Few people realize just how big Cuba is. While it’s only 90 miles from Key West, Florida, to Havana, it’s more than 450 miles from Havana in the northwest to Guantanamo Bay in the southeast. Cuba is nearly 2,000 square miles larger than the Commonwealth of Kentucky, but the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base—at 45 square miles—is half the size of Robertson County with a population less than half that of Bardstown.
I mention Bardstown because my entrée onto the “Pearl of the Antilles” came via American Legion Post 42, which selected the remote Naval post as part of its veterans’ outreach and service to American youth missions.
The post has sent two delegations to Cuba to help retiring veterans navigate the mountain of paperwork required for them to receive benefits, and the chapter has adopted the junior class at W.T. Sampson High School, the American high school there, for inclusion in Kentucky’s Boys State and Girls State Programs, the weeklong civics/leadership program sponsored nationally by the Legion. While doing that, the Legion has started the process to make Gitmo a military sister city and establish a Legion post on the base.
“We’ve certainly turned some heads,” said Peter Trzop, founder of Post 42 and executive director of Boys State. “Our small (80-member) post in Bardstown is doing things that no other post has attempted in the 97-year history of the American Legion.”
While Post 42’s outreach is Kentucky’s connection to Cuba, Kentucky’s tie to the American Legion is much stronger. The 2.4-million-member organization was founded in Paris, France in March 1919 by veterans of the American Expeditionary Forces, including Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. and Maj. Maurice K. Gordon of Madisonville.
“Most people, when they think of the American Legion, [they think] it’s where veterans socialize,” Trzop said. “That’s an important function of the Legion, but we wanted to do more and live up to the goals of the organization. I’m proud of what we’ve done, and that 95 percent of the monies we raise go to the causes we support.”
As for the trip to Cuba, while some might suspect it was an elaborate boondoggle, each member—even the journalist—paid his own way. “It’s taken four years for people to see what we’re doing and know that we’re legit,” said Trzop, who served in the National Guard, Army and Air Force before his retirement. “We’re making positive ripples that will pay off for years to come.”
These “overseas deployments” began three years ago to Djibouti, Africa, where Bardstown’s National Guard unit was then deployed.
“When most people think of Guantanamo Bay, they think of the prison,” said Steven Ray, a retired funeral home director and Boys State’s political advisor. “They’d be surprised by the hometown feel and the number of families that are here.”
Ray, whom the Boys State attendees call “Mr. Stevie,” is right. Other than the iguanas, the banana rats and the Caribbean Sea, Guantanamo Bay is a bite-sized rendition of Elizabethtown or Hopkinsville. There’s a McDonald’s and a Pizza Hut, a Taco Bell and a Subway. There are movie theaters, a bowling alley (named for Marble Head, where the Marines first came ashore in 1898), and convenience stores selling T-shirts and Fidel Castro bobbleheads. Journalist Alexander Nazaryan accurately described Guantanamo Bay as a mix of M*A*S*H and Margaritaville. There are top-notch ball fields for soccer, softball and football. There are swimming pools and elementary, middle and high schools. There’s an eight-bed hospital with a 240-person staff, and both indoor and outdoor theaters showing first-run movies. Our first night, we watched London Has Fallen beneath a nearly full moon. Three nights later, we watched Zootopia in a sprinkling rain.
“What better deployment could someone ask for?” mused Mike Rivera, who works at the Fleet and Family Support Center, which hosted Kentucky’s benefits application and appeal experts—Marty Goley, an Air Force veteran from Logan County, and Tom Justus, an Army veteran from Bardstown, who were with our delegation. “Yeah, so the Internet isn’t so great,” Rivera said, “but where else can you spend your free time scuba diving or working on your tan and not constantly worry about being shot at?”
During the first five days of our eight-day visit, Goley and Justus assisted 45 veterans, 38 of whom had complicated disability claims.
One such veteran was Tim Grant, a Marine who served in Japan and Europe before coming to Guantanamo. He is still on the base because his wife teaches at the elementary school. “I’ve tried to get through all the [retirement and disability] forms myself and haven’t succeeded. It’s not an easy process, and there are many roadblocks,” said Grant, whose hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee, is within earshot of Goley’s. “It’s good to have someone with Marty’s knowledge base. He certainly helped me fill in the gray areas.”
Justus, who was in Cuba for the first time, said he was glad he came and would return willingly: “To be able to help six veterans in one day and 25 in a week gives you a pretty good feeling.”
The rest of our delegation included Trzop’s wife, Chasity, and daughter Reagan; Ray’s wife, Theresa; and Post 42 Commander Frank Thompson, who served in the Seabees when the United States returned to Guantanamo Bay following the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
“It really does have a small-town feel,” said Chasity. “I was surprised to learn that most of the sailors here live with their families, and their children attend the base schools.”
“This base has a great history, and I probably only know about 5 percent of it,” said Commanding Officer David Culpepper, a Navy captain with ties to Owensboro. “My wife, Amy Lynn’s family, the Shreckers, live there.” The Culpeppers live with their daughter, Peyton, in a white Cape Cod overlooking the bay.
The base has been through many changes over the years. There was once a large U.S. Marine Corps presence, as depicted in A Few Good Men, and now there are fewer than 200 Marines here. By the way, no part of that movie actually was filmed at Gitmo. “Not a frame,” said Public Information Officer Keith Bryska.
Culpepper said, “Of the 6,000 [military personnel] on base, 3,000 are assigned to Joint Task Force [the prison], and the rest are Navy. Oh, and we have an Army veterinarian.” Yes, he said veterinarian. “In the beginning, the Army oversaw the cavalry’s horses, and animal care has remained their duty.”
Culpepper said of all the bases he’s been assigned to during his 30-year career, Guantanamo is one of the most productive. “You should see the activity between 6 and 7 a.m.,” Culpepper said. “We have a good community, and the amount of volunteer work is amazing.
“We do have a limited number of churches, so it’s not like at home, where you can shop around until you find one you like. Here, you may not like something, but instead of looking elsewhere, you dig in, get involved and make things better.”
Culpepper said that he runs three days a week and enjoys swimming and scuba diving when not working. “It’s pretty sweet,” he said. “I certainly don’t see the downside.”
If there is a downside, it is isolation, with sketchy internet connection and Wi-Fi available in only three locations—the library, the Pizza Hut and the Starbucks. At any hour of the day or night, foreign nationals (mostly Jamaican and Filipino) can be found huddled in the shadows outside each location talking to family and friends back home.
Flights—what days there are flights—are twice a day. Most flights go to Fort Lauderdale, St. Augustine or Jacksonville, Florida. On Wednesdays, there is a cargo flight to Jamaica.
The school kids sometimes can be overlooked. Being overseas, they are not aligned with programs that would make acceptance to colleges—especially the military academies—easier. “That’s where we come in,” Trzop said. “We call [Boys State] ‘the week that will change a lifetime’ because it’s such a uniquely rare opportunity. We are offering them an all-expenses-paid trip to Kentucky as a way of giving back to our veterans and their families.”
Post 42 covers the $200 tuition costs for Boys State and Girls State, and a Kentucky family foundation pays the travel and lodging for as many of the bases’ dozen high school juniors who want to attend. During the week, delegates set up a fictional state, elect government leaders, and study how laws are debated and passed.
While Girls State has been at the University of the Cumberlands for several years, Boys State is moving to Campbellsville University after several years at the Wendell H. Ford Regional Training Center for the Kentucky Army National Guard in Muhlenberg County. Both groups make trips to the State Capitol in Frankfort.
After a meeting with parents, it appears five boys and three girls will travel to Kentucky the first week of June. “I consider that a home run,” said Ray, who has volunteered with Boys State the last six or seven years. “I am such a believer in the Boys [and Girls] State programs that I would pay them to let me work there. I am passionate about what we do and the strides these young people make. I’m also proud that, out of our last two classes, we have had 10 students earn full appointments to the U.S. military academies, and others have gotten full scholarships to, among others, Lindsey Wilson College and Western Kentucky University.”
The journey to Cuba is to provide service, but it’s clear the American Legion group members enjoy one another’s company. As I mentioned, Frank Thompson was first on the island in the months following the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. During more than one conversation, Frank would interject that fact, such as when Chasity would say, “That looks like a fairly old building over there.”
“Oh, I remember that from when I was here in ’63,” or “we built that building when I was here in ’63.”
“Was that when you charged up the hill with Teddy Roosevelt?” or “Frank, you need to be more clear about which ’63—1963 or 1863,” Peter would joke.
Atop Skyline Drive, a neighborhood gazebo overlooks the 17.4-mile fenceline that is monitored around the clock by the U.S. Marines and Cuba’s Frontier Brigade.
“When I was here in ’63, we called this suicide ridge because we knew if [Fidel] Castro made a move, his troops would be funneled into the valley below, and we were ready,” Frank said.
“Is that when you were drinking rum with Ernest Hemingway, Frank?”
With respect to history and Hemingway, the Nobel Prize-winning author of such classics as the Cuba-set The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls left Cuba in 1960 and died in 1961.
The Kentucky delegation, accompanied by a growing list of dignitaries, will return to Guantanamo in September for the official sister city dedication and a Kentuckians dinner hosted by Capt. Culpepper, which will include all Kentucky sailors, soldiers and Marines, regardless of rank.