Guantanamo contractor, wife arrested after making souvenir flags out of discarded uniforms
By CAROL ROSENBERG | The Miami Herald (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 7, 2017
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — A Pentagon contractor, entrusted with helping safeguard the terror prison’s secrets, and his wife were arrested on suspicion of stealing government property — discarded military uniforms. She had been sewing them into souvenir banners for departing servicemembers.
Retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Ismael Gonzalez, 43, a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, said his rights were violated in the arrest last Friday, which included a search of his Guantanamo rental home and seizure of what the couple described as “arts and crafts.” They were detained for nearly four hours.
Among the items they said were seized: A souvenir flag Gonzalez’s wife, Maria Conrad, had sewn to present the deputy base commander, Navy Cmdr. Dennis Mojica, who is due to leave the base soon. It had already been signed, she said, by the grateful elderly Cubans living on base.
A Navy cop “was admiring my work while he was removing it from the wall. They are artwork,” said Conrad, who lives on the base with her husband, a Cencore LLC contractor.
Navy security forces were apparently alerted to the side business by a military officer who spotted Conrad plucking a bag of discarded uniforms from a dumpster on base. It was marked “Old Uniforms Only. Think OPSEC,” military lingo for Operational Security.
Gonzalez, a civilian intelligence analyst, is the Operational Security Manager for the wartime prison of 41 terror captives staffed by about 1,500 troops and civilians. In that capacity, among other things, he guides soldiers who censor the photographs of civilian journalists on base for war court hearings and visits to the Detention Center Zone. He said his duties also make him responsible for “OPSEC dumpsters” on base.
“There have been no formal charges made,” said Navy Chief Monique K. Meeks, a base spokeswoman. The couple was “detained for questioning related to an allegation of theft of government property, and subsequently released. The manner in which the uniforms were acquired may have been illegal and is under investigation.”
Meeks added that the couple consented to having their house searched.
Both are American citizens, he with a home in Georgia. Until Friday’s rough treatment, Conrad said, the base was an idyllic place to recover from breast cancer. The couple moved here in April, after her last radiation treatment.
Then Friday, as she related it, Navy police arrived at her home, cuffed her tightly behind her back, searched “even under my bed” and seized her handiwork before hoisting her into a police pickup truck and taking her to security headquarters. Her husband said he was likewise cuffed behind the back and taken away before the search.
The base spokeswoman countered that, once the wife “indicated she was in pain due to a recent surgery, her handcuffs were moved to the front.”
Conrad, 53, said that she had produced and sold about 30 such flags — mostly from cast-off uniforms delivered to her by service members who wanted a souvenir. She said she was taught the handicraft by an Army major who served on the terror prison staff and established the side business before finishing up a tour of duty.
“I want to go home now. I’m traumatized,” she said.
Gonzalez said his previous assignments included work at the Defense Intelligence Agency, as a trainer with the Department of Defense’s Africa Command in Nigeria.
He described his treatment at the hands of Navy base police as abusive and ignorant. While being questioned at security headquarters, he said, a police officer asked him to spell out his place of birth, Puerto Rico, for a booking form. The sailor was unaware, Gonzalez said, that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.
“I have seven combat tours. I have been shot at. I already had the smell of blood that I could never get out of my head that is never going to disappear,” Gonzalez said in an interview Monday afternoon. “I have buried more friends than I care to remember. And to see my spouse treated like that? Here?”
He said he was exploring how to contact a member of Congress, and may take legal action.
Gonzalez added that, despite his arrest, he was continuing to work Monday as the prison’s Opsec program manager. “We have to go through the process here, face charges. But in the meantime I’m expected to perform my duties. It’s become a hostile work environment.”
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