With tearful goodbyes, they left the Quad-Cities, traveling to guard suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Now, seven years after the Davenport-based 339th Military Police Company of the Army Reserves was called to duty at the U.S. military base in Cuba, some of the detainees they watched over might make a reverse version of the trek and come to the Quad-City region.
While the reservists were asked their opinions of the potential move before Monday night’s announcement that the White House had decided to direct the Federal Bureau of Prisons to purchase the mostly empty Thomson Correctional Center, several of those who worked at Guantanamo Bay’s Camp X-Ray and Camp Delta said they support the move.
But some others have serious security concerns.
Jason Stahl, 34, of Rock Island, a former 339th member who now serves as a military police instructor with a unit out of Baton Rouge, La., said the transfer “could cause huge problems for everyone in the Midwest.”
“When I first heard about it, I thought, ‘Somebody’s gotta be losing their mind,’ ” he said. “We spent a great deal of money and went through a lot of problems to get those detainees in Cuba, in a
“Now they want to bring them practically to the very center of the United States. It seems to me that would be a huge security problem.”
Something that amazed Stahl when the 339th went to Guantanamo Bay was the worldwide attention the unit — and their location — received.
It seemed everyone was reading or writing about Camp X-Ray, a collection of outdoor chain-link cell blocks where the suspects initially were held on the Caribbean island. The 339th stayed in a tent village close to the camp.
Then, when more permanent cells were built at Camp Delta, on another part of the island base, the 339th helped transfer the detainees to that location. The world watched again, Stahl said.
He is not worried about the detainees escaping from the Thomson prison, which was built by the state of Illinois to be a maximum-security site, or the security issues connected with guarding them.
“My big concern is drawing attention from the outside world,” he said.
The Thomson prison — 50 miles northeast of the Quad-Cities — is in fairly close proximity to the Rock Island Arsenal and the Exelon Quad-Cities Nuclear Generating Station at Cordova, Ill., which could become possible targets for terrorist attacks, he said.
Yet Stahl also sees the possible economic boon that would be created by bringing the suspected
terrorist population to the Thomson prison.
“And, to be honest, I wouldn’t mind walking through the prison and seeing some of their faces again,” he added.
When he left Cuba, Stahl forgot a lot about the suspects he guarded. But one still sticks out in his mind: a man who was missing his legs and could speak English. He served as the guards’ interpreter, Stahl said.
Several years ago, Stahl said he recognized the man in a photograph that was part of the national news coverage. He cannot remember the man’s name.
Now, he focuses mainly on his wife, Jessica, 4-year-old son Andy and his job driving forklifts at Sears Manufacturing in Davenport.
A lot has changed in 339th member Chris Sivright’s life, too. The Clinton, Iowa, native is married and a father now, and they live just a short drive from Thomson.
But Sivright, a Clinton County Sheriff’s deputy, is not concerned about safety if the detainees are moved to the nearby prison. He sees a lot more positives than negatives in the idea.
“The State of Illinois is having some money problems. With the economy the way it is, I think it would be good for Thomson,” said Sivright, who is still a member of the 339th but expects to retire from military service in another year.
“I don’t know what it’s like at Gitmo now, but from when we were there, I think the prison is in much better shape,” he said. “They’re going to stay inside, for the most part.”
Sivright said they always had two guards per detainee, and when the detainees were moved, they were “belly-chained, leg-shackled and handcuffed.” He thinks security would be just as tight, if not stronger, at the prison.
“We weren’t really scared of any of them,” he said.
Although Sivright thinks Gitmo is a “great place for them,” with an ocean surrounding the island and the tight security the base provides, he thinks Thomson prison also could be a secure place for the detainees.
“And I think it would be great for Thomson.”
Misty Mills of Davenport, a former 339th member, was a single mother who left two young children behind with relatives when she was called to duty in Cuba. When she returned — and put in another tour of duty in Kentucky — Mills said she had to work through a lot of emotions about her experience, “forgive and let go of a lot to move on with life.”
Yet she still would prefer the detainees “didn’t follow us almost home.”
“But I have no strong feelings,” she said. “I mean, it would build the economy for that area.”
Not far upriver in Dubuque, Iowa, 34-year-old Larry Nilmeier — who also remains in the 339th — said he is not sure what to think. He has not paid a lot of attention to news reports on the issue.
“It was so long ago. I’ve almost forgot about a lot of stuff,” he said. “I don’t think it would be a problem. I know a lot of people have opinions about it.”
These days, the Asbury, Iowa, police officer is getting ready to become part of a canine unit, and he sometimes visits schools to talk about his 339th duty in Iraq as well as Cuba. Students seem to ask a lot of questions about Camp X-Ray, he said.
“When I look back at that, I can say, ‘I was part of that,’ ” Nilmeier said.