By James Yee
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In September 2003, after serving at Guantanamo for ten months in a role that gave him unrestricted access to the detainees — and after receiving numerous awards for his service there — Chaplain Yee was secretly arrested on his way to meet his wife and daughter for a routine two-week leave. He was locked away in a navy prison, subject to much of the same treatment that had been imposed on the Guantanamo detainees. Wrongfully accused of spying, and aiding the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Yee spent 76 excruciating days in solitary confinement and was threatened with the death penalty.
After the U.S. government determined it had made a grave mistake in its original allegations, it vindictively charged him with adultery and computer pornography. In the end all criminal charges were dropped and Chaplain Yee’s record wiped clean. But his reputation was tarnished, and what has been a promising military career was left in ruins.
Depicting a journey of faith and service, Chaplain Yee’s For God and Country is the story of a pioneering officer in the U.S. Army, who became a victim of the post-September 11 paranoia that gripped a starkly fearful nation. And it poses a fundamental question: If our country cannot be loyal to even the most patriotic Americans, can it remain loyal to itself?
FOR MY MOTHER
WHEN I WAS A CHILD growing up in New Jersey, my father taught my four siblings and me that America promises all people, regardless of their circumstances, an opportunity to lead an extraordinary life. That ideal is what drove me to work hard in high school, as both a student and an athlete. It is why I chose to attend West Point and why, after I discovered how great its challenges were, I chose not to quit. It is what convinced me to train and lead a group of dedicated soldiers in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War. Above all, it is what led to a simple ceremony in October 2000 when, before my family, I took an oath to serve the United States army as a Muslim chaplain.
As I took that oath, I felt I had finally begun to live an extraordinary life—partly because of the long, proud military tradition I was joining and partly because of the obstacles I had to overcome to get to there. After converting to Islam following my graduation from West Point and serving as an air defense officer in the U.S. army, I knew that I wanted to spend my life in service to my country as a chaplain. Initially many people told me this was an impossible goal. At the time, there were no Muslim chaplains in the military, and no way to become one. According to military regulations, a chaplain was required to obtain an advanced degree in divinity through a seminary or religious school. There were plenty of schools that trained Christian and Jewish chaplains, but none for Muslims.
My continued pursuit of this "impossible" goal took me to Damascus, Syria—one of the great learning centers of Islam. When I'd return to New Jersey to visit my family, I'd sit in my parents' comfortable backyard surrounded by familiar faces and question whether or not I could achieve my goal. It took me four years of intensive study to gain a strong understanding of Islam and Arabic, and when I returned home for good in the summer of 2000, I was proud of my accomplishment.
A military chaplain's role is to promote diversity, and that is a large part of what drew me to choose it as my career. I had always recognized the value of diversity. As a child, I was part of the only Chinese American family in a white, middle-class suburb. But that didn't stop my parents from raising five happy children. In Damascus, I was one of only a few Westerners living in the city and studying at the school, but it didn't prevent me from achieving what I had set out to do. I knew that when I became a chaplain in the army, I would be one of only a few Muslims. But that didn't mean I couldn't achieve great things. Instead, I believed these experiences would make me a better chaplain, truly committed to ensuring that the U.S. army was a place where diversity was encouraged and honored and where, above all else, people could practice their faith freely—regardless of the god they prayed to or the religion they professed. This is what being an American meant to me.
When I rejoined the ranks as a Muslim chaplain in October 2000, I stood before a small crowd and received my commission. Raising my right hand, I proudly took the oath and swore once again "to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic," a promise to serve both God and country. In doing so, I pledged to myself, and silently to my father, that my life would be extraordinary.
ON THE MORNING OF MY ARREST, as the Cuban sun peeked above the horizon, I sat alone on a ferry, crossing Guantanamo Bay and dreaming of my daughter.
It was September 10, 2003, and I was scheduled to begin a two-week leave from my assignment as the Muslim chaplain at Camp Delta, the maximum-security facility where nearly 700 "enemy combatants" captured in the war on terror were being detained.
Joint Task Force Guantanamo, as the detention mission is known, is located on the U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay (NAVSTA GTMO) in Cuba. The base is divided between two distinct spits of land that jut out into the gentle blue waters of the Caribbean. Most base activities, as well as all Joint Task Force business, are conducted on the windward side of the base. The small base airport is located on the leeward side, which is more isolated; the only other thing around is a small hotel where visitors, like members of the media, stay.
I was going home to meet my wife, Huda, and our three-year-old daughter, Sarah. We had arranged to meet the following day—which happened to be September 11, 2003—at the Seattle-Tacoma airport. Our home was in Olympia, Washington, but they had been staying with Huda's family in Syria while I was away. I hadn't seen them since October, eleven months earlier, when we said good-bye before I shipped off to Cuba.
My tour at Guantanamo was originally scheduled to last six months but, as was typical, it had been extended to a year. Even so, I still didn't know exactly when I was going to return home permanently; rules limiting extended deployments are often broken, especially during a time of war, and my replacement still hadn't been identified. I knew that the coming two weeks would fly by too quickly and I'd be back at Gitmo, as the base is commonly known, suffering the tension, the suspicion, and the heat: all of them relentless. But as I rode the ferry that morning in the orange glow of sunrise, I pushed those thoughts from my mind. Instead, I thought about holding Sarah in my arms and enjoying dinner with my family in our small but comfortable apartment in the cool, lush evenings of the Pacific Northwest. I counted the hours until I'd be home. First I had to fly from the small Guantanamo airport to the Jacksonville naval air station in Florida—the first stop in the United States for soldiers returning from duty. I'd then take a taxi to Jacksonville International Airport and catch a commercial flight to Seattle, where my brother Walter, an army doctor stationed at Fort Lewis (where I also was stationed), would pick me up. By nightfall, I'd be back home.
A chaplain's assistant named LaRosa Johnson who often assisted me on base had asked me to escort her six-year-old daughter, Kiarra, from Guantanamo to Jacksonville, where she would be met by her grandmother. I was happy to look after Kiarra, who was waiting for me with her mother at the Guantanamo airport. The terminal is a tiny building with about a dozen rows of leather chairs facing a small television set and a one-man ticket counter. There's no jet way or snack shop, and the place has the feel of a small New England airstrip. A few private airlines fly tiny commuter planes in and out of the base each day, picking up and dropping off soldiers, contractors, and the families who live permanently on the naval base. I arrived early at the terminal that morning and passed the hours sitting alone, reading. At the time, I was enrolled in a master's degree program in international relations through Troy University. While on leave, I intended to finish a paper I was writing that considered what impact the young Syrian president, Bashar Assad, might have on the Middle East peace process. The paper was due in a few weeks, and since my schedule at Guantanamo left little time for school work I had months of research with me.
An airline agent finally called us to board the plane. Kiarra kissed her mother good-bye and took my hand. We walked across the steaming tarmac and boarded the aircraft. It was a large commercial plane, chartered by the military for the three-hour trip across the Caribbean to Florida. The other passengers were mostly soldiers and contractors going home, as well as residents of the naval base on their way back to the States. Once we were seated, an airline employee came onboard and approached us. She looked at me and pointed at Kiarra. "Is this your daughter, sir?" she asked me. I explained that I was escorting Kiarra to Florida as a favor to her mother, but the woman just shook her head.
"You're not allowed to travel with a child that is not your own," she informed me. She told Kiarra that she would not be going to Florida with me and instructed her to get off of the plane. Kiarra looked totally confused.
"Wait, wait, wait," I said. I'd never heard of this before, but fortunately LaRosa had thought to grant me power of attorney in the event of an emergency. I took out the form indicating this and gave it to the agent. She quickly reviewed it and took it with her as she left the plane. Nearly twenty minutes later, as Kiarra grew worried and the passengers impatient, the agent returned and said that Kiarra could stay onboard.
Flying from Cuba to Florida is like being suspended in an endless river of blue. Everything is either part of the ocean or part of the sky—and it's impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. Eventually the small islands of the Bahamas appear below, in stark contrast to the island of Cuba. Green and verdant, the Bahamas are outlined in a flawless white ribbon of sand, packed with tourists. Cuba, in comparison, is withered and sun baked, with a jagged shoreline. The most common vegetation is cactus and the dead remains of trees that once decorated the island but have since become hollow, clawlike sculptures that line the roads, holding tight to the dry soil. It was initially strange to me that Cuba had been chosen as the location for an American prison, but as I grew to understand things more, the setting came to feel wholly appropriate for what we were doing there.
When our plane finally landed at the Jacksonville naval air station, seven customs officers boarded the plane to check the IDs and customs declaration forms of all the passengers. We were then directed to go inside the terminal to wait for our luggage. While our bags were being checked by customs agents, I hoped to secure a taxi to take me to Jacksonville International Airport where I would catch my flight to Seattle. I led Kiarra toward the exit but before I got outside, the customs officer who had checked our IDs on the plane approached me.
"Where are you going?" she asked me, holding up her hands to stop us.
"To reserve a taxi," I told her, "while we wait for our luggage."
"No," she said. "You're not allowed to leave the terminal without your bags." I saw that other passengers were already outside, greeting friends and family or having a cigarette.
Before I could make this point, another uniformed agent came over. He identified himself as Sean Rafferty with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and he told me I had to come with him. He led Kiarra and me to where the luggage from the plane had been assembled, and I noticed that my two duffel bags had been set aside from the others. Rafferty told me to pick up my luggage and bring the backpack and laptop I carried. After I helped Kiarra find her bag buried in the pile, he directed us to a small room just off the main boarding area.
I had flown this route twice before: once to go home for a brief visit to my parents in New Jersey, where I grew up, and more recently to attend a chaplains conference in Florida. Therefore I knew that the attention I was receiving from the customs officers was unusual. I had expected increased security measures since the following day was September 11, and my time at Guantanamo had accustomed me to extra scrutiny—but I wasn't expecting this. I asked Officer Rafferty if I was being singled out because I was a Muslim and the following day was the second anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
"You could say that," he replied.
As the other soldiers from my flight gathered their bags and left the terminal, happy to be back in America, a team of agents emptied my belongings onto a table. Rafferty started with my backpack. I had several small, army-issue green notebooks that I usually carried with me, a telephone and address book, my day planner, and a small Mead notebook where I kept my to-do list. He thumbed through the pages of my books and immediately left the room with them, as other customs officers combed through my duffel bags. Kiarra sat calmly next to me. She swung her legs against the metal legs of the chair and watched the search.
"Aren't you going to look in my bag too?" she asked, apparently feeling left out. An officer complied and examined the contents of her small pink backpack.
I sat there for an hour as the agents slowly searched my luggage, and I grew increasingly impatient. They examined every item as if I had written secret codes on them in invisible ink. In reality, nothing I had was the least bit interesting. Because my deployment was scheduled to end soon, I had packed many personal items no longer needed at Guantanamo that I was going to leave at home in Olympia. They included my dress uniform, some educational videos I had brought to Guantanamo, and several books. After an hour, Rafferty still hadn't returned and the search was proceeding so slowly that it seemed to be a deliberate stalling tactic. Meanwhile, I was worried about missing my flight to Seattle. It was scheduled to leave soon, and I had at least a thirty-minute taxi ride to the next airport. Finally Kiarra's grandmother, who must have been wondering where we were, appeared inside the terminal. Apparently someone had driven to the gates of the Jacksonville naval air station, where we were meant to meet, to retrieve her. She collected Kiarra's things and went off with her granddaughter, but I was told to remain.
Finally Officer Rafferty came back into the room. "We're all set," he told the agents. I was allowed to repack my bags and was free to go—or so I thought. I rushed toward the exit, once again heading outside to find a taxi, but once again I was stopped. Two men in civilian clothing flashed their badges, revealing that they were FBI agents. "We'd like to ask you some questions, Chaplain Yee," Agent Mike Visted said, trying to usher me back toward the small room I had just left. Why was the FBI here? I didn't think I was obligated to speak with them, but I also knew that my chances of making my next flight were slim and I hoped that if I agreed to talk to them, they'd return the favor and perhaps give me a ride to the airport. "I'll give you five minutes," I told them, a decision I would later come to regret.
We sat down in the small room I had just left, and Visted and Agent John Wear began with simple questions. What was my full name? Where was I from? Where was I going? By this time, we were the only people left in the terminal. I was frustrated and inconvenienced, but I cooperated as much as I could and answered their questions. They were particularly interested in the work I did at Guantanamo and my role as the Muslim chaplain. Did I have interactions with the detainees? How would I describe my relationship with them? Those, however, I couldn't answer. One of the first things you learn when you arrive at Guantanamo is that what happens at the camp doesn't leave the camp. Not only was this routine military custom for any mission, it was an explicit order at Guantanamo—one that General Geoffrey Miller had laid out as "essential elements of friendly information." As an officer who had been well trained in COMSEC, or communications security, I understood the importance of safeguarding operational information.
But they continued to push. Could I tell them the names or identification numbers of any detainees? I explained to Visted that I couldn't answer their questions. "Don't worry about it," he said, "we both have top secret clearance." I knew that wasn't good enough. Before I disclosed sensitive information to someone, two conditions had to be met: proof of appropriate clearance and a need to know. The agents didn't explain why they were interested, or even why they were questioning me. They had not sufficiently demonstrated a need to know. Answering their questions wouldn't merely be inappropriate, it could also be illegal. I suggested they contact Lieutenant Colonel James Young and Colonel Nelson Cannon, my direct superiors. They had the necessary authority to answer the agents' questions if they deemed it appropriate.
In any event, I had already spent far more than the agreed-on five minutes talking to the FBI agents, and I told them our time was up. "I have a flight to catch, gentlemen," I explained. As I prepared to leave, another agent who had been waiting outside the door came in and handed Wear a search warrant. It had my name on it, and I saw that it had been signed that day. I was shocked. My bags had already been searched several times by the customs agents. "What's this for?" I asked, slowly coming to realize that everything that was happening was perhaps not random, as all of the agents involved had tried to make apparent. "Sit down, Chaplain," Visted told me. They took my luggage, placed it on the table, and began to unpack it. I stared in disbelief as two more agents entered the room to assist with the search. I asked them who they were and they told me they were with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS).
For the second time that day, a team of agents examined every item in my luggage. They read my notebooks, flipped through my books, and looked through the papers I had for my research project. Why did I have so many documents about Syria? I described the paper I was writing. Was anything classified? Of course not, I told them. I had printed everything from the Internet. They searched for hours. Agents would come and go with my things, and I saw that they were photocopying pages from my notebooks. They'd pause to ask me what certain things were and spent time reading through my Qur'an, but for the most part they treated me as if I wasn't even there.
Finally, five hours after I had landed at the airport, they told me I was free to go. They were, however, keeping many of my belongings—my laptop computer, passport, notebooks, research papers, and even my Qur'an. They asked if they could use one of my duffel bags to carry the things they were taking, but I said no. I asked if they would drive me to the airport, and they declined. "Sorry, Chaplain," the FBI agent said, "I'd like to help you out there but I can't." Of course, he knew that I wasn't really going to the airport that night.
I was angry and exhausted but I quietly packed the rest of my belongings into my duffel bag and once again headed outside to get a taxi. I'd missed my flight but perhaps there would be a departure to Seattle yet that evening. If not, I'd have to catch a flight early the next morning and hope to have enough time to prepare the apartment before I met Huda and Sarah.
As I ran through the options in my mind I was, to my horror, stopped yet again. Agent Bill Thomas, an officer with NCIS, displayed his badge. In his pocket was a copy of an arrest warrant, signed that day by Brigadier General James Payne, the second in command at Guantanamo. As he instructed two armed guards waiting nearby to lock the handcuffs around my wrists, he didn't say a word—not why I was being arrested or what I was charged with. I wasn't even read my rights.
He silently led me to a car that waited for us outside. As I walked through the empty terminal in handcuffs, my first day back in the United States, I was horrified at how I was being treated. But given the place I had just left and the things I knew were happening there, I can't say I was surprised.
WE SAY THAT THE WAR on terror is not a war against Islam, but that's not how it felt most days at Guantanamo. Religion is at the heart of everything inside Camp Delta—particularly the tension. An unmeasurable division exists between most U.S. personnel who work at the facility and the prisoners held there. Every man behind the steel mesh wire of the cages practices the same religion, one that calls him to prayer five times a day and demands a certain level of piety. A religion that many people who work inside the prison understand only as the religion of terrorists.
I converted to Islam in 1991, when I was twenty-three years old. I had recently graduated from West Point and was on my way to Bitburg air base in Germany to serve as a platoon leader in the air defense artillery. My decision to convert from the Lutheran faith of my childhood to Islam did not feel particularly momentous. I went to a mosque in Newark, New Jersey, and I took a pledge: "There is only one God, and Mohammed is the Messenger of God." Given what I had learned about Islam, I felt strongly enough to express my devotion to the religion but I expected that I would practice it casually, much as I had Christianity.
When people learn that I am Muslim and then see that I am of Asian descent, they often assume that I immigrated to the United States. But in fact my background was typically American. My mother grew up in Brooklyn and my father near Pittsburgh. Their parents had emigrated to the United States from China in the 1920s. Like many third-generation Americans, my understanding of how they came to settle in America is limited. The stories of their passage and their journey to citizenship were passed down in small morsels when relatives got together for Thanksgiving or during summer barbecues in our large New Jersey backyard. As far as I understood it, my ancestors came here for "a better life," and that was all I needed to understand. I was far more interested in hitting baseballs with my cousins than hearing the stories of my ancestors' journey to America.
My mother's family operated a laundromat in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn—a "Chinese laundry in the back" as they called it then. In the front, there were twenty Westinghouse machines, a modern convenience during those times. In the back, my grandmother worked all day washing the laundry by hand for people who had yet to develop trust in the automatic machines. As a teenager, my mother spent her weekends in the back with her mom, helping scrub dirt from cuffs and collars. I've sometimes wondered if that's where she developed her gritty, no-nonsense attitude. My mother is a woman unafraid to speak her mind.
Of course, her attitude also may have stemmed from being part of a family of thirteen children—one born every thirteen months. Her family lived in a small three-bedroom apartment over the laundry. The eight girls had one room, the five boys the other. My mother learned to speak Chinese before she learned English at Public School 94 and quickly mastered it, as well as the Brooklyn accent of her teachers and classmates.
After high school, my mother moved to an even smaller apartment in Greenwich Village. Ecstatic to be on her own and have a little space, she found work at the Bell Telephone Laboratories.
She met my father in 1959, at the Roxy Bowling Alley on the corner of 50th Street and 7th Avenue in Manhattan. My father had moved to New York from the outskirts of Pittsburgh, where dozens of Yee men from southern China had settled over the years. Like my mother's family, his parents also ran a Chinese laundry. They quickly discovered that they both worked at Bell Laboratories, he as an engineer. Within a year they were engaged. After a small wedding ceremony, they moved into a new apartment in Greenwich Village and lived there for a few years before my father was transferred to Illinois. Eventually my father was transferred again, and then settled for good in Springfield, New Jersey—in a predominantly white middle-class suburb. By this time, my four siblings and I had been born. "That's it!" my mother declared one day. "Five is plenty."
As my mother likes to say, our family was "terribly American." None of my siblings speak a word of Chinese. When we were young, my mother tried to get us interested in Chinese culture. She'd bring us to a community center for Chinese children. It was the first time any of us had met other Asian American children, and we all felt very out of place. After one of the children threw up on my sister Patricia's new coat, we all refused to go again, and so ended our Chinese education.
We grew up in a comfortable home, photos of the five children spread throughout the house. My mom has put together countless scrapbooks that tell the story of our youth, and those pages read like a volume of typical American suburban living. One of her favorites is a photo from 1976, when our family dressed in traditional costumes from the American Revolution to celebrate the 200th anniversary of our country's independence. There I sit as an eight-year-old, crowded beside my brothers and sisters. Walter, Jason, Dad, and I are dressed in white shirts, red vests, and black hats turned up at three corners. My sisters, Patricia and Gloria, and my mother are in long dresses, flowered aprons, and fabric head coverings. Elsewhere, there are pages of me in my Cub Scout uniform as a young kid and later as a Boy Scout; and at the piano, pretending to practice. In junior high I played the snare drum in the school's Fife and Drum Corps, and my mother captured me marching in the town parades, waving at my family in the crowd and showing a mix of excitement and embarrassment.
Like every other boy on the quiet street of my New Jersey suburb, I lived for baseball. My greatest obsession was collecting baseball cards. I started collecting when I was nine years old and set out to develop the best collection in the whole neighborhood. That year, I collected all 660 cards from the 1977 Tops baseball card series from bubble gum packs and did the same every year through 1980. By the time I was twelve, I had learned to save the money I earned from my newspaper route. My father would take me to a collectors trade show, and I'd buy the whole set without having to get the gum.
I studied major league baseball statistics and I loved the big hitters: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Willie Mays, and Mickey Mantle. But two of the greatest home run hitters were not in the major leagues: Sadaharu Oh played in Japan's Central League and held the worldwide home run record of 868, and Josh Gibson, a catcher in the Negro Leagues, hit more home runs than Hank Aaron. The Negro Leagues did not keep consistent records, but Gibson was believed to have hit more than 800 home runs in his career, despite playing primarily in Forbes Field and Griffith Stadium, two of the most cavernous ballparks. I became engrossed by these players and began to study the games of others I considered perfectionists—like Brooks Robinson, the best defensive third basemen to ever play the game, handling a position called "the hot corner," and of course Don Larsen, the Yankees pitcher who threw a perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers. He wasn't a great legend or Hall of Famer, but on that fall day in 1956, he taught future generations of American boys that at any given time, you can step up and reach perfection. All I wanted to do was to grow up and play for the Yankees.
- On Sale
- Oct 11, 2005
- Page Count
- 256 pages