An unlikely recruit in the War on Terror

Greta Kipp. Photo by Richard Creaser

by Richard Creaser
copyright the Chronicle April 7, 2004
BARTON – The Candlepin Restaurant outside Barton Village is perhaps the last place you would expect to meet a woman of international mystery.   As unlikely as that meeting might be, however, it is still very much true.
Greta Kipp of Irasburg is an engaging and animated speaker.  She seems an unlikely candidate to fight the War on Terror, but that is precisely what she has done.
As a translator assigned to Joint Task Force 170, since renamed Joint Task Force Guantanamo, Sergeant Kipp worked directly with the hundreds of detainees captured during the anti-Taliban operations in Afghanistan.
From January 2002 until February 2003 she was the voice of the largely Arabic-speaking group of expatriate fighters at the Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba.
She was tasked with aiding in the interrogation of war-hardened fighters and impressionable youths alike.  Her daily routine involved passing through nine sally ports and under rows of razor wire at the Cuban detention center known as Camp X-Ray.
“I had never been in a maximum security anything before I went there,” she said in an interview at the Barton restaurant Tuesday.  “It was really a depressing place, and I really didn’t have any way to release that.  We were working 18 hours a day, and if you were lucky, you unwound with a few beers before going to sleep.”
She was one of only five translators sent to try and deal with over 400 detainees shipped to the base in early 2002.
“I knew I was going to be deployed somewhere, but I really had no idea where.  How do you pack when you don’t know if you are going to Afghanistan, where it’s below zero, or to the Caribbean?”
The early days were spent trying to address the many and varied needs of the prisoners, she said.  Before any interrogations could begin, they needed to get the men food and medical attention.  Ms. Kipp’s linguistic skills were put to the test almost immediately.
“I had taken a very intense crash course in Arabic,” she said.  “I knew a lot of military terms and I knew some of their culture and religion, but I was not prepared for a lot of what I needed to do.”
One of the most difficult aspects was attempting to run relay between the medical staff and the injured detainees.
“How do you explain to someone that the doctor needs to amputate their leg?  How do you explain that to someone you don’t know in a language you don’t fully understand yourself?”
Getting the fighters set up and into the routine at the camp was a huge but not insurmountable task, she said.  The base was equipped to handle a large, sudden influx of people, at least more so than anything back in Afghanistan.
Earning enough of the trust of the detainees was a more difficult task to accomplish, said Ms. Kipp.  The Muslim traditions were very strong in these men, and part of that tradition involves a complicated ritual of greetings and small talk, she said.
“It was hard explaining to them that I have four hours to spend with them, and we are spending three and a half of those going through the hundreds of greetings.”
This was a fact frequently lost on the actual interrogator, she said.  Lacking the baseline understanding of how conversations flowed in Muslim society, the interrogators would often just jump right in, introduce themselves and start asking questions, she said.
“It was really hard to tell them what they were doing was wrong, because you didn’t want to undermine their authority as interrogators,” she said.  “Sometimes all you could do was nudge them with your elbow or kick them under the table and get them to stop.”
Mistakes came often and with greater frequency than could be desired, said Ms. Kipp.  Luckily, as the errors were discovered, the army quickly acted to right the wrongs and adjust its own protocols.
“By the time I left, I can say that things were definitely running smoother than during those first few months.”
One of the first changes was ensuring continuity of staff, she said.  Building a rapport with the detainees was hard — and harder still when the personnel that built up some rapport shipped out or back home every few months.
“At first, the FBI guys were there for 30 or 45 days,” she said.  “They’d just start to build that trust and they’d be gone again.”
When possible, the same translators would be used in successive interrogations, she said.  Familiarity like this helped to foster an environment of trust and respect, most of the time at least.
Some of the detainees professed strong Muslim beliefs, and the sight of a western woman with her arms exposed above the elbow was offensive to them.  In some cases, it became a matter of simply moving out of sight behind the detainee.
That sort of accommodation came with its own set of problems.  Words could be misheard when the speaker was speaking with his back to you, said Ms. Kipp.
Misrepresentation was always a fear, particularly when she realized that any mistake on her part could extend the detainee’s captivity.  Arabic grammar structure and speech patterns are so alien that it was not uncommon for her to mistake one word for another.
“The Arabic word for communist and X-ray sound pretty much the same to me.  It took a long time for me to understand that one man was telling me he came to Afghanistan to fight the communists.”
The need to retread ground repeatedly grated on the nerves of the detainees, who had difficulty understanding where and why they were being held, she said.  That sense of isolation and hopelessness compounded the difficulty in encouraging them to speak openly with the interrogation teams.
“A lot of the ones picked up by the Pakistanis were put into airplanes and told they would be returned home.  They arrived in prisons in Khandahar and are told there that they’re going home, only to climb into a plane and end up thousands of miles further away, with no idea of when they might get home.”
Having constantly been told things that ultimately were false, some of them had difficulty believing that their situation would improve if they cooperated, she said.
Some, however, believed that the surest way to get back home was to cooperate, and gladly told their entire story from cradle to Cuba.  Knowing that the men who willingly cooperated were still in detention was a blow to Ms. Kipp’s confidence.
“I had to remind myself that these men made a choice, a wrong choice as it turns out.  They were being detained because of things they had done themselves when they joined up with Al-Qaeda or the Taliban.”
The prisoners often complained of their treatment and their inability to communicate with their families.  Any discussion with the detainees inevitably churned up the same sorts of complaints, said Ms. Kipp.
“That’s when I started asking them what kind of treatment I could expect if I were a prisoner of Al-Qaeda or the Taliban or Hammas or Hezbollah.  That usually stopped them right there.”
Ms. Kipp feels no need to be ashamed or apologetic for her role at Camp X-Ray.  She was performing a task that needed to be done to ensure that future terror attacks could be averted.
“I am not going to defend the policy because I am not George Bush’s first advisor.  I was a soldier doing my job.
“There are things I think we could have done better, like screening the detainees before flying them out.  It’s not a perfect system, but we try really hard not to make the same mistakes twice.”
With her five years of military service now behind her, Ms. Kipp is looking forward to a few years of college before embarking on whatever endeavors the future might hold.  She is finishing out the spring semester at Lyndon State College in preparation for transferring to another school in the fall.
“I’m not 100 percent sure where I’m going, but I expect to hear back from some schools in the next week or two,” she said.
Her plans include making use of her experience as a translator, but not necessarily becoming a translator herself.
“Translating is an incredible skill, but it’s not a real heavy intellectual pursuit.  You are translating someone else’s work, and I want to get into something where my intellect shows through.”
Arabic speaking individuals have many options open to them, and Ms. Kipp is hoping to finesse her way into a position where she can use her language skills professionally.  One option is joining the State Department.
“That might be a little risky, though, because I don’t want to end up rubber stamping visas in the Sudan.”
A late start at college has sometimes led her to wonder if she made the right choices.  But, a single semester into a college career, she has already discovered that her military service was not a waste of time.
“I know that I’m a thousand times better prepared for college than I would have been at 18 and coming out of high school.  I can manage my time and I can focus on making the choices I need to make to get where I want to go.
“I don’t get stressed out if I need to study a couple of extra hours for an exam.  You don’t get stressed out once you’ve seen what real stress is like.”
Reflecting on her decision to join the armed forces, Ms. Kipp doesn’t hesitate to say that she would recommend the experience.  Army life is not ideal for everyone, she said,  but it is good for people who aren’t quite sure what they want to do with themselves.
“I wasn’t worried that I’d become one of those indoctrinated people who don’t know how to get along in civilian life.  The Army didn’t tell me what I was going to become, what my personal beliefs are, or who I really am.  It helped me figure that out for myself.”
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