By Tyler Pager and Paige Leskin
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — It’s movie night in downtown Gitmo.
The feature showing on the outdoor screen on the warm Wednesday night: American Sniper.
As couples and small groups in plain clothes choose their seats, others stop at the nearby concession stand. Stars dot the dark sky above the big projection screen and the area is quiet besides the occasional car that passes on the main street. Before Bradley Cooper appears on the screen, moviegoers stand and salute the flag as the national anthem blares through the speakers.
Only a few miles away, uniformed soldiers are working in the high-stress environment that is the detention center for the world’s most dangerous suspected terrorists.
It is the inherent contradiction of Guantanamo Bay — a naval station and a high-security detention facility on the same 45 square miles in Cuba.
The naval station — the only one in the Caribbean — serves as the main refueling and restocking hub for ships in the area. It also supports immigration operations and the Coast Guard’s counter-narcotics mission. The station’s infrastructure and entertainment options are similar to most military bases, except the military personnel don’t have the option to wander off the base whenever they want.
And when President Barack Obama discusses closing Guantanamo, he is only referring to the detention facilities, which opened in 2002. The base, which has been there since 1903, is not up for discussion.
With a population of more than 6,000, Guantanamo resembles small-town USA — two movie theaters, a gym, a bowling alley and swimming pools. The base also hosts large-scale events such as 5K races, marathons and talent competitions, all run by the Navy’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation division, known as MWR.
“More so here than any other installation, it’s extremely important because we aren’t leaving,” said Kelly Wirfel, the base’s public affairs officer. “So that’s it, that’s the entertainment for the people here.”
Intramural athletic leagues are particularly popular among service members and their families. The $6 million Cooper Field Sports Complex in downtown Gitmo features a turf football field surrounded by a track and baseball fields.
Down Sherman Avenue, the base’s main street, is the Downtown Lyceum, the outdoor movie theater, featuring a full concession stand selling popcorn, nachos, hot dogs and mosquito wipes.
Retired Rear Adm. David Woods, a former commander of the detention operations, said his work was just as stressful as his tours in the Middle East so the leisure activities were helpful to wind down.
“Coming back and being able to relax, whether it was snorkeling or going for a run on the track or around the base,” he said, “those kind of things were really important for relieving the stress and kind of fill the downtime.”
The base also features a 9-hole golf course, a library and a paintball range.
“If somebody is bored here, they’re just really not trying very hard to get out and find things to do, because there’s definitely something that can appeal to everybody here,” Wirfel said.
Most of the service members eat at the chow hall, the main cafeteria set up like a college dining hall, but other dining options include McDonald’s — which has been on the island for more than 30 years — Subway, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, among other local restaurants and bars.
The most popular store on the base, though, is the Navy Exchange, a government-run Walmart lookalike commonly referred to as the NEX.
But, the men and women behind the cash registers at the NEX are not military members, rather they are mostly Jamaican and Filipino natives. There are nearly 1,500 foreign nationals employed on the base. They work at the restaurants and stores and also take care of the majority of maintenance and construction.
Children are able to attend school in Guantanamo, which is run by the Department of Defense Education Activity school system. Classes are small and teaching is more personalized than at most U.S. schools — only about 150 kids attend the W. T. Sampson middle and high school.
Winnie, a 17-year-old student, will be graduating from the high school this spring with only about a dozen other students. The curriculum, she said, is similar to that at the high school in Texas she attended before moving to Guantanamo about two years ago.
But compared with her football-crazed Texas high school, she said education in Guantanamo is remarkably slow-paced.
Winnie, who at the request of her parents is only being identified by her first name, eventually learned to appreciate the individual attention as well as the school’s atmosphere.
“Even if you don’t hang out with them all the time, everyone is friendly with each other and everyone knows each other,” she said. “In the States, you just don’t get that, because it’s such a large feel and everyone kind of splits off into their own little groups.”
After she graduates, Winnie will be heading off to Utah State University. About half of her classmates will be taking the same route and going to college on the U.S. mainland, while the other half plan to join the military.
The school’s guidance counselor, Patricia Coffey, assists high school seniors in deciding where to go after graduation. But, as the sole guidance counselor, she’s also in charge of class scheduling, parent conferences and standardized testing, among many other responsibilities.
Coffey said her job is often made difficult by the island’s extremely slow Internet, which causes problems when she’s trying to access college applications and transcripts.
“It truly is like being back in 1980 here. You have to constantly double check things to make sure they’re in,” she said. “So when we have standardized tests that come in, we have to constantly check when was it mailed, where does it go.”
Students fill their free time with activities available through the school and around the base. Shaher, a ninth grader originally from Florida, said he can participate in after-school clubs and often hangs out with friends at a teen center, which he compared to a “man cave.” The 15-year-old said he is also part of an intramural basketball league through MWR.
Shaher, who is also only being identified by his first name at the request of his parents, is only able to get in touch with friends by calling their home phones or hoping to run into them at the NEX. The difficulties with communication are among the many ways the island can be isolating for some residents.
Wirfel, the public affairs officer, said the navy base has everything to fulfill residents’ needs, but she does hear complaints — most commonly that there are not enough options for food. There are limits to what’s available on a regular basis because most deliveries come every other week on a barge.
“It’s not like we can go out into Cuba and say, ‘Hey, we need fresh fruits and vegetables,’” Wirfel said. “There’s going to be days when there’s not going to be a ton of fruit and vegetables, or there’s going to be days when they’re out of chicken, or whatever. But you just make the best of it.”
Many resort to online shopping for items they can’t buy on the island. Though Amazon doesn’t offer next-day delivery to Guantanamo, Wirfel said packages only take about a week and a half to arrive.
But the unique lifestyle in Guantanamo is something many residents have learned to accept.
“All my friends, when they first came here, they said they don’t like it at all. They miss the States. They wanted to go back,” Shaher, the ninth grader, said. “I honestly don’t see what they’re talking about because I’ve grown to love Guantanamo Bay.”
Coffey, the school’s guidance counselor, has worked at schools on bases around the world in her 27 years with the Defense Department. Guantanamo, she said, has been by far the most unique.
“The best description is, you’re like in a box,” she said. “You can’t go out of the box. You can’t look in the box. You can’t see around the box.”
Coffey said, though, the box only encloses the navy base. The detention center operations, she said, are completely separate. She said it was shocking how seldom issues came up at school about the facilities that are located only a few miles away. If a rumor runs amok, school administrators work to quickly “squash” it and move on, she said.
But the distinction between the navy base and the Joint Task Force, which operates the detention center, is not as clear to outsiders, Wirfel said. She said a vital part of her job is changing the stigma that Guantanamo is only home to a detention center.
“The base has been here for a very long time, it will be here for a very long time,” she said. “Whatever the future of the Joint Task Force is, the naval station’s going to be and is here.”