots on.”

Nearly 15 months after that day, and countless medical treatments at Walter Reed Hospital, Baker is now medically retired from the military, but still suffers.

On Wednesday, the U.S.military, while acknowledging an injury to Baker took place during the exercise, is disputing some of Baker’s claims, saying he left for “unrelated reasons.” Baker said he already feels betrayed about what happened to him, and tells LEX 18’s Searcy that he’s not at all surprised by the Army’s response to his “going public” with his story.

“As a soldier, you almost expect that. Denial,” said Baker.

Speaking from his Scott County home Wednesday morning, Baker once again reiterated his claims, and is angry that the Army won’t admit what happened.

“How can they say I was released from there for other reasons?” said Baker. “If there are other reasons, please bring forth the evidence. I”d like to see it.”

Baker says he has nothing to hide, and he plans to request the military’s information. Due to privacy laws, an Army spokeswoman says she can’t release any of Baker’s medical history. She will only say he was not discharged for disciplinary reasons.

Baker said, “I wish they would bring forth something to substantiate their claims that I was released for ‘unrelated reasons’ because the documents I have from the Medical Evaluation Board clearly state the traumatic brain injury was due to me role playing as a detainee, an uncooperative detainee.”

Baker’s certificate of discharge from active duty shows the 37-year-old had a character of service that was “honorable” It shows he retired due to temporary disability – the brain injury Baker claims is the direct result of posing as a prisoner and being beaten at the hands of U.S. soldiers.

“The seizure disorder was the prominent injury that stopped me from being a soldier,” said Baker, who takes several medications to control the seizures but still suffers them frequently. “It all stems from the training incident. The seizures are the result of the brain injury.

“All I wanted to be is a soldier. And when they denied me of that and sent me home…I want to hold them accountable.”

Baker was a member of the Kentucky National Guard from 1989 to 1997. During that time, he served in the Gulf War. In the late 90’s, he got out of the Guard, but re-enlisted after September 11th.

“I feel like I’ve been betrayed by my own troops because I would never have done to any detainee what had been transpired in my life what happened to me,” said Baker. “I don’t want this to happen to anyone else, what I’m living with daily.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

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