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Chaplain Feels at Home With Detainees, Service Members

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, July 5, 2002 – "I feel right at home here," said Chaplain (Maj.) Michael S. Merrill at the Camp Delta detention center.

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Army Sgt. Derwin Davis (left) talks with Army Chaplain (Maj.) Michael S. Merrill in the chapel at Camp Delta, Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Davis and his unit, the 114th Military Police Company, Mississippi Army National Guard, Clinton, Miss., are providing security at Delta, a detention facility for captured enemy combatants. Photo by Rudi Williams.

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Back home in Florida, he's a supervisory chaplain with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Department of Justice. "They're classified as detainees here, but it's a similar dynamic of controlled behavior in a confined facility," Merrill said. The Army Reserve member is assigned to the 160th Military Police Battalion, Tallahassee, Fla., part of the security force at Camp Delta.

In both civilian and military life, Merrill, a Southern Baptist, comes across all faiths. He said he has some experience ministering to Muslims in his civilian job. But at Camp Delta, he said he's had only minimal involvement with the detainees. "But even though there's a Muslim imam here, I've dealt with some of the detainees," he said. "Obviously, the imam has more dealings with them." An imam is an Islamic spiritual leader.

In his duty as a chaplain, Merrill said he can't focus on what someone is incarcerated for. "In America, if they're a murderer or drug lord, or whatever, I have to relate to them as human beings and block out their crime," he noted. "In other words, I have to give them the benefit of the doubt and treat them like there is hope for them to change their life.

"So down here with the detainees, I have to treat them humanely," Merrill said. "And I have to hope that by me being respectful and professional that they see there is a better way than their previous behavior, which, as far as we know, was full of hatred and evil actions. This is called ministry of presence. Just being present and the way you carry yourself goes a long way with some of the detainees."

In civilian life, sometimes people in prison who have gone through rough experiences get in touch with an inward freedom, the chaplain said. "So, obviously, there is a big difference between ministering in a confined facility and a church. But the issues are the same regarding purpose in life, mission in life -- their spiritual issues and why they're existing here on Earth."

People in confinement are more helpless because they don't have access to immediate family, he said. "Like here, their mom can't come visit them," Merrill noted. "So you're sort of their support system, whereas in a civilian setting there's more access to a support system of family and friends. In a confined facility there is more reliance upon the chaplain, counselors or other people to provide it for them."

To support Camp Delta and the naval base, the Navy and Army have two chaplains each, two Catholics and two Protestants, plus the Army has a Muslim imam.

"Between the five of us, we try to provide well-rounded coverage for the detainees and the U.S. service members," said Merrill. "We never compromise our faith tradition, but like yesterday, a Catholic soldier came to me and wanted to be confirmed. So I talked with him, counseled him and referred him to the Catholic priest."

Merrill said he talks with anyone who asks. "Talking to a detainee is similar to talking to a soldier, because the conversations for both will be about issues in life and praying," he noted.

He said service members come to see him because of homesickness, relationships of boyfriends and girlfriends, marital issues, and sick children.

"Once you get a few soldiers together, something will happen," Merrill said. "Someone will pass away or someone gets into a car accident back home. More of the issues deal with being isolated here at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. However, the base has many things to help the servicemen and women to keep busy, such as recreation -- sporting events, movies."

Waiting quietly to talk to the chaplain was Sgt. Derwin Davis of the 114th Military Police Company, Mississippi Army National Guard, Clinton, Miss. "It's great to have a chaplain available because when you're having problems, you know you can go right to the source instead of trying to deal with it yourself," he said.

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