Patricia Blackwell relives moments when Hurricane Sandy threatened Guantanamo Bay

Published 10:00 pm Friday, November 11, 2016

Patricia Blackwell was stationed at Guantanamo Bay in October 2012, the same time Hurricane Sandy roared through. Blackwell served in the Navy for 24 years. (Photo submitted by Patricia Blackwell)

Patricia Blackwell was stationed at Guantanamo Bay in October 2012, the same time Hurricane Sandy roared through. Blackwell served in the Navy for 24 years. (Photo submitted by Patricia Blackwell)

Patricia Blackwell served as a prison guard while in the Navy at Guantanamo Bay in 2012 as part of Task Force Platinum. Blackwell, a 1984 graduate of Polk Central High School who now lives in Spartanburg, was assigned to the last Navy battalion to serve in the capacity of detainee operations at what is commonly referred to as “GTMO” in Camp 7 on the southeastern end of Cuba.

“There was a small group of us hand-picked to work inside the internal confines of Camp 7,” Blackwell explained. “Our daily duties consisted of guarding and escorting, and my specific duties will have to go undisclosed for now as I was working in a top secret billet.”

Known terrorists were kept at Guantanamo, which Blackwell said kept her at a heightened state of awareness, before the U.S. military would determine how they were involved in the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. She added she was instructed to call the combatants “detainees” rather than “prisoners” because they were not formally convicted of the crimes they had been accused of committing.

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“The detainees await military commission trials to determine their individual levels of involvement and criminal charges relating to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon and the plane crash in Somerset County, Pa.,” Blackwell explained. “The men who are being detained at Guantanamo Bay are some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world.”

Blackwell said she was awaiting results to be promoted to the rank of Chief Petty Officer, her third attempt, in October 2012 when she recalled that the conversations among her co-workers were centered mainly on an incoming hurricane.

The base at Guantanamo, Blackwell explained, was not prepared to withstand a hurricane stronger than a category 2, or 96 to 110 mile per hour winds. Blackwell said GTMO was in the eye of a hurricane that was reported to be a category 3 or greater.

“The guard staff was informed we would be taken, in shifts, back to our barracks,” Blackwell said. “We would have 15 minutes to grab personal hygiene items and uniforms to sustain ourselves for at least three days. I grabbed what I could, stored the rest, and quickly returned to a seat on the shuttle to our posts.”

Blackwell said when the skies began to darken as the clouds rolled in she realized no one would come to the rescue of her and the other guards. She added the landmass she inhabited was her home, and information from outside came in slowly, lacking any sense of true awareness.

“There would be no one to evacuate us by helicopter or boat. We were there to guard prisoners,” Blackwell explained. “Evacuating detainees, or the people guarding them, was not an option. It became more and more apparent we were in the direct path of the storm.”

This uneasiness was coupled with the fact that Blackwell was stuck in a prison filled with terrorists who “did not fear death and seemed to feed on fear, death and destruction.” The detainees, according to Blackwell, seemed to almost be entertained by the uncertainty about what was happening, as seen in the faces of Blackwell and the other soldiers.

“No one could know how high the water would reach or what impact the storm would have as we braced ourselves for whatever Hurricane Sandy had in store for us,” Blackwell said. “We braced ourselves and prepared for the worst. Some of us read and some prayed. We searched one another’s eyes for a glimpse of something, not sure what we were looking for.”

Despite all of this, Blackwell said she and her fellow soldiers drew from each other a “quiet strength.”

“Ever present was pride and military bearing, and a quiet strength we pulled from one another,” Blackwell said. “We did not know yet the extent of damage to the base, or anyone else who was stationed there. What we did know is that we were not going to die today, not this time.”

After 48 hours of being barricaded in the base at GTMO, Blackwell said she and the guards were allowed to return to a normal shift pattern and contact their families. Hurricane Sandy, Blackwell said, changed the landscape forever.

“Huge crevices were cut in the rock, and a large portion of the ground had washed away out to sea,” Blackwell explained. “Now, years later, when hurricane season bears down on the East Coast, I am evermore aware of the Caribbean area, tracking storm paths and trying to determine how close one may get to Guantanamo Bay.”

In 2012, Blackwell was among five sailors chosen out of 58,000 by the Pentagon to be Sailor of the Year. Blackwell retired from the Navy in April 2014 as an E-6 First Class Petty Officer after 24 years of service.