Captain James J. Yee is a former US Army Chaplain and graduate of West Point who served as the Muslim Chaplain for the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba that would become controversial for its treatment of detainees designated as “enemy combatants” by the U.S. government. While ministering to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Captain Yee advised the commanders of the camp on detainee religious practices and objected to the cruel and degrading abuses to which the prisoners were subjected.
Living in a university town is a treat. Without paying tuition (but occasionally a nominal entry fee), one frequently gets the opportunity to see speakers from far and wide speaking on important topics. Tonight was a night with such an opportunity at Vanderbilt University. The Speakers Committee brought Captain James Yee to campus.
After being officially recognized twice for outstanding performance, Captain Yee was arrested and imprisoned in a Naval brig for 76 days in September 2003 while being falsely accused of spying, espionage, and aiding the alleged Taliban and Al-Qaeda prisoners. He was held in solitary confinement and subjected to the same sensory deprivation techniques that had been used against the prisoners in Cuba that he had been ministering to.
Hearing Yee’s personal story in person is much different and much more impressive than reading it from the printed page. He speaks with passion and with justifiable bitterness. But his is not an empty bitterness of victimization; he speaks with intent. He speaks with a fierce patriotism and willingness to defend his Constitution and his country.
After months of government investigation, all criminal charges were dropped. With his record wiped clean, Chaplain Yee was reinstated to full duty. He tendered his resignation from the U.S. Army and received an Honorable Discharge in 2005. Upon separation he was awarded with a second Army Commendation for “exceptionally meritorious service.”
During the Q&A, Yee revealed that he had received no reparations or compensation for his wrongful detention. In fact, he hadn’t received so much as an apology from anyone involved in the proceedings. He never learned why the charges were brought, although he offered some potential reasons:
- He is a Muslim. The extensive disrespect of faith shown to detainees in Guantanamo revealed to him more than tactics and techniques.
- He is ethnically Chinese. At one point, his counter-investigation revealed that someone involved in a review of him referred to him as a “Chinese Taliban.” He said this indicated that his ethnicity was an issue that compounded his faith.
Despite all this, Yee was wearing an American flag lapel pin, and it was clear he wore it proudly. Not as a jingoistic car-magnet style offering, but as a truly patriotic device. When asked by the last questioner what was the greatest country on Earth, he offered frankly and forthrightly: America. As for why? Because our Constitutional protections of various freedoms: of religion (of particular importance to Yee), of speech, of the press, (allegedly) from unlawful search and seizure, etc.
Part of Yee’s stated mission in lecturing is to get his audiences, particularly students, the future leaders of tomorrow, to think about where we are as a country and how we got here. He concluded with a slideshow portraying the real Guantanamo Bay detention facility. He pointed out how the military is careful to call the inhabitants “detainees,” never “prisoners,” in order to allow them to remain “enemy combatants” and thus outside the realm of law. His concern for the state of our civil liberties, the rule of law, and our willingness to torture could not have been more poignantly expressed.
If you’d like to read his personal account, he has written about it in For God And Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire. Captain Yee has certainly demonstrated grace under fire.