Header art by Sunless Design

Meet the Woman Fighting the Battle Against Boredom for Gitmo Staff

Sharon Coganow runs a tiny game room for service members at Gitmo.

|
Jul 25 2017, 4:40pm

Header art by Sunless Design

At Play in the Carceral State is a week-long series investigating play in, around, and about prisons and prison culture. Learn more here.

In 2006, Christopher Girod of the International Committee of the Red Cross visited the detention facilities. He said that the number one question on detainees' minds was: "How long will this last?"

More than a decade later, the question appears to be the much the same.

Over the years, the ICRC has completed 122 visits to the detention facilities at Gitmo. Yet many human rights advocates have criticized the Red Cross for not doing more in the past fifteen years.

In a video put out in 2014, Patricia Danzi, the ICRC's head of operations for the Americas region, explained how, over the years, the Red Cross's Humanitarian branch has tried to help detainees "not to lose touch with reality." One way that they have sought to achieve that goal is by providing detainees with "family food parcels," consisting of "items that are culturally familiar to the detainees, such as nuts and spices," according to ICRC spokeswoman Anna Nelson, in an interview with the Miami Herald. But according to some sources they've had limited access to the camps and limited sway in critical conversations about the detainees' health.

In a now-infamous 2003 legal memo, John C. Yoo, a Bush appointee and deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel, wrote, "In wartime, it is for the President alone to decide what methods to use to best prevail against the enemy."

A single decision transformed Gitmo, America's oldest overseas naval station, into a secret and secure prison facility, a place where "rectal feeding," sleep dehydration, and other isolating tactics were deployed in an ongoing attempt to get information from detainees. The justification was simple, William E. Moschella, assistant attorney general, Office of Legislative Affairs, said to members of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. "We cannot fight a war blind." And as tactic upon tactic has been used on detainees to extract information from them, Gitmo's status as an appendage of the modern American war machine has only solidified.

The International Red Cross Building which serves detainees. Photo by author

People cycle through Gitmo. Private contractors, C.I.A. agents, U.S. Army troops, Marines, and others come and go in rotations, such that the Naval Station's identity is constantly morphing, and yet some aspects of the detention facility remain anchored, weighted, unchanging. It is a place that by its legacy and mere existence causes stress for most of those who engage with it.

Journalists must attempt to grapple with its complex legacy under time constraints and word count limits. Habeas corpus attorneys must be always advocating on behalf of their clients. Guards face a range of challenges—from explaining what they do to friends and family back home to figuring out how to obtain work/life balance, when their "work" is deemed by so many to constitute a human rights violation. U.S. Navy corpsmen, uninvolved with the detention facilities, must process what it means to do their exercises a stone's throw away from barbed wire and bars. Children attending school, while their parents serve on base, must deal with the stresses of explaining their nontraditional lives to others back home.

Everyone has a reason to be stressed at Gitmo. Some, more than others, and the outlets for R&R available to each demographic on the base varies vastly. For service members, one such outlet is the game room at the base's Red Cross.

A collection of board games in the Red Cross game room.

Before confessing that she's not a gaming person, Sharon Coganow tells me that she's the "Lil Ole Red Cross Lady." When I press her, she admits, "Pac-Man was probably the only game I ever played." She's got this friendly auntie vibe, no doubt helped by her calm, comforting voice.

I knew for years that there was a Red Cross presence on the Naval Base, but I assumed that everyone working there had some connection to the detention facility. So, Sharon Coganow is unexpected, as is the dinky game room she helps run. Staring at a stack of unused playing cards and bags of puzzles, I have one of those epiphanies—lurking underneath these simple stacks of games, there's a complex question that needs to be answered.

I'm told by my handler that I'm the first journalist to come to Gitmo—that she knows of at least—to cover game culture as it relates to the naval base. Google "Gitmo" and "games," and you get a panoply of pieces by Polygon, Fox, The Daily Mail, and others that focus on gameplay behind the barbed wires at Gitmo. But, no one's come knocking on Sharon Coganow's door.

Why might this be? In the past decade, multiple studies have revealed that Guantanamo guards have high rates of post-traumatic stress and depression, and journalists have not shied from reporting on that issue. But it's another thing to suggest that these same stressed guards might deal with some of that stress through gameplay.

Limited data exists on military populations working in high security detention camps. That's not my line. That's a statement obtained by VICE News, after the Army Institute of Public Health conducted a behavioral health study at Gitmo. The AIPH found that "the majority of Troopers perceived detainees to have positive living conditions, and many JMG & JDG Troopers were frustrated with detainee privileges (e.g., PS3s, flat-screen TVs, better food than Troopers)." This is the only mention of games in the entire report.

When I sit down with the "Lil Ole Red Cross Lady," I tell her that I'm surprised she exists, that I thought that all the Red Cross people sent to Gitmo were here to help detainees. She says matter-of-factly, "We're all under the same huge umbrella, but they are protecting humanitarian rights, and I'm here strictly for the military and the residents of the base. There is a big distinction."

Coganow manages military volunteers from the Joint Task Force, and many of them, after helping her with administrative tasks, will relax in the game room. "We had a Spring health fair Saturday, so they had to help me organize that," she said. "But, other times, there isn't a lot for them to do. So, sometimes they play games. It gives them that relaxation, that mental health break. It's more than just playing games at times. We have pet visitation, dogs that come in too."

She pauses, before diving into one of the very reasons the Red Cross is at Gitmo, serving those stationed there. "With the military, they're restricted in some things they can do, and some places they can go. Like, on the rock, here, where are we going to go? You can't go anywhere really, unless you fly out. So, some of the volunteers, spend a lot of hours here. They play cards," she adds, "I mean, you missed the fun card games, like Uno, they just tear that one up."

Bags of puzzles in the Red Cross game room.

Still, the game collection at the American Red Cross isn't much to brag about. In fact, it's pretty abysmal. Coganow doesn't beat around the bush.

"We don't have any Monopoly," she admits, "I think that would be a fun one."

A soldier volunteering at the Red Cross that afternoon adds that he has three different versions of Monopoly back home in Arkansas. "It'd be cool to get a copy here," he says.

"I think there's a game night at the Liberty Center but that's only for single people," adds Coganow.

Liberty Centers are hangouts for bachelors on the base, and if your spouse is accompanying you during your time of service, they're off limits. I visit one of the three on the naval base, and it's clear that they're better equipped than the Red Cross. Whereas the Red Cross runs on donations, the Morale, Well-Being, and Recreation (MWR) Program's Liberty Centers get a nice chunk of funding from the U.S. Navy and the Joint Task Force Guantanamo.

In a separate interview, Petty Officer 2nd Class Zachary Anderson explains that in his early days at Gitmo, the Red Cross game room was an ideal refuge for married people, who wanted to play games like Dungeons & Dragons, but weren't given access to the Liberty Centers "[The Red Cross game room] was the only venue where we could regularly get ahold of to meet up and play. We played there a long time. That grew, and a few offshoots started."

Coganow tells me that most of the games, puzzles, movies, books I see in the Red Cross are donated by the military while they're serving at Gitmo. I bring and drop off a copy of Codenames and copy of Wits and Wagers that my editor gave me—my plan had always been to donate one copy of Codenames to the guards and another to the detainees. But, the latter, as you can imagine, is more complicated than the former.

In my ideal world, NGOs and human rights activists concerned about detainees' mental health could pop by their local USPS, wrap up copies of their favorite board games, and send them straight to the detention facility; veterans advocates and others wanting to give guards a creative outlet could ship off copies of tabletop wargames and cool party games.

Coganow's been at Gitmo on and off for more than three years but has also seen what military game culture can look like elsewhere overseas. "I remember in Kuwait, we had these massive puzzles that could cover this whole table, and they would do those, and they'd help each other do them, and finally, it would get done, and we would try to preserve it and use it like a wall hanging. It's kind of hard to do that though, to hang it, sometimes."

When I ask Coganow if she'd accept game donations in the mail, the "Lil Ole Red Cross Lady" gets a little excited.

"If we got enough games, we could start a game night."

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to correctly reflect Christopher Girod's employment at the time of his visit to the detention center. It has also been updated to clarify the difference between the American Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross, and to include sources for claims about the Red Cross' level of access to the facilities.

Additionally, after Waypoint published this article, the ICRC reached out with the following comment regarding their access: "The ICRC is able to visit the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on a regular and ad hoc basis, and these visits are done in full compliance with our standard procedures, which include being granted access to the facilities where the detainees are held and the possibility to speak with all of the detainees confidentially and in private if they so wish. With regard to "sway" in critical conversations about the detainees' health, any observations the ICRC has about the conditions of detention or the well-being of the detainees are shared with the US authorities in charge. The ICRC has had many constructive conversations with the authorities that have directly resulted in positive treatment changes for detainees."

Follow Muira McCammon on Twitter.

Have thoughts? Swing by Waypoints forums to share them!