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Terribly and terrifyingly normal: killing time in Guantanamo Bay

(Taylor Hall/MEDILL NSJI)

(Taylor Hall/MEDILL NSJI)

You’re going to Guantanamo.

There’s a war court hearing, you’re a journalism student and you’ve been selected to go.

For years you have associated this word – Guantanamo – with torture, and a queasy tightening in your chest. The physical reality of Guantanamo, the place, never really occurred to you before this moment. It always seemed light-years away, physically and metaphysically.

But there’s no time to process this or critically assess any of the assumptions you carry because now there’s an onslaught of forms to fill out, and you need to make a photocopy of your passport by noon or you won’t be guaranteed a spot on the chartered military flight.

“The Defense Department will facilitate media access to the maximum extent possible, in an effort to encourage open reporting and promote transparency,” one form reads.

Six paragraphs down: “the Department of Defense is the sole release authority for all military information contained in all media.”

Later: “Failure to comply with these ground rules could result in permanent expulsion… of the parent news organization from further access to GTMO or to military commissions.”

The rush of rules and dizzying down-is-up rationales has only just begun.

Hurriedly you read it and pen your initials to the 13 pages, effectively forfeiting your ability to talk to certain people (detainees, Haitian and Jamaican contract workers, others) and to take certain photos (of detainees, military personnel, gates, power supplies, security measures) in the name of national security. I should read this over more carefully later, and maybe with a lawyer, you think, knowing you won’t.

You have a week to prepare, so you read up on the detainee’s case, meet with Pentagon defense lawyers, study the history of the military commissions, watch a documentary about the detention camps, and buy some bug spray.

You brush up on the history. The U.S. scored the land for the Navy base in a deal with Cuba in 1903 for $2,000 in gold a year, and still pays a pittance in rent. Washington also made sure only it could terminate the agreement.

Then came the 9/11 attacks, the “war on terrorism” and the Navy base became home to the infamous Joint Task Force prison camps, which opened in 2002 to house those captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere. In the early feverish days, there were more than 600 prisoners held there. Now the camps are down to 116 prisoners, the last of whom arrived in 2008.

Too soon the day arrives, and you’re waiting with your luggage in line at Andrews Air Force Base, not fully grasping that the men and women chatting freely in line with you wearing khaki shorts will soon transform into uniformed military legal teams, inevitably unavailable for comment.

Media board the flight first and sit cloistered in the back. You sit next to Carol Rosenberg, a Miami Herald reporter who has covered Guantanamo longer than anyone else.

She is working on the flight, striking up conversations. You listen.

Upon landing you are introduced to your military handlers for the week. They are white men in their thirties with young children back home. Most served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are new to Guantanamo and will be here for nine months. They seem like good people, as military guards who read over your shoulder and decide which of your pictures to delete each day go.

You and your media colleagues work from a windowless room in an old converted warehouse where you assume (correctly, you think) that everything you say and do is monitored. There’s a key code to the door that only your military handlers know.

They give you a press badge emblazoned with a bold “M” and tell you to never take it off, even when you’re running or smoking or at dinner (all of which are necessarily accompanied by military handlers).

You ponder the Foucauldian panopticon nature of things for both detainees and media here, and reflect on the Joint Task Force Guantanamo motto: “Safe. Humane. Legal. Transparent.”

Your guards are, practically speaking, inescapable, but at least they are nice. You know they are just doing their job.

In a turn that comes unexpected to you (but not to Carol Rosenberg) you are informed Sunday evening that the military hearings you planned to cover Monday-Friday have been put on hold until Wednesday. You are given no explanation for the delay.

In the meantime, your military handlers scramble to find you things to do.

You ask to see the detention camps. The guards suggest snorkeling.

You visit many parts of Guantanamo in your non-commission downtime: the radio station, the windmills that power the self-sustaining base, the old lighthouse.

You marvel at the incredibly unremarkable quotidian nature of this small town base – surreal precisely because it is so normal.

You expected some sort of unsettling psychic footprint from the terrorist masterminds and torture incidence rate. Instead you eat fajitas and drink craft beer at the base’s Irish bar, O’Kelly’s. In your notes one night, you write that the dining experience was “average.”

The next morning you visit the original detention center that was tossed together to jail the first detainees back in 2002. Camp X-Ray, as it was known, was closed in April 2002 following outcry over human rights violations.

You are shown the old dog kennels, which were the only constructions in the camp with air conditioning. You walk through rows upon rows of empty chicken wire cages, once used to house America’s most wanted. You are told that nearly 300 men once lived in these 8 foot by 8 foot cells, and were confined for all but 30 minutes of recreation time each day. You explore the original interrogation and interview buildings. Like the other facilities in Camp X-Ray, they are now completely defunct and overgrown, but someone has moved all of the furniture from the small wooden buildings into one room, and now all the rotting chairs are idly stacked and overturned. You can’t help but wonder what conversations were had in these chairs. You pick rusty bullet casings out of the dry ground. When you ask about them, you are told they were probably used to teargas detainees.

You leave and go straight to McDonald’s for a McGriddle and a large iced caramel latte. The drive from the infamous detention camps to the familiar golden arches takes five minutes. There is nothing remarkable or ceremonious about your passage through these overlapping normal and (to you) non-normal worlds.

On Wednesday morning the hearings commence.

You’re given a choice. You can sit in court with pen and paper and watch in person from a glass observer box while audio is piped in on a 40-second delay. Or you can sit in the media hangar and watch the delayed feed on TV and have access to your laptop and the Internet.

You choose to go see the court.

It’s set up like a regular courthouse, except you can’t bring anything with an on/off switch inside, and there are chains on the ground near the defense tables for shackling prisoners down should they become ‘difficult.’ There is a cartoonishly large red light next to the judge, which you have been told could light up at any time if top-secret matters are accidentally discussed and they need to cut audio in the observer room where the media sit.

According to the Military Commissions Act of 2009, certain aspects of the Constitution do not apply in this court.

During the hearing you see Abd al Hadi al-Iraqi, alleged former senior commander of al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
The Mosul, Iraq native is accused of masterminding attacks on American, Canadian, German, British, Estonian and Norwegian forces.
He is also accused of ordering an attack on a medical helicopter attempting to recover casualties from the battlefield, providing a reward to the Taliban for assassinating a civilian United Nations worker, and destroying historic Buddha statues in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
He is wearing clean white traditional clothes and his beard is long and grey. His voice is deep and when he speaks he sounds collected, dignified, well educated. You hear another reporter describe him as “almost elegant.”

You have studied his track record of war crimes carefully. Shouldn’t you be registering some sort of visceral response as a result of being physically near someone allegedly responsible for such gratuitous cruelties? You don’t.

The hearing is a dizzying blur in legalese: you learn that the prosecution dumped new evidence on the defense team Sunday night that raised potential conflict of interest issues. In the middle of the hearing, Hadi announces he wants new temporary legal representation.

At one point, the judge and defense realize that they’ve been reading from different versions of the Commissions manual. Eventually, the military judge postpones the proceedings indefinitely until everything can be sorted out. You understand now how these things have managed to drag on for many years, with no end in sight.

With hearings canceled, there is even more time to kill.

You attend a “South of the Border” themed all-you-can-eat dinner event. A group of teenaged mariachis from Orlando performs. Someone at your table brings up how good the sailing is here this time of year.

As you drink a margarita, you remind yourself that six hours ago you sat within earshot of someone who took direct orders from Osama bin Laden.

Later, you get to see the holding areas where they keep the prisoners before they appear in court. There are body cavity searching chairs, which look sort of like grey plastic thrones and restraint chairs, which look like a cross between a hospital gurney and a straight jacket. The rooms are a cloying yellow that immediately gives you a headache. When you ask who chose the color, you are told that yellow is calming.

There is a grill outside. You ask if they grill often.

“We have to be here 24/7, so…” your tour guide says. You wonder how long it takes for Guantanamo’s non-normal and normal worlds to completely collapse in a way that is routinized and totally palatable.

As you board your return flight the next day you wonder – given all of the institutional roadblocks – how you could ever produce meaningful coverage that adequately reflects this place’s complexities and contradictions in a way that amounts to more than a been-there, done-that dispatch from a place where the U.S. appears to have no foreseeable exit strategy and most of the country seems to have moved on from.

Soon it will be time to chat with the men and women in their polo shirts and shorts who couldn’t talk to you when you were all in Guantanamo.

Parents of kidnapped journalist weigh in on new U.S. hostage policy

  • Marc and Debra Tice, parents of kidnapped journalist Austin Tice, say they are "cautiously optimistic" about the changes to U.S. hostage policy. (Photo: Amina Ismail/MEDILL NSJI)

WASHINGTON – Faced with an upsurge in journalist kidnappings, President Barack Obama issued a new executive order in June that allows families to offer ransom money without fear of prosecution and establishes an interagency fusion cell to improve U.S. hostage recovery efforts.

Kidnappings of journalists are on the rise, up 35 percent in 2014 to 119 journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders’ most recent annual roundup of abuses against journalists. RWB also reported that 66 journalists were slain in 2014, bringing the number of journalists killed in connection with their work in the past 10 years to 720.

But how far do the changes go toward providing an effective solution to the bureaucratic tangle we’ve already spun when it comes to coordinating the return of kidnapped Americans?

The fusion cell is led by senior FBI official Michael McGarrity and housed at bureau headquarters. It is made up of officials from the FBI and departments of State, Treasury, Defense and Justice, as well as the Office of Director of National Intelligence and the CIA.

Marc and Debra Tice flew to Washington in June to meet with Obama to review his executive order revising U.S. hostage policy. Austin Tice, their son, is a freelance journalist who was kidnapped while reporting in Syria in August 2012.

Speaking just days after their meeting with the president, the Tices expressed frustration at the difficulties they personally faced navigating the complicated system while trying to find their son.

“We spent two years figuring out who do you call, who’s got responsibility, who’s got capabilities, who’s got the desire, so we had to find our way through Washington and the bureaucracy and these different agencies of the government by ourselves effectively,” Marc Tice said.

“All of these resources already exist,” added Debbie Tice. “What we are really asking for is more efficient, more effective, more economical stewardship of resources.” The Tices spoke of institutional roadblocks at both the macro and micro, day-to-day levels.

“He has got an apartment that he is running, how do we deal with that? He has got bank accounts and student accounts, a social media identity… there’s a whole ecosystem that we have to go through,” Marc said.

“Think about the bank account that has nothing going into it, and has automatic payments coming out. And how quickly that can become a huge issue that we can’t get our hands around,” said Debbie.

The Tices said it took the family over a year to figure out a legal authority to deal with this issue. They still have not been able to access Austin’s Twitter account, from which he last tweeted about spending the day at Free Syrian Army pool party on August 11, 2012.

A Defense Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity explained how circuitous government efforts between the White House, the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the FBI, the Pentagon and the military services can be – especially when these agencies are all uniquely involved in different aspects of hostage recovery.

“Start with authority. Who has the authority to act for civilians?” the defense official said.

“One major criticism the Obama administration has faced is treating terrorism as a criminal activity,” he said. “Despite the ‘war on terrorism,’ we don’t treat it as a war, but as a crime.”

“If you’re in an Afghani combat zone, you’re DOD responsibility. Otherwise, you’re an FBI issue, unless you get a security order from the Secretary of Defense.

“So the FBI has the lead, but technically no overseas reach. You can only get there through the State Department and Department of Defense. And the FBI can’t tell DOD to do anything. And DOD would still need to get an execution order to do anything anyways.

“For the FBI, State and these agencies are peers – you can’t just tell them what to do. They would have to be told, pretty much, by the President. The CIA chain is just like State. They’d need presidential findings… they can’t just do a one-off. The DOD would need to call over to the Joint Staff, and then go to the Secretary of Defense for an execution order, but that can take 2 years.”

While the defense official lauded the enhanced support for hostages and their families, he criticized organizing the fusion cell under the umbrella of the FBI.

“The organization with the least reach is now entirely responsible for getting hostages home. So this could be seen as a huge slap in the face for families.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R- Calif., has advocated for displacing the FBI from its traditional leadership role in hostage negotiations.

“The problem is…in Iraq, there is no FBI. In Syria, there’s no FBI. In Afghanistan, there’s no FBI. In war zones, you don’t have the FBI,” Hunter said in May, discussing an amendment to the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act on the House floor.

“What you have is the Department of Defense and different intelligence agencies. [They] are the ones who track the networks, know the networks, know who the bad guys are, know where the hostages may be and then, in case we actually get good intelligence, the Department of Defense and our intelligence communities, those are the people that would act on the intelligence, not the FBI.”

Chris Voss, former lead FBI hostage negotiator, had a different take.

“The issue is in agencies putting the right people in the right places, and they’ve now designated the right places. In kidnapping issues, the actual authority and responsibility rests with the FBI, which is in charge of investigating murders and kidnappings overseas. Moving the coordination to that effort over to the FBI makes more sense, and elevates responsibility to FBI to a higher level.”

Voss said that now the overall coordination should be easier and quicker because of the higher level of authority involved – “but it still comes down to the level of expertise of the person in the position. Did the people involved with the government do a very poor job over the past two years?”

“In all these ISIL instances, there’s been a complete absence of any evidence of government subject matter expertise. It’s time for the government to take a hard look at the people doing the jobs and see if they’re up to the task. And there’s no evidence that they are.”

The Debrief: Guantanamo Edition // OPSEC 101

In the third installment of “The Debrief: Guantanamo Edition,” Medill NSJI reporters Taylor Hall and Ezra Kaplan give you a crash course in OPSEC, or operations security, as it pertains to reporting from Naval Station Guantanamo Bay.  Learn what OPSEC and how to navigate it in the course of your Guantanamo coverage.

Gitmo hearings for top al-Qaida commander delayed

GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA – It has been eight years and three months since alleged senior al-Qaida commander Abd al Hadi al-Iraqi arrived at Guantanamo Bay. Now much-anticipated hearings related to his alleged war crimes charges have been delayed two more days.

Lt. Col. Tom Crosson, a Defense Department  spokesman, said Monday the Pentagon will not comment on why the military commission judge, Navy Capt. J.K. Waits, has delayed the start time of the first session  this week.

Reasons  for delaying hearings run the gamut from natural disasters to last-minute legal disclosure of new evidence that could complicate the hearing, a Guantanamo defense attorney said.

Military commission personnel will  meet Tuesday to review scheduling for the pre-trial hearings, which are not expected to begin before Wednesday morning. The Guantanamo Review Task Force recommended Hadi for prosecution in January 2010.

Hadi, one of Guantanamo’s remaining high-level detainees, is charged with conspiring and leading a string of violent attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2001 to 2006.

The Mosul, Iraq native is accused of  attacking civilians and also medical helicopter  attempting to recover casualties from the battlefield; directing fighters to kill all coalition soldiers and take no prisoners; providing a reward to the Taliban for assassinating a civilian United Nations worker; acting on orders from Osama bin Laden; attempting to assassinate then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf; and destroying historic Buddha statues in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Hadi allegedly instructed fighters to dress in local attire in order to blend in with the civilian population , and instructed them to videotape attacks and victims’ deaths for use in al-Qaida propaganda films. He is accused of masterminding a series of attacks on American, Canadian, German, British, Estonian and Norwegian forces, including a 2003 attack on a U.S. military convoy at Shikin, Afghanistan, that killed two U.S. soldiers and injured numerous others. After another one of his attacks on Oct. 25 2003 killed two more U.S. soldiers, Hadi’s fighters shot at injured coalition soldiers, according to the charges against him.

The pre-trial hearings scheduled this week will hinge on defense motions related to Hadi’s status as an unlawful enemy combatant, a term used by the U.S. government to denote status of unlawful combatants without protections under the Geneva Conventions.  (Is that change OK?)

If the prosecution proves that Hadi is entitled to prisoner-of-war status, the jurisdiction of his case will be limited to the military commissions at Guantanamo, rather than federal court.

Three defense motions on the table this week relate to Hadi’s conspiracy charges, which have come under fresh scrutiny in the wake of a recent 2-to-1 panel opinion by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia against Ali Hamza Ahmad Suliman Al Bahlul.

Bahlul’s 2008 “inchoate conspiracy” conviction was overturned because the commission at Guantanamo did not have authority to convict him of a conspiracy charge according to the law of war on Article III grounds, the panel wrote.

On Sunday, the chief prosecutor in the Hadi case, Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, said the military commission judge may defer judgment on the conspiracy charges in order to see if the D.C. circuit opinion will remain final, or be petitioned again by the government en banc by July 27. Martins also noted the two cases should not be conflated.

“There’s a strong doctrine of also considering individual cases. Bahlul’s not exactly the same as Hadi. They’re slightly differently situated before the law and before the court,” Martins said.

Martins addressed questions of whether the Bahlul decision may challenge the future of Guantanamo’s military commissions, calling these opinions “both overstated and myopic.”

“Regardless of the government’s decision, military commissions will continue moving toward trial in its seven ongoing cases,” he said Sunday. “We’re not even in the controversial area of law in how we’ve been charging.”

If Hadi is present should the hearings proceed Wednesday as planned, it will be the first time he has appeared in court since judge Navy Capt. J.K. Waits rescinded his “no-touch” order for female guards in March.

Previously, Guantanamo Bay obliged Hadi’s demand that female guards not be permitted to touch him, citing his adherence to Islam as justification on grounds of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Capt. Waits said the overturned appeal resulted from a need for a well-functioning facility and elimination of gender discrimination.

If Hadi is convicted, he faces life in prison, distinct from other active prosecutions at the Guantanamo war court in the Sept. 11 and USS Cole terror attacks which seek military execution.

Published in conjunction with UPI Logo


United Airlines shut down after computer glitch


WASHINGTON – Bill Graham had just boarded a United Airlines flight to Boston at Washington Dulles International Airport when United experienced an airline-wide computer glitch, grounding 3,500 flights nationwide.

“We were sitting on the plane and the technology went down for all of United,” said Graham, who said he waited over two hours on the tarmac before passengers were allowed to get off the plane. “Everyone was pissed.”

Graham added he was thankful his flight was not in the air when the technology shutdown happened.

A technology executive from Washington, Graham missed the business meeting he was scheduled to attend because of delays associated with the flight grounding. To avoid long lines for flight waivers at Dulles, Graham rebooked another flight himself out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

“Because I guess that’s the best option. So I drove here and now I hope this flight’s on time,” Graham said.

Around 9:30 a.m. the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control command center issued a ground stop for United flights due to an automation issue. Thirty minutes later, the FAA lifted the ground stop and said that that the automation issue had been resolved.

But the effects were already being felt in the flight cancellations and delays rippling across the country.

A contractor who handles baggage for United Airlines at Reagan and spoke on the condition of anonymity said gate agents for United wrote out tickets and luggage tags by hand while computer systems were down.

Customers in the United line at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport said they were “absolutely concerned” about flying the same day as the massive glitch, and were skeptical that a computer glitch could have had such a massive effect.

“I was so nervous when I watched the TV and heard the news,” said Erica Gill, a D.C. resident in line to check in for a flight to Detroit. “But I don’t know about the computer glitch. I know they’re a major corporation. But they had enough connectivity to tweet out that they were delayed. I don’t know how much I believe them.”

In a statement, United confirmed this wasn’t a hacking or cyberattack, and said it would issue flight waivers for passengers affected by grounded flights.

“We experienced a network connectivity issue this morning. We are working to resolve this and apologize to our customers for any inconvenience,” a United spokesperson said.

At 8:43 a.m., United tweeted “We’re recovering from a network connectivity issue & restoring flight ops. We’ll have a waiver on united.com to change flights.”

Brynn Olson, a Navy public affairs officer whose United flight from D.C. to Houston was delayed an hour and a half, worried about the sensitivities of airline computer systems.

“I’m surprised that computers shut down the whole thing, but I guess that’s today’s world,” said Olson, who said she learned of the flight grounding and delays not from the airline, but from TV and radio reports.

“You’ve got a computer-based system, and everything’s done over electronics today, so it wouldn’t be unrealistic,” said Greg Bamford, a Marine helicopter pilot flying United to Alaska, about the computer glitch.

While the check-in lines for United at Reagan dwindled by midday, aviation experts said that delays could have a snowball effect triggering flight delays for other airlines, and that resuming normal operations may take 48 hours.

In the middle of the Mojave, Marines make millions off bullet casings and bomb fragments

  • Piles of bullet casings sorted for recycling at the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center’s Qualitative Recycling Program Range Sustainment branch. (Amina Ismail/MEDILL NSJI)
    Piles of bullet casings sorted for recycling at the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center’s Qualitative Recycling Program Range Sustainment branch. (Amina Ismail/MEDILL NSJI)

TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. — On a stretch of California desert the size of Rhode Island at the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, thousands of Marines train for combat each year. And the casings, shells and bomb fragments fired in these exercises are making the Marine Corps millions of dollars each year.

“You have tank parts, you have 120 tank rounds that are made up of aluminum, you have 40-mm rounds. Everything that’s made out of aluminum is sitting back there in that pile,” said Jay Jones, work leader for the seven-person team at the Qualitative Recycling Program’s Range Sustainment branch. “Believe it or not, an airplane crashed out here one year, and it stayed out there. Once the investigation was over, we went out and got it brought back. Someone’s probably driving around a car in it now.”

The Qualified Recycling Program started in 2000 and collected over 5.6 million pounds of range residue last year. The recycling program manages trash and household recyclables as well as exploded munitions and hazardous materials from across the base. Items are collected, sorted, processed and recycled or sold to government-approved contractors for profit, saving the base removal costs.

Range Sustainment

Heaping piles of shells and casings lay sorted in material-specific containers at the Range Sustainment branch, which processes some 900,000 pounds of spent munitions from across the base each year.

“Everything that’s been shot at, shot up, blown up, that’s what we recycle in here,” Jones said. “The Marines themselves bring it in, plus we have contractors that go in and they bring in the bigger pieces of gear. The blown up tanks, the airplane.”

Every unit that trains at the base’s live fire ranges must return expended ammo to the Range Sustainment branch. Staff members sort them into piles by raw material and conduct quality assurance checks for live ordinances

Norman Troy, an explosives ordinance specialist who supervises the Range Sustainment branch, said he identifies each spent munition by sight based on its fusing system and does not consider his job a risk to his life.

“We make sure nothing is live,” Troy said. “It’s once in a very blue moon does something unexploded come in that’s dangerous. And if it does come in, then we call the explosives ordinance disposal, and they come down. And they’ll hopefully go blow it up somewhere.”

Hazardous Materials

The hazardous materials branch acts as the Qualified Recycling Program’s innovative hub. Branch staff process and recycle hazardous materials from across the base, including oil, grease, paint and anti-freeze. According to Patrick Mills, program manager for hazardous materials, the major cost-saving components are the recycling of anti-freeze and the reconditioning of batteries.

Every piece of military rolling stock uses batteries worth $300 to $500, Texas company PulseTech donated machines that recondition the batteries by using an ultrasonic technology that breaks up phosphates that cocoon the lead plates within the batteries. These machines cost $5,000 a piece, but using them saves the Marine Corps up to $1.5 million dollars a year.

Projects like this have caught the eye of think tanks that work with Mills and his team to maximize their technologies.

“DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is one of the many different think tanks,” said Mills. “They find technology, they try to do a cross application to a [Department of Defense] use, for example, and then they would find guys like us who like to step out on the edge of that limb. And that’s what I do.”

Maximizing technology is a key driver of innovation for the branch, which reduced the amount of hazardous waste shipped off-site in 2014 by 192 tons compared with the previous year.

“We are going through a fiscal tsunami right now,” Mills said. “We just fought two long sustained wars. Not one, but two. And we’re still fighting other different neo-intensive operations. There’s ISIS.”

“The think tank, basically they’re trying to get us out of a stone age into new cutting-edge technology. The battery’s one example,” Mills added.

Profit Management

An environmental award submission to the secretary of Defense cited a variety of issues the base faces, including budget reductions, increased environmental requirements, greater public scrutiny and pressure to privatize commercial-like functions. But despite these pressures, the base’s recycling business is thriving.

Last year, the Qualified Recycling Program amassed $2.5 million in profit. Half of this amount went toward labor, maintenance and upgrade costs for the recycling program, and half went to the base’s Marine Welfare Program.


The recycling program staffers aren’t the only ones who see the lucrative potential of the Marine Corps’ leftovers. The Marines training at Twentynine Palms from dawn until dusk have turned the arid sand into a goldmine of metals primed for scrappers, who sneak onto base property illegally, collect discharged munitions, and sell them for profit to local recycling centers.

“They have the ability to just pick up as much as they can pick up,” Troy said. “They’re looking for high-value material. So our brass is a high-value material.”

Besides latent threats these scrappers face like unintentionally stumbling across a live fire training exercise, Troy said there are also risks of unexploded ordinances in the field.

“There have been a couple of incidents where they’d go out and find somebody. They found a couple scrappers that had died near their vehicle. They found a few vehicles that had been stranded out there that had materials in the back that were unsafe.”

Troy said the recycling center cooperates with San Berdardino County Sheriffs Office and conservation law enforcement officer Russell Elswick to prosecute scrappers who have illegally taken metal materials from the base.

For its environmental efforts, including recycling and water reclamation, the Twentynine Palms MCAGCC was awarded the 2015 Secretary of Defense Environmental Non-Industrial Installation Award.