Testimony of Spc. Terry C. Holdbrooks, Jr.
Spc. Terry C. Holdbrooks, Jr.
On March 4, 2009 Specialist Terry C. Holdbrooks Jr. approached The Guantánamo Testimonials Project wishing to tell about his experience in Guantánamo, where he served as a guard from June 2003 through July 2004. We are grateful to Spc. Holdbrooks for his testimony, which comes in the form of the interview below.
In the interview we learn about many instances of abuse. But also of cases in which abuse could have happened but in fact didn't. Spc. Holdbrooks informs us, for example, that he knows of no beatings outside IRFings, of no instances of sexual abuse, and of no form of medical abuse. In fact, he mentions the compassion of medical personnel. He also points out that minors were treated far better than the rest of the population, that food was adequate, both in quantity and quality, and that detainees were not harassed during their transport home.
As to the abuse he witnessed, we learn of the guards' lack of training in corrections or the Geneva Conventions, the instilling of hatred towards the detainees, the lack of useable standard operating procedures, the guards spitting into the food or drink served to detainees, the collective punishment of the detainees (to create peer pressure to comply), the abusive use of pepper spray on the detainees, the various forms of religious abuse, including intentionally tossing Korans into toilets (to retaliate against or rile up the detainees), details about the various forms of positional torture (stress positions), observations about the use of temperature and noise extremes (and the role this played in interrogation), the use of fake menstrual blood on a detainee in the course of his interrogation, the common use of sleep deprivation on the detainees, the threats to kill detainees' relatives, the practice of letting detainees soil themselves (and depriving them of a change of clothes), and the sensory deprivation on detainees as they were being returned to their home countries. He also described an all-out detainee riot that lasted 21 hours.
We interviewed Spc. Holdbrooks from March 4 to May 8, 2009.
We were told that we should hate them… and that if you
don't hate these people, then you are one of them.
Spc. Terry C. Holdbrooks, Jr.
Why don't you begin by telling us where you were born and grew up?
I was born here in Phoenix, and grew up mostly here. I lived for three years with my biological parents in Vegas, but was back in Phoenix just before I turned 7--I believe.
When and why did you enroll in the military?
I enlisted into the military on August 22, 2002. Why? Simply because I was tired of not doing anything important or specific with my life. I wanted to amount to more than my parents had (being that I am the only of the three to graduate from high school). I wanted to go on to trade school and College afterwards. The army seemed to be a great idea: travel, culture, training, guns, war, fun… It's what most non-worldly American youth would want to do: play GI Joe and get paid for it. If I had put forth the effort to attain more worldly knowledge and awareness, I probably would've went with the Peace Corps instead, and would've never been to GTMO or watched my life go further astray from where I wanted to take it. But Allah has a plan for us all, so this is the way it should be.
You said "Allah has a plan for us all". Were you raised a Muslim in Phoenix?
No. I was not raised in any type of religious family. In turn this provoked me to have a greater concern in faith and religion in my studies, so that I would know more and be able to relate to people about their faith and feelings (or their ridicule and put downs, as my mind frame was in my youth).
Let's come back to this later. In the meantime, tell me a little about your training when you joined the military.
My training was very standard Military Police training, no corrections training. We received a two-week crash course--emphasis on crash course--for corrections before going to GTMO.
Did you receive any training there on the Geneva Conventions or on the treatment of prisoners of war?
Negative. To the best of my memory. I seem to recall a brief crash course in regards to POW status and how that is supposed to go. But, otherwise, no. Not really. Not that I can recall. Geneva Convention wasn't that big of an emphasis either.
Was GTMO your first assignment?
GTMO was my first assignment, Fort Leonard Wood was always my duty station, and GTMO was my first deployment. There was none that followed.
Can you describe your arrival in GTMO?
I arrived in Guantanamo in June 2003, and stayed through July 2004. When we got off the plane, I seem to remember being in civilian clothes. We spent a week in a shacky town of sorts, adjusting to the weather and OJT (or on the job training). After that, it was all in or nothing. There was an issue with finding us housing at first. Either way, it was sort of a shock at first. Things were hectic, and didn't seem to be working smoothly. We had a rough transition with in-processing and getting adjusted to the environment.
What were you told about the detainees?
That these are the worst of the worst. That they are evil. That we should hate them. That these people hate America. That this is why 9/11 happened, and that if you don't hate these people, then you are one of them.
Were you given any Standard Operating Procedures (or SOP) manual?
Negative. There was really no such SOP, as it was constantly at work and being updated. With the administration we had at the time changing the policies, there was really no way to create one that would not be outdated by the time it was printed. There was general information and practices that we followed and knew and were aware of, but not a floating-around SOP as to how to handle everything.
Can you describe the first time you saw a detainee?
The first time that I saw a detainee, it was a sad and sorry sight. I don't recall who it was, but he looked so tired and worn out. Washed-up you might say. With nothing to do but read a book you have memorized, or pace in a 6 by 8 cell, there really isn't much to be hopeful for. Some detainees would work out in their cells, which was great to see (at least they were making some positive use of their time). The first time we entered the camp, we took a tour of the facility, and saw every block in the main camp. Some of the detainees would spit or throw urine; others would turn their head in disdain or sorrow; others would try to rile us up. The Tipton Trio, particularly Rahul, made some jokes as we entered. And warned us, in a funny way, that we were not in Kansas anymore.
How would you react when you were spat at or hurled urine at?
For me, that was just part of the job. Usually we would be sent home to change our uniforms so that we would be at less of a risk of infection of disease (if any). Nonetheless, it would be a simple situation of us leaving the block to go home and change, and whomever happened to throw something or spit would be written up, so to say. It would be noted in the computer and that would be the end of it. Rarely was there ever a further action. Every detainee had a file on the computer so that we could track what they had done (and were likely to do again), as well as the good and bad actions they had taken.
How would other guards react?
Guards who had no morals, ethics, or self-control had their own
retaliations. Perhaps spitting in their food or drink. Or yelling or cussing
at them. Or spitting back or throwing something at the cages. There was
retaliation, but it wasn't something that would be physical. Unless an
IRF was deemed needed [an IRF is a forced cell extraction; it is named after the Immediate Reaction Force called on to perform it].
Water was also something that could create an issue. If a detainee would flood a cell, or stall his toilet, we would turn the water off for the whole block. If a detainee was rude or condescending, or perhaps not compliant, we could turn off the water for the whole block as well. There was a number of reasons we could turn off the water for the whole block. And that would happen often too. It was a rarity we would ever just turn off an individual detainee's water. Mass punishment was a tactic that the Army incorporated to create peer pressure among the detainees to prevent outbreaks and instill control.
You said that sometimes there was further action. Even if only rarely. What was it?
If it was needed, a platoon sergeant would be called on the block to de-escalate the situation. Or a translator. Or the chaplain. Or IRFing. Or OC spray (i.e. pepper spray) would be used. OC was a control tool used to stop a situation from getting worse. Or to calm a situation down. By SOP, an authorized guard was to open a cell and spray OC into a cell on a detainee as we had been taught in our Military Police training, which is very specifically to be an S-like motion that covers the face, particularly the eyes, mouth, and nose. But a simple S; no more. Yet, there would be many times that a guard would unleash an entire can of OC spray on a detainee, his belongings, his Quran--everything that was in the cell. And with no remorse. Almost as if they had a smile (and some did). A detainee could be OC-sprayed and then IRFed; a detainee could be OC-sprayed and left in his cell without water or anything else to comfort or clean with; a detainee could be OC sprayed, IRFed, taken to an isolation block, and then left for hours till his shower the following day to clean it off. If his shower privilege wasn't taken away.
Can you describe, either from your training or from what you have seen, what it feels like being OC sprayed?
The training that we would undergo was to have OC sprayed on us, and then maneuver an obstacle course. It wasn't too terrible for me, but that is simply due to me not having a reaction to it. Others were blinded nearly instantly. The pain from what I heard could be from mild to intolerable, and had a wear-off time of 2 or 3 hours. It was rather awful for the majority of the people. It really feels like burning in the the eyes, dryness, and an overwhelming sense of fear and desperation.
The most particularly crappy incident that I saw was when a
detainee, whose name escapes me, happened to have an IRF called on him.
During this spraying and IRFing, he was not entitled to clean off the
spray, or his cell. He was left hogtied for the night, and without
water. The following day he did not receive a shower either--nor was
water turned on in his cell. He, his possessions, and Quran were
covered in OC spray, that stuff can damage your eyes if not blind them
if left in for long periods.
Did you witness or participate in an IRFing?
Probably a good one or two hundred of them, to be honest. And no. I did not participate in them. There would usually be two teams on the ready for an IRF. If it was a day that I was on a team, I would take a long enough time getting ready that it would be done before I was in the area to do it. I didn't want to participate, so I just made sure to take my time putting on gear and such.
Can you describe an IRFing?
Five brutish, dumb men, running into a cell with a large shield and zip ties. They would slam a detainee into the wall or bed or anywhere else in the cell, and then proceed to beat and/or hog tie the detainee with the zip ties, ultimately removing him from the block till he calmed down. Or leaving him in his cell till he was calm enough to come out or be untied. This happened often as it was a common resort for aggressive guards who were still hurt over 9/11 and had no knowledge of why 9/11 happened, or what the history was behind this war.
According to SOPs, IRFs must involve minimal force. Was this part of your training?
That is what they were supposed to be, but certainly not what they were, as we have already discussed. IRFs were part of our training. A minimal part of it, but a part nonetheless. It was a single, four-hour block, I believe. Just practice on each other, over and over, as to how to enter the cell, take down the detainee, and make an exit without injury to the military police.
Does any IRFing stand out in your mind?
That would probably be the IRFs on flu shot day. We had nearly 200 IRFs, it seemed, that day. The day began as any other day; ride the bus to work, get ready for work, start with chow and showers and rec. Nothing unusual or interesting occurred. It was just another day. But then an order came down, probably from the hospital or from a doctor, to administer flu shots to the entire detainee population. At that point the process spread throughout the camp, like a rapid fever, that there was something foul going on. Someone created a scare that this was an execution of the detainees, and that we were going to kill them all. This spread through the camp in moments. It was amazing to see how they could all communicate with each other so quickly, despite language and distance barriers. Everyone was rioting. The rioting probably started closest to Camp 4, as the hospital was closest to Camp 4. And then the riots started in Camp Delta and went across Camps 1, 2, 3. All probably started in the Camp 1 area, where we kept the "crazy" detainees. It would make sense that a rumor that lethal injection shots would be administered would come from "the crazy block."
Some of the detainees pulled out weapons they may have had for moments or months, and used them on the guards. Some used the faucets of the sinks as crude knives and stabbed guards as we entered the cells. It was a hellish event that really was far more of a fiasco than it needed to be.
The rioting called for IRF teams. There were two at the ready per camp. And three camps. So there were six teams available. If an IRF was called, the shot operations stopped. That is why it took about twenty one hours to administer the shots (to give 700 detainees the flu shot should not have taken that long, as it only takes a moment to administer a shot per detainee).
How did the teams behave?
They were riled up and angry, aggressive, belligerent like a drunk American. It was really a nightmare to be in. But I hate crowds and social situations, so the fiasco was more of a nightmare to me than it would be to the average person.
How did you behave?
I just kept my head down and out of sight. I would try and sneak off and smoke as much as I could. That way I wouldn't be in sight of the guards. The trick in the Army is "out of sight, out of mind."
Were translators involved?
There were some translators involved, but there really wasn't an ability to utilize them to the best of possibilities. They were being called all over the camp, and when they would hit a block, it would become even more crazy since every detainee would want to talk to them.
How did it all end?
21 hours later, tired, sweaty, and exhausted. Some guards were stabbed, bitten or scratched, some detainees sustained blows to the head, stomach, back, body, etc. Some had broken or spang limbs and bones, but nothing that really sticks out too well. It was really a nightmare, just went on for hours.
You say that the flu shot riots were not started by religious reasons. Did any riots start because of them?
Yes. When a Quran was seriously disrespected. Or if a Quran was thrown in the toilet. Or if a detainee was not allowed to pray. Or if his praying was disrupted.
Did you actually witness this? There has been some controversy about these issues. . .
I saw and heard all of these incidents. They happened many times. It wasn't that uncommon for a guard to mishandle a Quran. Or for one to be tossed in a toilet. Or for people to mock prayer. Or make fun of Islam before the detainees, this is all common practice in GTMO. Tossing a Quran in a toilet happened many times during cell inspections--or cleaning, rather. But this also happened during an IRF. Nonetheless, when it happened during a cleaning of the cell, it was really a matter of the guard not particularly paying attention to what he was doing, and accidentally tossing it near the toilet--from where it then slid into the toilet. There were other times when a guard would intentionally put the Quran in a toilet to start a problem or "stick it" to a detainee. This wasn't too uncommon a circumstance. When it would happen during an IRF--abuse to a Quran, that is--it would be common to see a CO (Camp Officer) spray the Quran with OC spray while spraying the detainee as well. And the entirety of the cell. There are many forms of mockery that took place during praying, prayer call, etc. That happened lots of times.
Can you say more about the uncomfortable positions the prisoners were chained in?
If you were to be standing and put your wrists in between your ankles, in kind of a squatting position, that would be one of them. Or having your ankles chained behind you. Or your hands chained behind you. And then chained to the ground or chained to a wall. The positions, I mean, they weren’t entirely too creative, but they were uncomfortable.
Here is a depiction of "short shackling". It is artwork based on descriptions provided by actual Guantánamo prisoners, and part of The Tipton Report. How accurate would you say this depiction is?
That is a very accurate depiction of the position. Not sure where they got that picture, but it's pretty accurate.
If you look in the picture you'll see that the wrists are behind the ankles. That's one of the positions. Another one is having the wrists in front of the ankles, which I actually think would be more grueling than the first one. In the first one you can kind of balance or roll off the balls of your feet; with the second one you are really left on your toes, which would cause a great deal of ache and muscle stress at the legs.
For how long would they be in those positions?
During interrogation they would be stuck in these positions for however long the interrogation was. That could be anywhere from two to twelve hours. Maybe longer.
Where they interrogated while chained in those positions?
Yes, when they were interrogated they were chained in these positions.
How did the detainees react to this?
This was, aside from bodily functions, not pleasant. They weren’t entirely too happy to urinate or defecate on themselves. And to be in pain, or what not. Some of them were crying. It was a horrible, crappy, situation.
Did you see these chainings? Did you carry them out yourself?
Yes, I did see them. And I did see these transport rooms. I did transport them to the rooms. But no, I would not chain them. Once we get them to wherever they were going for interrogation, that would generally be the end of it--of what we would do. It would be the interrogators from that point onward.
Were the temperatures in the rooms manipulated when they were in those positions?
The temperatures in the rooms could vary anywhere from maybe 40 degrees on up to 120. More often than not it would be cold, being that they were outside during the day and the night and they were used to about 90 degrees day-round. They would use extreme colds to make it awful.
How about the noise levels while they were chained in these ways? Where they manipulated?
The noise levels in the rooms would usually be loud. Very loud. And inescapable. Generally, in the position depicted in the picture above, if you put a strobe light two feet in front of the detainee, and turn the volume up to an extreme level, that would be the situation they would be left in for hours and hours until they defecated or urinated on themselves and at that point interrogation would begin. That would involve an agent yelling and using profanity and intimidation factors--basically just threats. Whatever else may happen I am not entirely sure; it was not something I was necessarily able to partake in or witness.
So would the interrogations happen during or after the chaining in uncomfortable position?
Both--to be honest with you. More often than not, though, the interrogation would be after. The uncomfortable position would be endured for how many hours it was going to be endured and then afterwards the interrogation would take place--obviously due to the weakened state and the weakened mental stability of the detainee at that point in time. However, because it also happened during, sometimes an interrogator would go in during this state, with the music, the strobe light, the air conditioning and everything else, and perhaps present a photo to the detainee and scream or yell and demand answers aggressively and perhaps strike the detainee or what not and demand an answer, and if the detainee did not comply, then perhaps he would stay in that position for more hours in that climate.
You say interrogators could strike detainees during interrogations. Did you actually witness this? If so, how did this come about.
I did witness this. It happened much like the new memos say. It would be a slap to a head. Or perhaps the detainee would be held against a wall. Something of a minor aggression. But intimidation nonetheless.
Was this the only such incident you witnessed? Did you hear about others?
It seemed that it was standard for this to happen. At least I heard about it from others all the time. Both from guards and from detainees.
Do you know if detainees were beaten in contexts other than IRFs and interrogations?
If we may return to the issue of religious abuse, translator Erik Saar says, in his book, that a female interrogator at GTMO led a detainee to believe that she was menstruating at the time she was interrogating him, and made him think that the red stuff in her hands was menstrual blood (it was in fact red ink). She then proceeded to smear it on the detainee's face. Subsequently, she had the water to the detainee's cell cut, so he could not wash. She did this, Saar tells us, so that the detainee would not be clean to pray--thus diminishing the strength the detainee was supposedly deriving from his religion. Did you witness anything like this?
I was there for that day. We were not the two soldiers to take him to--or from--interrogation, but we were smoking near the building he was being interrogated in, and saw him when he came out. He came out in what look liked a frustrated or near-tears state, and was being taken to his cell by the other two guards in the area. We looked over at him (or I looked over at him), and saw that he had something red on his face, but I was not able to make out if it was from being hit to the head or something else (as it turned out to be). Shortly after he was out of view, two interrogators and a lady came walking out; the lady was wearing black, and she seemed rather pleased and accomplished. You could tell by the look on her face. The other two interrogators were commenting and giving her praise for her success. So supposedly she gained some intel. Or she broke the detainee down. They walked off and, as I was walking off, I watched her make a hand gesture as if she was smearing something on someone's face (she had smeared blood from a blood capsule on the detainee). And then she laughed. There were a good number of IRFs and angry detainees that followed that event. And the blonde interrogator who did that was mighty proud of herself that day!
Blood from a blood capsule? In Saar's book it was red ink from a marker pen. . .
It could have been a red ink pen. I heard that it was a blood capsule. I am pretty sure I heard that from her own mouth. And from other interrogators, as well, as they were talking. I did not see the act itself. But I saw the detainee afterwards, and worked that day, so I had to deal with the drama that came of it.
Thanks for the clarification. Let's turn to psychological abuse. Did you witness cases in which prisoners were deprived of sleep? This practice may have been referred to as the "frequent flyer program".
Frequent flying happened often. Everyone who was down there participated in that. We didn't have a choice. You would be moving detainees, every two or three hours, from one cell to another. Sometimes between cells in the same block and sometimes between cells of different blocks. They would be moved all day long, for upwards of a week. Everyone who worked would have to move detainees throughout the day, so that was a common practice and happened regularly.
Were you given any explanation for these movements? Your orders must have sounded bizarre (if not downright cruel).
No, we were not. We were just told to move detainees. But there were so many teams at a time that would be assigned to do this, you may not have known that you were participating in that program. It did seem odd when you would have a detainee moved three times in one shift, but it wasn't really something I noticed at the time of occurrence.
Did you witness any threats to detainees or their families?
There were a few instances of threats of life or limb to detainees. As well as their relatives. During interrogation, tactics can be used in which the interrogator would yell obscenities and give threats of physical abuse or what not, [saying] "if you don't tell us this we are going to kill your whole damn family" or, "we have your family, we know who they are." That did happen. Not entirely too often (or maybe it did happen often and I didn't see it). I think I'd seen it twice. I walked in, I saw what was going on in interrogation, and about as soon as I walked in and saw it, an interrogator or somebody else told me to walk out.
Did you witness acts of severe humiliation?
Yes. There was severe humiliation. That, primarily, would've been instances of detainees defecating on themselves and there was nothing done; there was no change of clothes. That happened. There was lots of verbal humiliation, obviously. Detainees were put down and treated like animals (or less than animals) in their interrogation. And there were guards, as well, that were very disrespectful towards them.
Was there abuse related to food?
There's nothing that was an issue with the food. They received an adequate quality and quantity of food each day. Food was not something that was messed with.
Did you witness any form of sexual abuse?
No. This never occurred. At least to my knowledge.
How about medical abuse?
No. This was something I touched on in other interviews. The medics were far more compassionate than the guards. They had a different job altogether. They were working in a medical field, and as a result had a medical attitude, not a political or propaganda jaded view. And were smarter.
Did they do anything to stop or report abuse they might have seen?
They didn't do anything to report abuse or stop it, but that was because they never saw it; they saw only what came of it.
Did you see any minors among the detainees? If so, how were they treated?
I did. They were treated far better. They had privileges to the ocean for an hour a week. And a television and the ability to watch movies.
Same question for elderly detainees.
They were in the general population, and were treated like the rest of the detainees.
Did you see how the detainees were transported into or out of Guantánamo?
I was involved in one transportation mission with detainees (as far as I know, this was the only one that occurred while I was there). We took detainees home to Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Russia, etc. It was a long flight. Basically it was a C-130. It was gutted out. There were approximately fifty detainees in this flight. They had goggles, earmuffs, and bags over their heads. And blue jumpsuits (as opposed to orange ones). The detainees were shackled into their chairs (the same benches we were sitting on). They had a three-piece shackle (hands, feet, and waist), which was then shackled to the floor. It was a long, nonstop flight. We just left, went there, dropped them off and that was the end of it.
This is interesting. It may be the first time we get a first-hand, verbal accounting of transport operations out of Guantánamo from the military. A couple of questions. The first is whether the detainees were informed that they were being taken home or were they deliberately misinformed about this? Also, were they harassed or abused in any way during the flight?
I am not aware if they were told anything true or not. There was no harrasment or abuse during the flight; it was really quite simple: they were shackled and sat quietly; we sat quietly guarding them. Off and on we would take turns sleeping, It was a long flight.
You say it was a long flight. What if the detainees needed to go to the restroom? Were they allowed to? Was there even one?
Yes, there was a restroom. And they were allowed to use it. Although they were not completely unshackled for this process, it seemed it would be a bit messy of a process, wiping with a shackle still on, so they were unshackled in part.
That is comforting. Pictures have been made public of transfers into Guantánamo in which the detainees were made to travel sitting on the floor over diapers. In any event, would you care to comment on this interview? Were you satisfied with it? Would you recommend other guards to approach The Guantánamo Testimonials Project with their testimonies?
Yes, I absolutely would. You showed a great deal of professionalism and have kept to it, which is tremendous in effort and honesty. You have also delved deeper into issues--more than anyone else has ever. It has been a pleasure to work with you, and I look forward to an ongoing friendship with you!
CSHRA wishes to thank Terry Holdbrooks Jr. for this illuminating and courageous interview. And to invite anyone else with first-hand knowledge of Guantánamo to contribute testimony to the Guantánamo Testimonials Project. The project can be reached electronically at firstname.lastname@example.org.