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U.S. Soldier's Disappearance Surrounded by Mystery

The Pentagon says a Guantanamo Bay guard died accidentally. His family is skeptical.

November 06, 2002|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A mysterious disappearance has focused attention on a largely anonymous group: the nearly 2,000 military police officers and other soldiers dispatched to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to guard roughly 625 prisoners from the war in Afghanistan.

Many are Army National Guardsmen and reservists. And as they return home, they tell of a safe, almost serene environment with little trouble from prisoners -- a not-so-bad assignment that has made them feel useful in the war on terrorism.

But it is still a jail, and prisoners and guards alike know there is no real escape from the 45-square-mile base that the U.S. leases from Cuba. A high-wire fence with Cuban sentries borders one flank of the installation, the crystal-blue Caribbean waters the other.

Perhaps no other prison in the world is as tightly controlled as the makeshift compound called Camp Delta. Yet the military cannot explain how one of its own guards vanished.

Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Foraker, a National Guardsman who would be returning to his wife and two young daughters in Ohio about now, was last seen on the base with a flashlight in hand in the early hours of Sept. 24. A thin man with a slight mustache, Foraker left no note behind when he left his barracks at 1:30 a.m. and, ostensibly, headed out for some exercise on his night off. Authorities later found his clothes, wallet and Army ID neatly folded in a rock crevice on a 20-foot cliff overlooking the water. The 31-year-old Persian Gulf War veteran was gone.

After describing his status for several weeks as "whereabouts unknown," the Pentagon last week declared him "missing, presumed dead." Foraker "most likely died of accidental causes in the waters off Guantanamo Bay," the Pentagon concluded.

But no body has been found, and the Army's initial reluctance to let Foraker's wife visit the base -- and his family's knowledge of Ryan -- make them suspicious of the official explanation.

Carl J. Foraker believes his son is still alive, that he came upon something "he was not supposed to see" on the base, and now is being held incommunicado. "I've always heard how secure it is down there, but evidently it's not, or they would find my son," he said.

His wife theorizes he might have been abducted. "He was due to come home in mid-November," said Angela Foraker of Logan, Ohio. "I don't believe he would have done anything stupid to jeopardize coming home."

He was afraid of water and heights, so why was he ranging atop that beachside cliff? "His mother used to take him to the pool when he was child, but he was afraid of the water," his father said.

But Army officials say Foraker had gone snorkeling with fellow soldiers on occasion, and in the absence of any other explanation, they assume he died accidentally in the water. Neither the Pentagon nor the family suspects suicide.

"The findings and the investigation concluded there was no evidence of foul play," said Army Lt. Col. Ryan Yantis at the Pentagon.

"It is improbable that he left the island via boat, air or land. He was a good soldier, and it's unlikely he went AWOL. We confirmed he did not enter the country of Cuba.... This was a good soldier. A good troop. He was respected," Yantis said. "And we do not like leaving people behind."

Under the circumstances at Guantanamo Bay, a guard's disappearance is ironic.

Foraker was part of a mission so intense that guards practically monitor every time a detainee swats a fly in his wire-cage cell under the harsh tropical sun. Even the wild iguanas, a protected species, are kept from harm's way, with large fines for anyone who even accidentally hits one of the large lizards on the roadway.

The guards and military police typically spend their days and evenings in groups -- working one of three shifts at Camp Delta and, during their off hours, relaxing at the base bowling alley, the outdoor theater or on a boat in the bay, deep-sea fishing.

"I think it was probably accidental," said Command Sgt. Maj. Raymond Funaro, who until this month supervised 1,600 military police and guardsmen at "Gitmo" before returning to his Rhode Island National Guard unit. "I think he just went in for a swim and never made it out."

Foraker came home from the Gulf War and drove a truck for a pipeline company while remaining an Army reservist. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, he was called back to active duty.

"Life there wasn't the greatest," Angela Foraker said. "All of them complained about some of their conditions. They complained about their meals. That the detainees got fed better than they did. That they didn't have a lot of hot water. You had to hold down a button to take a shower, and there was no indoor plumbing at first."

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