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UM Military Chaplain to UMWomen:  Seek Truth at GITMO

Media and Other Critics Gain Attention at Expense of Americans Guarding Freedom

FROM:  Reverend Kent L. Svendsen, Ordained Elder, United Methodist Church / Northern Illinois Conference

Dear Women's Division,
General Board of Global Ministries
United Methodist Church

I understand that you are about to start a campaign relating to, among other things, human rights protections and the detainees held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

I can speak with some authority on the subject since I served as the chaplain to the Joint Detention Operation Group in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba from May 2004 until March 2005. As a United Methodist I have a keen sense of world justice and while serving in Cuba sought to be faithful to our social principles and their concern for social holiness. So I am not speaking to you as a military chaplain but as an Ordained United Methodist.

I have a great concern for our news media sources today. There was a day when the truth and protecting our nation from harm took precedence over being the first to break a story. Now it seems that accusations, no matter how harmful, no matter the source, no matter the possible consequences, are enough to use them as weapons upon the innocent as well as the guilty.

I am also grieved that there seems to be not only an automatic assumption of guilt when the accusations are aimed at our military and our government, but that any explanation aimed at proving them innocent is also automatically viewed as a "cover up". And that when those who are guilty of violations are uncovered, prosecuted, and punished there is a tendency by some to want to use that as evidence that the violations were policy instead a violation of the standing orders and policy. What the news media and groups like the Women's Division need to understand is that accusations cause harm and create damage that a retraction and an admission of error later cannot repair. (I don't think we will ever really know exactly how many died after Newsweek made the false accusation of a Koran being flushed down a toilet.)

There are those who would use accusations such as those recently made against our military as weapons to gain political power. They count on the fact that people will believe something if its said enough times and said by people and organizations they respect. It was the case in the past that our nation's opponents tried to prevent our culture and news sources from reaching their people. After all, the ideas of freedom, democracy, and equality for all doesn't play well in some parts of the world. So since modern technology cannot be stopped and "world news" is now also news to the world there is now a new strategy. They use it to their advantage as a weapon against our nation.

The accusations are flying fast and furious.  If your organization would be interested in knowing about my experience. (I cannot talk about the day to day activities in the camp but I can either verify or deny many of the accusations that are being made.) Here's a list that might help you if you're willing to listen to an Ordained Elder who knows the facts rather than accusations made based on speculation.  I'll respond here specifically to some of the ones I've heard.

1. The detainees have direct access to the International Red Cross representatives contrary to the accusations that they have no outside contact. Also, all the detainees are allowed to write and receive mail from family.

2. The detainees have their food prepared according to Islamic guidelines. The call to prayer is broadcast for them to go to prayer. Each detainee has the direction to Meccah painted in their cell. They are allowed to practice their religion without interference and are given the religious items they need to do so. They are allowed to observe Ramadan.

3. There are strict guidelines and training concerning human rights protections.  If a service member sees a violation they are to report it and if asked to violate someone's human rights they are to consider it as an unlawful order. Those who violate are subject to prosecution.

If you are interested in more information please contact me.  There is also an article about my work in Cuba which was published in the July issue of Esquire magazine.

Kent Svendsen
Chaplain (Major) USAR

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