Navy Relieves Guantánamo Base Commander Amid Death Probe

Capt. John “J.R.” Nettleton, commanding officer of Navy base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, delivers remarks during a Battle of Midway commemoration ceremony, June 3, 2014 in this Pentagon handout photo.Miami Herald – by Carol Rosenberg 

The commander of the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay has been removed from the remote outpost and reassigned to headquarters, a Navy announcement said Wednesday, declining to elaborate because of an ongoing Naval Criminal Investigative Services probe.

The brief statement said Navy Capt. John “J.R.” Nettleton had lost the confidence of his boss, Navy Rear Adm. Mary M. Jackson, commander of Navy Region Southeast, who reassigned Nettleton to her office in Jacksonville.  

The announcement follows a mysterious death on the base that is being investigated by NCIS. A commissary worker named Christopher Tur, 42, was found dead in the waters of Guantánamo Bay on Jan. 11 at about 11:30 a.m., Mike Andrews, a Navy Region Southeast spokesman, told the Miami Herald on Jan. 15. He had been reported missing a day earlier.

At the base, spokeswoman Kelly Wirfel said on Jan. 16 in response to questions about the NCIS investigation that Tur had been working at the base commissary since he moved there with his family in June 2011. An obituary in the base newsletter described Tur as a former Marine, father of two and husband of 19 years who worked as the commissary’s “loss prevention officer.”

Wirfel confirmed that Tur’s widow, Lara, is director of the Fleet and Family Services Center at the base but would not say whether she worked for Nettleton.

“NCIS is investigating this matter per their normal procedure,” Wirfel said in a brief email. “As such, I’m not able to comment any further.”

The base commander has no role in the running of the war-on-terror prison camps at Guantánamo. That is the responsibility of a rear admiral who commands a separate Detention Center Zone within the 45-square-mile base in southeast Cuba — and answers to Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, the commander of the U.S. Southern Command in Miami.

The prison functions much like a tenant on the base, with its 2,000 or so staff members granted wide access to base facilities as well as the separate prison zone. Jackson sent her chief of staff, Navy Capt. Scott Gray, to run the base itself until Nettleton’s replacement is chosen.

As commander, Gray will be responsible for the functioning of the airport, seaport and other base facilities. As acting base commander, Gray will also succeed Nettleton at a monthly meeting with a Cuban counterpart along the fence line that separates the U.S.-controlled based from Cuba proper. The two sides discuss topics of common interest at those monthly meetings.

Nettleton, a pilot and native of Haines City in Central Florida, started his military career as a Marine enlistee in 1984. He joined the Navy through the Naval Aviation Cadet program in 1987 and at least once a month piloted a base C-12 airplane to Miami on base business and to keep up his flying hours.

Nettleton, known as “the skipper” for his role as base commander, successfully navigated a Nativity scene controversy in 2013 that was kicked off by troops protesting a decision by kitchen workers to set up creches in both the Navy base and detention center cafeterias. He resolved the flap in a single day by ordering the religious displays moved to the base chapel.

This is the second time in a decade that a Guantánamo base commander has been recalled to Jacksonville. In July 2005, Navy Capt. Leslie McCoy was relieved following a three-month inspector-general investigation of his leadership. He was never returned to the post.

Successive Navy commanders have likened the job to that of a small-town mayor, in part, because Guantánamo feels like small-town America.

Beyond the prison camp on a bluff overlooking the Caribbean, the base has a school for sailors’ children, facilities to provide power and desalinated water for about 6,000 inhabitants, a golf course, a chapel and a McDonald’s — all serving a mixed military and civilian contractor workforce.

It is governed by military law, meaning the captain can discipline residents, impose curfews and supervise contents of the base newspaper. A police unit of Navy Masters at Arms also answers to him.

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