In early 1980 the Cuban economy was going from sad to pathetic. Encouraged by relatives in Florida, many small groups of Cubans were evading police to flee the island, while others were clamoring at the gates of friendly embassies seeking asylum. Surprising everyone, in April Fidel Castro removed his armed guards from the gates of the Peruvian Embassy, and by the following day more than 10,000 Cubans seeking asylum had jammed the embassy. Later that month, Cuban exiles in Florida (apparently with the quiet acquiescence of the Castro government) were able to charter small boats and succeeded in bringing relatives to the United States from the Cuban port of Mariel. Word spread quickly, and the exodus became a stampede. By late September more than 120,000 Cubans had fled Cuba for the United States. Since the majority departed Cuba through the port city of Mariel, they became known by the media as "The Mariel Boat People."
While the Carter Administration welcomed the Cubans with "open hearts and open arms," the State Department and Coast Guard were not prepared for that many refugees and tried unsuccessfully to stop the boats. As the situation became more and more complicated and the number of Cuban refugees grew by the day, the United States turned to the military to organize and operate three refugee camps, one of which was at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa., a National Guard installation.
BG Grail L. Brookshire, the assistant division commander of the 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized) at Fort Carson, Colo., was assigned command of the refugee camp established at Fort Indiantown Gap. He faced a series of major problems not taught at the Command and General Staff College or even the U.S. Army War College.
His first hurdle was to form a cohesive staff composed of federal agencies that did not necessarily agree with the functions, responsibilities or policies of other agencies, and in many instances were unable to clear immediately needed decisions without first seeking approval from Washington. Moreover, while the Pennsylvania National Guard commanded Fort Indiantown Gap, under the circumstances Brookshire was the de facto camp commander. Fortunately, the Pennsylvania National Guard soldiers went out of their way to assist and cooperate, so he wisely asked the National Guard camp commander to be his deputy. That was a relatively simple and efficient arrangement that worked well.
When he assembled the others on his "staff," however, he found a hodgepodge of representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), State Department, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), Public Health Service (PHS), the Federal Protective Agency (FPA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Pennsylvania State Police. Individually, these were talented, experienced and dedicated professionals in their respective fields, but collectively they were a group with different agendas, conflicting experiences and different ways of doing day-to-day business. Brookshire was helped by a command-and-control element from First Army Headquarters at Fort Meade, Md. To secure U.S. government equipment (with no police powers over the refugees) he was aided by an ad hoc MP company formed from two MP battalions. The challenge of developing a cooperative, functioning, efficient staff and operational organization was monumental, and that's an understatement.
His next hurdle was one of sheer numbers: FEMA and the INS were required to process thousands of refugees, many of whom were illiterate. To compound the problem, almost 3,800 were subsequently identified as hardened criminals, whom Castro had infiltrated intentionally (in many cases forced to leave) with the Mariel Boat People to rid his prisons and Cuba of what he termed undesirables.
Over the summer of 1980, almost 20,000 Cubans were processed through Fort Indiantown Gap, but it wasn't easy or necessarily a pleasant experience. First, processing …