Local Army Reserves MP returns home from Gitmo duty
— When Lucas Nagel was 3 years old, he wanted to be “an army man.” That’s all he ever wanted to be.
On Halloween, “I was the weird kid who didn’t want to be a policeman or fireman,” he said. “One year, I wanted
to be (camouflaged as) a bush. I scared the crap out of people.”
His parents, Milton and Tina of Federalsburg, laugh at the memory, and it’s one of their favorites. Now that Lucas is back home safely from his tour of duty as a military police officer at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba, it’s good to relax and laugh. “I’m just glad to get him home,” Tina Nagel said.
The 2013 Colonel Richardson High School graduate returned home on Thursday, Jan. 19, after taking part in “detention operations” with the 372nd Military Police Company, an Army Reserve unit of 160 soldiers based in Cresaptown, Md., near Cumberland.
Cpl. Nagel, 21, spent 10 months in a duty he talks about in guarded language. But he said, overall, “It was pretty neat. I dreamt about being a soldier as a little kid.”
Nagel learned his job fast. After a month of training at Fort Bliss, Texas, in February 2016, he boarded a charter flight to Cuba on March 3. Even after arriving at “Gitmo,” he found out “the people you’re relieving just want to (go home).”
In a way, the militar y personnel who serve on the base are confined to the base during their tours of duty. “The gate has been closed for 40-some years,” Nagel said. “There’s no leaving Gitmo. You can’t leave. You can’t go to Havana. You can’t even get Cuban cigars.”
“There was so much to take in,” Nagel said. “It’s like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.” However, the duty is “very mentally taxing. The PTSD rates are two times higher than combat (rate).”
Still, Nagel, who has been in the Reserves for four years and four months, said there was much to enjoy when he was off-duty, and that was something he remembered with fondness. “Even though you’re trapped, it can be a paradise,” he said.
As an island in the Caribbean, Cuba offered “90-degree weather every day,” Nagel said. The clear turquoise water, which he could see from the quarters he shared with three other soldiers who became a tightknit group of friends, was not off-limits. Military personnel and their guests could rent boats and spend their days off fishing, snorkeling and scubadiving.
The military police jobs were like shift work, Nagel said, with typically four 12-hour days followed by three days off. But that “depended on who was on leave, or who got sent home early if their wives were having babies,” he said.
A typical day included “waking up as late as possible, going to work, working out after work, fixing a meal (the four troops had a refrigerator, microwave and an outdoor grill for frequent cookouts) and playing cornhole, play- ing softball or soccer, or watching movies that were loaded into portable hard drives. Nagel rigged a bed sheet to the wall as a screen, and he and his roommates bought a projector at the Navy Exchange. No TV shows or news were available at the base. “It was really nice to be disconnected during the election,” Nagel said.
“When you were off, it was like a vacation,” Nagel said, “They let you unwind.” On the other side of the bay, which a ferry traversed, were the Navy Exchange, a hotel, rental cars and boats and scuba gear.
Nagel and his three buddies pooled their money to buy one of the frequently flipped — and often decorated — vehicles on the base. He saw cars and trucks painted and decorated as Batman, Cookie Monster and Ghostbusters. Nagel and his roommates paid $1,500 for a 1995 Ford F-150 that took them back and forth across the bay and down to the beaches that were mostly rocks with little sand. They paid $40 for four months of insurance and sold the truck to a sailor for $1,200.
“I knew it was reliable and would sell quickly,” Nagel said.
He said most of the vehicles in the Gitmo Auto Trader were “pieces of crap,” but it was hard to wear out a vehicle when the speed limit on the base is only 35 mph.
Driving around, Nagel said he saw white-tailed deer, reportedly brought over from the States in the past by Navy brass. “It made me feel like I was home again,” he said. “I loved being the only per- son from the Eastern Shore.”
The highlight for Nagel was a five-day visit from his family in July. “How many times are you going to get to go to Guantanamo Bay?” Milton Nagel said.
After filling out myriad forms, his parents and brother J.T. and J.T.’s girlfriend arrived on the base. They saw no other part of the island but also were confined to the base.
Nagel took part of his 14-day leave to spend time enjoying home cooking his dad’s steaks on the grill; his mom’s home cooking, which was shared with about 20 of his buddies; and some relaxation. Tina enjoyed collecting souvenirs from the aptly named Glass Beach, which was littered with sea glass. Nagel enjoyed her screaming every time she saw one of the “ginormous” iguanas that call the base home.
“Just don’t feed them,” Nagel said. “They come crawling out of drainpipes, and you have to fight off the ones being fed. They’re the size of crocodiles.”
Downtime and self-care was respected and encouraged at Gitmo, Nagel said. He wouldn’t disclose how many detainees (“they can only be prisoners if they’re convicted”) were there during his tour, but he said guards walk a tight line 24/7. They wear no dogtags or nametags — nothing that would reveal personal information.
Pet dogs of Navy personnel were enlisted as volunteer therapy dogs. They carried signs that said, “Pet Me,” which helped MPs like Nagel who missed his own dog, “Bo.” He said his superiors “really cared” about the troops, with counselors, therapists and chaplains. “They wanted you to get stuff off your chest” without fear of being reported for needing help, he said.
Nagel received hazardous duty and hostile fire pay even though his was a noncombat deployment.
“You can still get hurt. It’s still dangerous,” Nagel said. “They can throw stuff at you.” It’s more mentally taxing than combat he said because in an active war zone, soldiers develop “mental muscle” to fight the enemy. At Gitmo, he said, “You’re face to face with the enemy, (but you can’t fight him).”
Nagel earned three medals, though not the arm patch awarded to those who ser ved in combat zones. Added to his uniform were the Army Achievement Medal, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.
When Nagel returned to Fort Bliss on Jan. 6, he attended demobilization sessions, which included medical and psychological testing and tons of paperwork. He took classes on PTSD, suicide prevention, protocols regarding sexual harassment assault and harassment, resume building and financial counseling.
“The Army cares, believe it or not,” Nagel said.
Although Nagel’s love for all things militar y began as a toddler, his patriotic feelings kindled on Sept. 11, 2001, when he was in the first grade at Preston Elementary School. He remembers the day terrorists used commercial airplanes as weapons and exactly where he was sitting in the cafeteria when his mom came to pick him up. It made an indelible impression on him.
Four years later, his parents took the family to ground zero in lower Manhattan, where he gazed down from a catwalk at the debris from the Twin Towers’ destruction. “It’s why he’s doing what he’s doing,” Tina Nagel said.
In fact, Nagel wanted to join the special forces, but “there were too many hoops to jump through,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave home and live on my own right out of high school.”
“He bleeds red, white and blue,” Milton Nagel, who served in the Army Reserves from 1988 to 1996, said of his son’s patriotism.
“It’s the way I was raised,” Nagel said. “Somebody’s got to protect the country.”
Nagel has two more years on his contract with the Reserves and plans to continue his education at Salisbur y University. He completed his first two years at Chesapeake College but missed the enrollment deadline for SU, where he’s majoring in psychology and sociology with a minor in history. He eventually wants to get into federal law enforcement.
In the meantime, he’s “tr ying to adjust to real life,” he said, by working in maintenance for the Caroline County Board of Education, where his father is assistant superintendent of schools. He plans to begin coaching the junior varsity baseball team at Colonel Richardson on March 1.
Nagel is glad he was able to serve his country at Guantanamo Bay as one of the 28,000 troops who have served at the detention center since it opened in 2002. Although it was ordered closed by then-President Obama on Jan. 22, 2009, it remains open.
Nagel said he supports his commander-in-chief, whether it was President Obama or is President Trump. As a result of his tour, however, he believes it’s necessar y to keep the controversial detention camp open. “Absolutely, we need Gitmo,” he said. “It’s better to keep the detainees there than here.”
Cpl. Lucas Nagel, a 2013 graduate of Colonel Richardson High School, with his parents Tina and Milton, and older brother J.T.
Cpl. Lucas Nagel, center, at Gitmo with good friends Cpl. Ben Meyers and Spc. Tom McCarron.
Cpl. Lucas Nagel of Federalsburg was the only Eastern Shoreman who recently completed a tour of duty with the 372nd Military Police Company, U.S. Army Reserve, based near Cumberland, Maryland.
Cpl. Lucas Nagel of Federalsburg recently returned from a 10-month tour of duty at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.