I came to Pensacola to study at the University of West Florida, but almost anyone you might ask would consider this a military rather than a college town.
Comparatively, when many people think of The U.S. naval station at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, they immediately think of the military installation there. This means thousands of military personnel have to call GTMO home for months and even years. This fact raises several questions. What do these soldiers do in their spare time? Where do they go for fun? How do they deal with the isolation of GTMO? These are all questions that students at UWF asked over this past summer when we interviewed over a hundred former residents of GTMO.
Pensacola plays host to a large, often temporary, population of young sailors and soldiers. These soldiers may reside and work on the base, but Pensacola is where they go for fun, shopping, and relaxation. You cannot go downtown or to the movie theater on a Friday night and not take note of a few dog tags. Thus, the bases in and around Pensacola, are not islands unto themselves, but rather a dynamic part of the surrounding community.
For GTMO, it is a different story. According to Jere Jailite “everything outside the fence line doesn’t exist,” because your job is also your social life. If you cannot find what you are looking for on the base, you will probably have to do without for a while.
In addition, many former military personnel choose to retire to Pensacola, often because they once held a post here and wished to return someday. Every stay in GTMO has an expiration date; although, many people choose to return to the base for repeat visits.
Many soldiers who were young and unmarried during their stay at GTMO mentioned that lack of young women at some point during their interview including Bill Bond. Bond, who was a young man on the base in 1969, remembers a “lot of outdoor activities” considering the excellent weather. He played soccer, football, volleyball, and basketball when he was not fishing, hunting, diving, swimming, or boating. One of Mr. Bond’s few complaints, however, was that GTMO wasn’t a very good place to be a bachelor”; the only eligible women were nurses and schoolteachers of limited number and varying age.
Jere Jailite, around 19 when he lived in GTMO in 1964, enjoyed poker nights with his fellows and visiting the outdoor movie theaters, called lyceums. When asked what he missed most while at GTMO, Jailite responded with a host of things like current television, McDonald’s, and Dairy Queen but he did not forget to mention that there “weren’t any young ladies.” He did not mind too much though, because he knew his post was temporary.
David Pruett, about 22 while at GTMO in 1962, loved the Guantánamo lifestyle. As he relaxed at the club in view of the ocean on any given day after work, he and his friends would say to themselves: “do you realize rich folks pay thousands of dollars to live like this? “
While the isolated nature of GTMO limits entertainment to on-base pursuits, these pursuits are by no means limited and are, in fact, still expanding. GTMO now has entertainment options like the Internet, McDonald’s, and Starbucks.
Posted by Jane Gagne – M.A. Candidate, University of West Florida
The University of West Florida is participating in the Guantánamo Public Memory Project‘s National Dialogue and Traveling Exhibit. Opening at NYU’s Kimmel Center for University Life Windows Gallery in December 2012 and traveling to 9 sites (and counting) across the country through at least 2014, the exhibit will explore GTMO’s history from US occupation in 1898 to today’s debates and visions for its future. The exhibit is being developed through a unique collaboration among a growing number of universities as a dialogue among their students, communities, and people with first-hand experience at GTMO.