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A U.S. soldier opens a gate outside Camp VI at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in this April 19, 2016 photo.

A U.S. soldier opens a gate outside Camp VI at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in this April 19, 2016 photo. (Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes)

The sun rises the morning of April 19, 2016 over Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Camp Delta, along the coast on the Windward Point side of the naval base, once housed law of war detainees. Today it includes a medical facility and a library.

The sun rises the morning of April 19, 2016 over Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Camp Delta, along the coast on the Windward Point side of the naval base, once housed law of war detainees. Today it includes a medical facility and a library. (Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes)

A detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is photographed through one-way glass and chain-link fencing at Camp VI on April 19, 2016.

A detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is photographed through one-way glass and chain-link fencing at Camp VI on April 19, 2016. (Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes)

The rising sun silhouettes an out-of-use guard tower, fence and concertina wire at Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on April 19, 2016.

The rising sun silhouettes an out-of-use guard tower, fence and concertina wire at Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on April 19, 2016. (Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes)

A detainee inside Camp VI at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba sits at a table inside the detention facility with pen and paper. Guantanamo Bay officials do not allow detainees' faces to be photographed at the facility because of operational security concerns.

A detainee inside Camp VI at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba sits at a table inside the detention facility with pen and paper. Guantanamo Bay officials do not allow detainees' faces to be photographed at the facility because of operational security concerns. (Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes)

A U.S. Army soldier walks inside Camp Delta, a facility on U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba where detainees were once held.

A U.S. Army soldier walks inside Camp Delta, a facility on U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba where detainees were once held. (Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes)

Inside Camp 6 of the detention facilities at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Inside Camp 6 of the detention facilities at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes)

A library at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba houses nearly 30,000 books, 2,400 magazines, 2,900 DVDs, 8,900 CDs and 270 video games available to cooperative detainees held at the detention facilities there.

A library at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba houses nearly 30,000 books, 2,400 magazines, 2,900 DVDs, 8,900 CDs and 270 video games available to cooperative detainees held at the detention facilities there. (Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes)

An American flag flies over Camp Delta on April 19, 2015 at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Detainees were once housed in four facilities at Camp Delta, but today it houses a medical facility, the detainee library and administrative facilities.

An American flag flies over Camp Delta on April 19, 2015 at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Detainees were once housed in four facilities at Camp Delta, but today it houses a medical facility, the detainee library and administrative facilities. (Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes)

The sun rises April 19 over Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The sun rises April 19 over Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes)

Portions of Camp Delta where detainees were once held are overgrown with weeds and grass in this Aril 19, 2016 photo of the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Portions of Camp Delta where detainees were once held are overgrown with weeds and grass in this Aril 19, 2016 photo of the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes)

A detainee is photographed during lunch inside Camp VI at the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on April 19, 2016.

A detainee is photographed during lunch inside Camp VI at the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on April 19, 2016. (Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes)

Army Col. David E. Heath is the commander of the Joint Detention Group of Joint Task Force Guantanamo.

Army Col. David E. Heath is the commander of the Joint Detention Group of Joint Task Force Guantanamo. (Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes)

The Windward Point side of Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on April 19, 2016.

The Windward Point side of Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on April 19, 2016. (Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes)

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Dependable navigates Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on April 19.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Dependable navigates Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on April 19. (Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes)

NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — It is 45 square miles of rocky, cactus-speckled hills and jagged coastline along a pristine blue-green bay filled with manatees and dolphins.

It is also a self-contained town of 4,200 American servicemembers, their families and a small army of foreign national contract workers — largely Jamaicans and Filipinos — separated from the communist Cuban mainland by 17 miles of guard tower-lined fence.

While the mere mention of its nickname, “Gitmo,” conjures up the stigma of torture and images of blindfolded men in orange jumpsuits in dog cages after the 9/11 terror attacks, Naval Station Guantanamo Bay will live on even if the notorious detention camp is shut down.

“The future of one is not tied to the other,” Navy Capt. David Culpepper, the naval station’s commander, told Stars and Stripes. “If and when the decision to close Joint Task Force-Guantanamo (detention facility) is made, that does not relate to Naval Station Guantanamo, which has an enduring mission here and is a base with strategic importance to the United States, without question.”

A paradox

For those stationed at Guantanamo, the base is a peculiar paradox. It’s a little sliver of America — complete with McDonald’s fast food, an Irish pub and schools through senior high — in communist Cuba, where only recently have diplomatic relations begun to thaw.

The base is a tiny piece of tropical paradise with world-class scuba diving, and yet it is best known for military prisons that continue to hold 80 of the world’s most dangerous suspected terrorists, many who have not been charged for more than a decade.

Most troops polled by reporters during a recent media tour of the base love Guantanamo or loathe it.

Seated at the wooden bar inside O’Kelly’s, which touts itself as “the only Irish pub on communist soil,” an Army sergeant and a Navy petty officer debated the merits of the base.

“It’s boring. There is nothing to do here,” the sailor said, eyeing the Sam Adams lager in front of him. “You can drink, read, work out. Even the internet sucks. I can’t wait to go home.”

The soldier disagreed. In his nine months at Guantanamo, the veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan wars said he had not been shot at once.

“It’s nice to not have to worry about that,” said the soldier, who was forbidden to provide his name. “The weather’s awesome. You can drink here. ... I’d happily come back here for another tour.”

An Army captain questioned later described Guantanamo in the only way she could: “It’s interesting,” she said. “I don’t think there is a better word than that.”

For Culpepper, who likened his job to that of a town mayor, the base has provided a drastic shift from his Navy job as an F/A-18 Super Hornet pilot who deployed in support of operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.

“I love it here,” said the captain, whose wife and daughter live on the base. He likes the outdoor activities, from water sports to hiking.

“It’s just like being on a 45-square-mile island in the Caribbean, as far as living goes,” he said. “Small, tight community … You can’t go into the supermarket without running into people you know. You probably know half the people in there by name on any given day you go in.”

Strategic value

For more than a century, the United States has maintained a naval presence on the southeastern coast of Cuba. In return for helping it gain independence from Spain, Cuba granted America full jurisdiction and control of the land surrounding Guantanamo Bay in 1903, agreeing that the U.S. would pay about $4,000 per year to lease the land.

Since 1959 when Fidel Castro assumed power those checks have gone uncashed in protest of the United States’ “illegal” occupation of the territory, Castro wrote in a 2007 essay. The communist Cuban government has continued to demand the U.S. return Guantanamo. That’s not likely to happen in the near future.

Even if the Obama administration closes the detention facility that sprouted up on the base in 2002, the president has made it clear he has no intentions of closing the base.

The U.S. sees it as strategically significant, according to top commanders at Naval Station Guantanamo. Coast Guard and Navy ships regularly refuel and resupply at the station while serving missions in the Caribbean, Culpepper said. The facility’s location allows such sea craft to extend their counter-narcotics or rescue operations, including the response last fall to the sinking cargo ship El Faro during Hurricane Joaquin.

It’s also the location that he U.S. would use to house migrants should a migration crisis occur in the Caribbean region. It was last used for that in the 1990s when thousands of Haitian and Cuban refugees were on the base, which is capable of holding tens of thousands of migrants.

“Those strategic, enduring missions make it a value regardless of whether the task force is here or not,” said Navy Rear Adm. Peter Clarke, the commander of Joint Task Force-Guantanamo and the top military officer at the base.

Cuban-US normalization

Soldiers working in the detention facilities often ask Col. David Heath how improving relations between the United States and Cuba might impact them.

“Not in any way to date,” Heath said. “Our soldiers rotating in and out of here ask if they’ll be able to visit Cuba. I would love to visit Cuba, but until there’s a political agreement in place to allow U.S. servicemembers to travel to the greater parts of Cuba, then we can’t do that.”

If diplomatic relations continue to improve, Clarke said, he could see a time when the Cuban and American militaries may develop a relationship beyond the monthly “fence line” meetings between Culpepper and his Cuban counterpart, held to maintain communication.

“Many things have to happen in a slow, methodical way” before that could occur, Clarke said.

But with the detention center’s future in doubt and some small steps — including the opening last year of an American embassy on Cuban soil for the first time since 1961 — there are some in Washington who believe that returning the base to Cuban control would be logical.

Along with ending the trade embargo, the Cuban government’s second goal in normalizing relations with the United States is to regain control of the base, said Julia E. Sweig, a Cuba scholar at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin.

“I think now the conditions have been created politically, or they’ve come close to being created — we have to finish getting (detainees) out of there — that I would say giving it back to Cuba would be the obvious next step now,” said Sweig, who has traveled to Cuba, including Guantanamo, for 30 years and wrote “Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

Military officials, including Culpepper, argue that the U.S. must maintain its presence at the location. The captain pointed to its use in 2010 as a staging area and medical evacuation point for helicopter operations during the response to the devastating earthquake in Haiti.

“One could make the argument that that kind of activity could still be done from the base, but with a joint approach, as opposed to just the United States,” Sweig said, adding that Cuba has an inherent interest in the public health in the region. “I don’t see that the United States would have to retain jurisdiction in order to conduct those activities.”

It was her visit to Guantanamo several years ago that fully convinced her the land should be returned.

“As you are flying into the base and you look up the hills just past the airfield, there are a couple of houses that are exactly in the architectural style of suburban Havana,” she said. “I looked at that and thought, ‘Oh my God, this is totally Cuba.’ ”

dickstein.corey@stripes.com Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.
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