You've probably heard a lot about Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, because of suspected terrorists who are held there. 13News Now traveled to the base and learned it is about much more than what you might think in this five-part series.
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – For a year and a half, Guantanamo Bay Naval Base has been run by a man who is very familiar with Hampton Roads.
"I kind of consider Virginia Beach my home," said Captain David Culpepper. "I have lots of friends there. We live in Little Neck, which is a wonderful little community."
In a sit-down interview with 13News Now, the Top Gun-trained pilot spoke of his fondness for the area.
"I still have a home there. And I'm planning to go back there when we leave."
From personal to business, he told us about the strategic importance of the work that is done from the installation, which has become more known for its detention center.
"The two most important (missions) are supporting the Coast Guard, who has a constant mission in the Caribbean to conduct counter-narcotic operations," said Captain Culpepper, "and support migrant operations in and around the Caribbean."
While 13News Now was on base, we saw Coast Guard helicopters periodically take off on land on the island's only operational runway, located on the Leeward side of the base. Citing security reason, we were unable to see video of the airport runway where the Coast Guard helicopter landed.
"A lot of time the Coast Guard spends on the water is simply rescuing those people," Culpepper told us as he describes the tattered vessels that are often encountered of people trying to get to the United States.
As for drug runners trying to sneak their wares into the United States: "A good part of the drugs are manufactured in South America or Central America and then are moved up into the United States through the Caribbean."
Capt. Culpepper is also in charge of base infrastructure and administrative duties for the 5,000 people who live and work, which includes the military and contractors with help from Naval Station Norfolk.
"Our supply chain is largely run through Norfolk," he told us.
Like Navy ships, the phone system is routed through Naval Station Norfolk and anyone dialing the base would use a 757 area code, the very same one used across Hampton Roads.
"We have weekly flights that come through Norfolk that brings supplies… mostly fresh fruits and vegetables," he said while listing the base's connection to Hampton Roads. "We get computer support, mail support and a variety of other things."
It is his responsibility to make sure the base has all it needs to run smoothly for those who live there and the branches of the military that it supports.
"The things I pay the most attention to on a daily basis are quality of life, the quality of our school facilities here, the opportunities that people have to take care of themselves, take care of each other, and again develop tight communities here on the installation."
While it is clear that much more happens on the century-old base, it has become known for the detention center which houses suspected terrorists.
"The detention center mission has only been going on for a little over 15 years."
13News Now was taken to the sprawling facility that had a landscape reminiscent of a desert with well-paved roads that separate the sand.
The prison facilities are surrounded by large metal fences that are cordoned off with windscreens, similar to that of tennis court, used to block the view inside.
"They include the alleged 9/11 coconspirators and also the alleged USS Cole bomber," said Navy Capt. John Filostrat, Public Affairs Officer for Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay.
At its height, the detention center housed roughly 780 prisoners, but the number has dwindled to just 60 with the announcement on October 17 that Mohamedou Ould Slahi was returned to his native Mauritania in West Africa.
According to the 9/11 Commission, Slahi allegedly recruited three off the 9/11 hijackers. A review board ordered his release in June.
Serving 14 years without ever being charged, he became the longest serving prisoner and drew worldwide sympathy with the release of the book Guantanamo Diary, a memoir that detailed beatings and sleep deprivation, part of special interrogation authorized by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Accusations of torture continue to be a thorn in the side of those who run the prison.
"There's no torture here… we treat the detainees humanely," Capt. Filostrat was quick to point out. "The men and women of the joint task force do a great job in doing that, professional."
Filostrat told us that as the population continues to shrink, so does the number of prison camps.
Shortly before we arrived in late September, we were told of a recent change.
"We closed down Camp 5 recently and consolidated into Camp 6," Capt. Filostrat said.
A campaign promise to close the detention in the first 100 days in office has gone unfulfilled by President Obama, and while the work continues, it's unclear if the remaining 60 will be moved to a still undetermined location by January 20th.
According to Capt. Filostrat, "We support the president in his objectives to shut down the detention facility at Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay."
Closing the prison encampment will not affect the base as a whole.
"The misconception may be that they naval base is going to shut down," Filostrat said.
The Joint Task Force Guantanamo mission has only be going on since 2002... eventually that will go away, but the base likely will remain, because it's been here for over 100 years.