published Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

Veterans recall yesterday's Gitmo at annual reunion in Chattanooga

Mike Warman, Guantanamo Bay Association coordinator, left, and Jo Aubertin sit with other veterans who served at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during a Chattanooga Ducks boat tour event for their annual reunion Tuesday. Two ducks were tethered and members of the Guantanamo Bay Association held a brief memorial service for their deceased members at the finale of the tour.
Mike Warman, Guantanamo Bay Association coordinator, left, and Jo Aubertin sit with other veterans who served at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during a Chattanooga Ducks boat tour event for their annual reunion Tuesday. Two ducks were tethered and members of the Guantanamo Bay Association held a brief memorial service for their deceased members at the finale of the tour.
Photo by Dan Henry.

A controversial military detainee holding facility in Cuba conjures images of hooded men in shackles and has been a flashpoint for debate about the U.S.-led war on terror.

But nearly 50 veterans who were stationed at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay have different memories of their service there a half-century ago and of the historic Cold War happenings that unfolded all around them.

Much of the American public knows only about the detainee center or perhaps references to "Gitmo," the station's nickname, from the 1992 film "A Few Good Men" starring Tom Cruise.

But members of the Guantanamo Bay Association, in Chattanooga for their annual reunion, considered their time on the U.S. military installation on the island of Cuba to have been some of their best in the service.

The place was isolated, and sailors and Marines were not allowed off site.

Though many people dreaded the assignment before arriving, that quickly changed once they got to the Caribbean post.

"It was wonderful," said Marianne Walker, 79, who went to the island when her husband, Hank, 89, was stationed there.

Walker and others also found themselves in the midst of tensions that played out after the Soviet Union placed nuclear warheads in Cuba -- just 90 miles from the U.S. -- and President John F. Kennedy demanded their removal.

Walker worked as a secretary to a Navy lieutenant commander. Shortly after arriving at work on Oct. 22, 1962, her boss told her and the other civilian employees to go home, pack their bags and leave their keys in their car.

They were being evacuated.

"They said [Cuban dictator Fidel] Castro was shutting off the water," Marianne Walker said. It was a few days later, aboard ship on the way home with her four children, that she learned about the nuclear missile standoff between the United States and the U.S.S.R.

The event came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, and for a time it had the world at the brink of nuclear war.

After some tense days and with U.S. warships arrayed off Cuba, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev relented and removed the missiles.

For years afterward the island held Cold War significance.

Bill Sedlak, a New Jersey native, requested duty in the Pacific rather than go to Gitmo.

"It was the last place I ever wanted to go," said Sedlak, due to the intense, around-the-clock missions expected of military personnel at the post. He was stationed there in 1964, not far removed from the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Sedlak worked on the FA-Crusader naval fighter jet and had to be on standby, ready to work in minutes if called.

When not on duty, the then-single Navy petty officer spent his time snorkeling and scuba diving off the facility's picturesque beaches.

But for a sailor, he didn't spend much time on ship.

"In four years in the Navy the only boat I was on was the ferry that went from Leeward point to main side," he said.

He returned to the place in 1998, part of a trip for Gitmo veterans commemorating the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Sedlak has a photograph of the flight line in 1964, jammed full of jet planes and one in 1998, nearly empty.

After the Cold War, Cuba faded as a threat, he said.

Sedlak and other Gitmo veterans at the reunion said the public image of the site from the detainee dealings tarnishes the otherwise charming location.

"It was the best place I've ever been," Sedlak said.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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