Sharing thanks – and the IU spirit – with our troops

Editor’s Note: This piece also was published in the latest issue of Inside IU, which was distributed March 30.

The 60 members of the 38th Infantry Division of the Indiana National Guard arrived at their current deployment destination on New Year’s Eve, trading Midwestern winter chill for the balmy breezes and blinding sun of the Caribbean.

Tropical setting aside, the members of the 38th Division most certainly aren’t on vacation at the U.S. Naval base in Cuba. They’re three months into a nine-month deployment as part of the U.S. military’s Joint Task Force, a 2,000-soldier operation comprising all branches of the military that is dedicated to the “safe, humane, legal and transparent care and custody of detainees” charged with war crimes against the United States.

Honor Coin

An ‘honor coin’ commemorating the U.S. Joint Task Force on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

The Joint Task Force also supports the work of the Office of Military Commissions, which investigates and prosecutes those charged with war crimes. Currently, 91 detainees are housed at Guantanamo Bay. Included in those numbers are the “9/11 Five” who have been charged with plotting the most devastating terror attacks ever carried out on U.S. soil.

Many of the Indiana Guard troops, like their leader Lt. Col. James Babbitt (a Michigan native who has found a military home in the Indiana Guard), are on their third – or even fourth  – deployment.

Despite the potential for danger and the sacrifice inherent in all Guard deployments, such as being away from family, friends and career for up to a year at a time, Babbitt and his fellow soldiers, many of whom have served in combat zones such as Afghanistan and Iraq, aren’t complaining about their latest duty.

“This isn’t the kind of place you should be sent on you first deployment, because then you’ll be spoiled forever,” laughs Babbitt.

Besides, these folks aren’t the complaining type, regardless the circumstances.

Bringing a taste to IU to Hoosiers in Cuba

The 38th Division is the first Indiana National Guard unit to serve as part of the Joint Task Force operation at Guantanamo Bay and this deployment is the first of two to be made by the division. As you might expect, the unit has a decidedly Hoosier flavor to it, which made the university’s outreach trip last weekend a natural fit.

Indiana National Guard members with IU gear

Indiana National Guard members at Guantanamo Bay show off their IU gear.

In order to provide our troops with a taste of home, Indiana University’s Vice President for Government Relations Mike Sample arranged to have some IU athletic gear sent to the members serving at Guantanamo Bay.

With the help of IU Director of Athletics Fred Glass, Sample gathered enough basketball practice jerseys, shorts and water bottles to outfit the entire unit, allowing it show their Hoosier pride while competing in the myriad intramural sports leagues on the base. A couple of IU flags and two Purdue jerseys (just to be fair to our friends up north) rounded out the care package.

To ensure safe delivery of the goods – and to personally thank our military personnel for their service – Sample and I traveled to Guantanamo Bay to spend a long weekend as guests of Lt. Col. Babbitt and the members of the 38th. The trip was educational, entertaining and, at times sobering, and left an impression that is certain to last.

IU flag over Camp Justice

The IU flag flies over Camp Justice on March 27, 2016 in recognition of IU’s support of the Indiana National Guard troops at Guantanamo Bay and the IU McKinney School of Law students acting as observers of U.S. Military Commission hearings at the base.

While there, we toured the base facilities and operations, ranging from a walk-through of Camp X-Ray, the temporary detention facility set up in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks to a visit to Camp Justice, the site of the Commission hearings, which are being observed by a group of IU McKinney School of Law students, faculty and staff as part of the school’s program in international human rights. In fact, the next McKinney School representative  is due to arrive the week of April 4 to observe the latest round of Commission hearings.

This being an IU crowd – and this being NCAA tournament time – we were treated to a “watch party” for IU’s game against North Carolina, and while the result wasn’t what we had hoped the game provided a welcome reminder of home for all of us. We also were privileged to see the IU flag, signed by members of the 38th, flown over Camp Justice for a day as a sign of respect for the university’s support for the Indiana Guard’s work, as well as that of our law students observing the Commission hearings.

True citizen soldiers

Perhaps most interesting, however, was learning the personal stories of many of our Guard soldiers, including several with IU degrees. Back home, the Guard members work as police detectives, sales and operations managers, judges, lawyers – even a railroad engineer – and more. They range in age from 20 to early 50s, and nearly all have families at home including one young soldier from Bloomington who has an infant son.

At Guantanamo Bay, their duties cover all aspects of operational support for the Joint Task Force headquarters, including detention facility operations, support operations, perimeter security, Commission processes, legal support, distinguished visitors and administrative duties.

Former guard tower at Guantanamo Bay

A former guard tower at Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay.

It’s a diverse group united by a common mission to serve their country, regardless the circumstances or politics. To a man and woman, the members of the 38th we met were proud of their work and extremely thankful of the modest gesture of support offered by IU.

In fact, giving thanks was a recurring theme of the weekend, with Vice President Sample and I offering our gratitude on behalf of the university to the Guard members for their important work, even as we were repeatedly being thanked by the soldiers for making the trip down.

Having the last word has its advantages, so I’ll end with this: To all our new friends at the 38th Infantry Division the Indiana National Guard, the privilege was all ours.

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