Ex-Soldier Recalls Beating He Received in Guantanamo Drill

Times Staff Writer

Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Sean Baker reenlisted in the Kentucky National Guard. He considered himself a patriot, he says, and felt a strong call to serve his country.

Baker, 37, a Persian Gulf War veteran, was disappointed when his unit wasn’t activated. So he volunteered for another Kentucky National Guard unit assigned to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where as a military policeman he guarded detainees accused of being Talibs and Al Qaeda members.

There, early on the morning of Jan. 24, 2003, Spc. Baker says, he was choked and beaten by fellow MPs on the steel floor of a 6-by-8 prison cell during a botched training exercise. Since then, he claims, the military has abandoned him.


Baker says he volunteered to put on an orange prison jumpsuit and portray an uncooperative detainee in a training drill. But the five-man MP “immediate response force” sent in to extract him was not told of the exercise. According to Baker’s lawyer, the soldiers were told that Baker was an unruly detainee who had been doused with pepper spray after assaulting a sergeant.

Four MPs slammed Baker to the floor, he says, then choked him and pounded his head at least three times against the floor. Gasping for breath, he managed to spit out a code word -- “red” -- and to croak: “I’m a U.S. soldier! I’m a U.S. soldier!”

But the beating continued, according to Baker, until the jumpsuit was yanked down in the struggle, revealing his military uniform. Only then did the MPs realize that they had been beating an American soldier -- causing a traumatic brain injury, Baker alleges.

“What happened to me is something that should never have happened to any American soldier,” Baker wrote in an e-mail response to questions from the Los Angeles Times. “I pray it will never happen again.”

Honorably discharged with a medical retirement in April, Baker spends dreary days inside a nondescript duplex in central Kentucky, unable to work because of what he says are seizures caused by the beating. He is taking nine prescription medications for seizures and headaches, his lawyer said. He has yet to receive disability payments promised by the military.

“The way the military treated Sean is unconscionable -- and the way they continue to treat him is even worse,” said attorney Bruce Simpson.

The military at first said Baker’s medical discharge was not related to the beating at Guantanamo. Last week, the military reversed itself, saying the incident was partly responsible for his discharge.

Lt. Col. Jim Marshall, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, said that an internal investigation in February 2003 concluded that no one was liable for Baker’s injuries and there was no need for a criminal inquiry. Another spokeswoman, Maj. Laurie Arellano, said the investigation concluded that Baker’s injuries were a “foreseeable consequence” of the drill.

Marshall said procedures had been reviewed to prevent future injuries. “While it is unfortunate that Spc. Baker was injured, the standards of professionalism we expect of our soldiers mandate that our training be as a realistic as possible,” he said.

Members of immediate response forces are “handpicked based on maturity, common sense and judgment,” Marshall said, adding that they were trained to use the minimum force necessary.

According to Simpson, the military has suggested that Baker was beaten because he resisted attempts to extract him. Simpson said Baker simply followed orders to pose as an uncooperative detainee.

“They’re blaming him for resisting, as if it was his fault for provoking a beating,” he said.

Simpson said the Pentagon had not responded to his requests for Baker’s military and medical records. But after the lawyer and Rep. Ben Chandler (D-Ky.) complained about Baker not receiving disability payments, they were told by the military Monday that he qualified for 100% disability and would receive his first check within 10 days.

Baker said someone should be held responsible.

“I never thought my military career would end as a result of a beating which I sustained at the hands of my fellow troops,” he wrote. “Someone in charge should have known better.”

Simpson said Baker and other National Guard MPs at Guantanamo were summoned from their posts at 2 a.m. and asked to volunteer for a training exercise involving MPs from the 303rd Military Police Company of Michigan. Baker assumed it was another “quarter time” walk-through drill, in which soldiers had previously acted out the roles of detainees while wearing U.S. military uniforms.

But this was the first time Baker had heard of soldiers being asked to wear a prison jumpsuit. Even so, when no one volunteered, he raised his hand.

The officer in charge “actually ordered me to put on the uniform of my enemy,” Baker told WLEX-TV of Lexington, Ky., which first reported his allegations. “I was reluctant, but he said: ‘You’ll be fine. Put this on.’ So I did.”

Baker, who is 6 feet, 1 inch tall and weighs about 225 pounds, said he was ordered to crawl under a prison bunk and refuse to come out. He said he assumed that the MPs taking part knew it was a drill.

When the response force rushed into the cell, Baker said, the MPs dragged him out, slammed him face down, pinned his arms, twisted his legs behind his back and locked him in a painful chokehold.

“One of the individuals got up on my back and put pressure on me,” Baker said. “I could not breathe, and I began to panic a little bit.”

The soldier slammed his head against the steel floor while choking him, Baker said. A translator shouted at Baker in Pashto, an Afghan language, apparently believing he was a Taliban detainee, Simpson said.

In addition to the alleged brain injuries, Simpson said, Baker was cut on his temple and was treated at the prison.

A military physical evaluation board report of an examination Baker underwent in September 2003 cited his “service-connected disability” and said that Baker’s “TBI [traumatic brain injury] was due to soldier playing role of detainee who was noncooperative and was being extracted from detention cell in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during a training exercise.”

Baker was treated at four military hospitals, including a 48-day stay at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, before his discharge. Arellano, the military spokeswoman, said in late May that the Walter Reed treatment was unrelated to Baker’s prison injuries. But the military since has conceded that Baker’s hospitalization was for those injuries, spokesman Marshall said.

According to Simpson -- who said he had obtained portions of the military’s internal investigation -- the MPs reported that they had been told Baker was a troublesome detainee who had assaulted a sergeant and refused to leave his cell.

Two of the MPs reportedly told investigators that before the incident, they gave a videotaped description of their mission to a team member, who taped the exercise. A sergeant in Baker’s unit, the 438th Military Police Company, attempted to retrieve the tape but was told it had been lost or misplaced, Simpson said.

Marshall said response teams were aware that their actions typically were taped, with the video reviewed to ensure that minimum force was applied to detainees. However, a military spokesman at Guantanamo said that because only actions against actual detainees -- not exercises -- were taped, it was not likely that a video existed of the drill involving Baker.

While Baker was being treated at the hospital at Guantanamo, Simpson said, he was visited by Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the prison commander at the time. He said Miller promised that those responsible for Baker’s beating would be dealt with under military law.

Simpson said he was contacted last week by Criminal Investigation Division investigators from Ft. Knox, Ky., who said they were told to interview Baker and investigate the incident because of recent media coverage. The agents planned to interview Baker today, Simpson said.

Since Baker’s discharge, his family -- wife Renee and 14-year-old son Sean Jr. -- has been living on Renee’s income as a restaurant hostess. He did not go public with his allegations until he was contacted last month by the Kentucky TV station.

After the TV segment, Simpson has not allowed Baker to be interviewed. Baker did respond via e-mail.

“Sean is not a whiner or a complainer,” Simpson said. “He hasn’t demanded that I sue somebody. All he wants is help getting his disability checks.”

After Baker’s case became public, the local sheriff said that Baker had been forced to resign as a part-time Scott County sheriff’s deputy in 1992 following a series of incidents that included unprofessional actions in a traffic accident.

“I do not enjoy talking about what happened to me at Guantanamo Bay,” Baker wrote in his e-mail. “In my heart, I still consider myself a soldier. I am honored to have served my country.”