By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
April 20, 2008 - At 85 years of age, David Oreck, a self-described unashamed, flag-waving patriot and World War II veteran, found himself yesterday standing here, on the soil of one of the last dedicated communist nations in the world. Oreck stood at this U.S. facility's famed Northeast Gate, where the U.S. and Cuban border fences are only yards apart and where, for decades, the two sides have peered at each other from their respective observation points.
While in Cuba, Oreck fired a .50-caliber machine gun, talked with troops and trolled the bay in a Coast Guard security boat. He also walked through the detention facilities that house some of the deadliest terrorists in the world and met with the young servicemembers who work there as guards.
Oreck is the founder of the Oreck Corporation famous for its made-in-America vacuum cleaners. He joined about 50 other prominent Americans, including doctors, lawyers, business and community leaders who arrived here April 19 on the first stop of the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference.
For the former B-29 bomber navigator turned self-made business man, this trip is a reaffirmation of everything he believes about America and its troops.
"Millions of people all over the world wait to come to America, but there are no lines of people waiting to leave," Oreck said. "My success is because of America."
Oreck is not retired. He works about four days a week. He's also a pilot and flies weekly. And he spends a considerable amount of time touring the nation at the invitation of colleges and companies to speak for free to students and employees. It is his way of "giving back," he said.
Oreck has spoken to about 60 different institutions in the past couple of years. At each one he staunchly defends the country and its fighting force, he said.
"To listen to some of the rhetoric that goes on now ... you'd think this was the worst place on earth, when in fact it is far and away the best place on earth," Oreck said. "We have to remember the people who aren't here ... who never had a chance to get married and never had children and could never be a grandparent because they gave their life for what we have."
Oreck still tears up when he gets to that part.
"If it was my choice, everyone should serve in the military. It should be mandatory. I can't believe we don't do that but I guess it wouldn't be politically popular," he said.
He plans to use this trip as "ammunition" for his speeches when he returns, Oreck said.
"It's a good way of telling this story. This is very helpful. It fortifies everything I already know but there's no substitute [like seeing it firsthand]," Oreck said.
Remarkably, Oreck's father was a participant on one of the first JCOC trips, in the early 1950s he said.
"It was the greatest experience of his life," Oreck said.
The trip started this morning way earlier than Oreck, or anyone else traveling for that matter, cared to get up. A 3 a.m. wake-up launched the start of their day that stretched well into the evening.
Still, the participants were in a jovial mood as they boarded the C-17 Globemaster III on Andrews Air Force Base, Md. Much clapping and cheering greeted the takeoff, with some participants holding their hands high as if ready to launch on a roller-coaster ride.
Before the week-long journey is over, the group may indeed feel as if they were on a rollercoaster, as their journey takes them through U.S. Southern Command's area of operations. They will tour ships and submarines, visit troops, stop at a field medical hospital, and watch a demonstration of foreign special forces fighters.
For security reasons, the location of each stop can only be disclosed after landing.
The group's April 19 visit to Cuba started with an up-close and personal introduction to military weapons, as each participant got to fire an M-16 rifle and .50-caliber machine gun. For most of them, it was the first time firing such weapons, and the results were surprising to some.
A petite Gayle Porter, an associate professor of management at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J., put all but one of her 25 rounds center-mass of the target.
"I think there's a new sheriff in town," teased a team-leader to much laughter. "She said there's going to be some changes back on the bus."
Still others on the weapons range were learning the more intimate details of soldier training.
Madelyn Hammond, chief marketing officer for Variety Magazine exited the portable toilet and asked a soldier, "how do you flush this thing?"
There is no flush, was the smiling response.
A ride across the bay in a Coast Guard security boat and lunch in the local chow hall finished up the morning and then the day took a more serious turn.
As the group entered the high fences of the $37-million maximum security detention and interrogation facility dubbed Camp 6, all eyes followed the strands and strands of concertina wire lining the entire compound. Narrow passages, clanging locks and grim-faced guards left no doubt as to the seriousness of the location.
Guantanamo detainees are largely members of al-Qaida and the Taliban who are terrorist trainers, financiers, bomb makers, and would-be suicide bombers. There are about 280 detainees here now. About 500 have left the facility.
The group toured both a maximum security facility, as well as the camp's minimum security area in which detainees live in a more communal environment, have more recreation time and are even taught to read and write.
Also, the group toured the expeditionary legal complex, built to house the upcoming military commission for, among others, the six terrorists charged in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. The large complex is self-sustaining with a courtroom, holding areas, a media center and office space.
One senior official described the facility as the "finest little gated community in the Caribbean. It is 90 miles from Jamaica, 180 from Haiti, and 1,100 miles from Norfolk, Va. It is about 400 miles from U.S. SouthCom headquarters of Miami, Fla.
The Guantanamo Bay facility is the oldest continuously functioning U.S. Navy base overseas, and it is the only one in a country with which the United States does not maintain diplomatic relations.
It is also the only U.S. Navy base that has ever existed on once soil that was once democratic but is now communist, the senior official said.