Air Medal

Air Medal
(Ed. Note: We previously
featured a picture of
a different medal.
That image was incorrect.
We regret the error.
)

Maxwell-Gunther Dispatch.com, the web news site for personnel and interested partisans of Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, reported on September 17 that Col. (Dr.) James W. Walter has been awarded the Air Medal "for his meritorious service on delicate assignments providing medical care to enemy detainees."

From January 2007 to 2009 as the senior detainee movement flight surgeon, he provided 106 combat hours of support to the 14 Joint Task Force Detainee Movement Operations missions in the C-17A. His service included travel into 15 different countries, some of them in an active enemy fire zone.

The article goes into great detail about "self-professed military brat" Walter’s career as a NASA space shuttle launch and recovery physician, and says nothing more about the service for which he was awarded a medal. That’s because the military’s rendition program is highly secret. Stephen Grey in his 2006 book, Ghost Plane, noted the existence of the military’s rendition program, and proclaimed it was larger than the CIA’s. But Grey’s research concentrated on the CIA’s program. The Pentagon’s rendition program received its first major outing in the pages of the New York Times only in August 2008:

WASHINGTON – The United States military has secretly handed over more than 200 militants to the intelligence services of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries, nearly all in the past two years, as part of an effort to reduce the burden of detaining and interrogating foreign fighters captured in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to American military officials.

The system is similar in some ways to the rendition program used by the Central Intelligence Agency since the Sept. 11 attacks to secretly transfer people suspected of being militants back to their home countries to be jailed and questioned.

And tortured? The United States supposedly seeks "assurances" that the prisoners will not be tortured when sent back to countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. An article by Eric Umansky at Pro Publica, published just after the Times expose, noted that though American officials insist they obtain guarantees that "detainees" will be treated "humanely," rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch, aren’t so sure:

The growing weight of evidence and international expert opinion indicates that diplomatic assurances cannot protect people at risk of torture from such treatment on return. Sending countries that rely on such assurances are either engaging in wishful thinking or using the assurances as a fig leaf to cover their own complicity in torture. In either case, governments seeking diplomatic assurances against torture are in effect trying to circumvent their own obligations not to return people to face such treatment.

All the governments offering diplomatic assurances have long histories and continuing records of employing torture, a fact that most sending governments acknowledge….

In October 2002, the U.S. government transferred Maher Arar, a dual Canadian-Syrian citizen, from New York via Jordan to Syria based on diplomatic assurances of humane treatment. Arar was released in October 2003. An independent fact-finder appointed by an official Canadian Commission of Inquiry into Arar’s treatment concluded in October 2005 that Arar had been tortured in Syrian custody, despite Syrian assurances to the contrary and several visits from Canadian consular officials.

While Col. (Dr.) Walter is said to have orthopedic experience, it’s most likely he was there to monitor and/or administer sedating drugs which numerous reports have indicated were administered to rendition victims. I suppose if a "detainee" needed some stitches after a beating, or even a bone set after an "incident," the good doctor would be there to make sure the prisoner arrived in good shape for his Saudi or Egyptian torturer. Of course, Saudi Arabia and Egypt were surely not the only destinations for rendition flights, as the Maxwell-Gunther article notes Walter’s planes traveled to at least 15 different countries. It is worth noting here, by the way, that the Obama administration has refused to end the rendition program, though its officials offer the same bland assurances about prisoner safety as those of their GOP predecessors.

According to the New York Times article, once captured, the prisoners are first held in one of two Special Operations prisons, "in Balad, Iraq, and Bagram, Afghanistan, for up to two weeks," more if Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gives the high sign. They are imprisoned without notice to the International Red Cross, until they’re ready for transfer. According to Steven Grey, no hearing takes place prior to their rendition back to a country that might torture them, as is required by international law. Perhaps that’s because the prisoners supposedly "can block their transfers to home countries." As Pro Publica’s Umansky laconically noted, "No word on what happens to the prisoners if they choose to exercise their apparent right to veto." Apparently, as of August 2008 over 200 prisoners had already been transferred to their home countries under the military’s rendition program. (In 2006, Grey thought the number as high as 1,000.) But with all the attention on the CIA’s rendition program, the Pentagon’s version appears to have flown under the radar, news-wise.

Until Col. (Dr.) Walter got his medal. How ironic it comes only days after Physicians for Human Rights released a "white paper" on doctors aiding torture. Steven Miles, author of Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity and America’s War on Terror, has written: “The medical system collaborated with designing and implementing psychologically and physically coercive interrogations” in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places. The participation of doctors in the rendition program, which has sent an untold number of prisoners back to the torture dungeons of some of the most brutal regimes on this planet, is both a crime and a violation of medical ethics of the highest sort.

It is a painful truth that actions that should be condemned and punished are instead, in 2009 America, awarded medals. And how did Col. (Dr.) Walter respond to his high honor?

"It’s kind of neat to get a medal on the flying side rather than the medical side," said Colonel Walter. "My father would be proud."