Nov. 20, 2004
Chaplain James Yee stood in a ballroom packed with admirers and gave thanks.
"This time one short year ago I was praying and fasting Ramadan alone while still locked up in the naval brig," he said. "So I'm thankful that this year things are different."
He went on to thank all those who stood by him as the government accused him of betraying his country.
In the audience of 400 were community and religious leaders, politicians and lawyers. Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Jews. All had come to see Yee receive a courage-and-inspiration award from the local chapter of the Council on Islamic-American Relations.
Yee closed with a warning to audience members to know their rights in this "era of eroding civil liberties." The audience rose in applause, clamoring to shake his hand. Some asked for autographs.
In this small corner of America, Yee was still a star.
But in another corner, Yee remained a suspect. The government's investigation has never officially closed. Though it's not known how active it is, investigators keep alive the hope that somewhere a person or piece of evidence will incriminate him.
Many of the people who helped launch the investigation are no longer involved, including Capts. Theo Polet and Jason Orlich. Both remain convinced they acted appropriately on their suspicions and that Guantánamo is a safer place today because of it.
"Look, nobody wants to be accused of being a racist, prejudiced, bigoted," Orlich said. "But if we hadn't done anything, some of us would have lost our jobs."
Days after the charges against Yee were dropped, Polet sat down with Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, Guantánamo's commander, for a final briefing. "We were just kind of wrapping it up, and he said, 'Well, that was quite a ride we had together.'
"And I said, 'I don't know if Yee or [Senior Airman Ahmad] Al Halabi or any other nefarious characters are going to spend another day in jail, but I do rest very easily knowing that we stopped whatever was going on. We stopped it dead in its tracks.' "
Miller went on to give Yee a written reprimand for military violations of adultery and viewing pornography.
But just three weeks later, a four-star general overturned it and cleared Yee's record.
"In my opinion, Major General Miller would have been derelict in his duties to protect our national security had he not placed Chaplin Yee in pretrial confinement and proceeded with the investigation, given the circumstances at the time and what he knew at the time," Gen. James Hill said. "I believe in justice, and I believe in fairness, and given all that has transpired, in all fairness, I believe I have given Chaplain Yee justice."
But family members, many within the Muslim-American community and even members of Congress are not satisfied that justice was served. At the request of House and Senate Democrats, the Pentagon's inspector general recently launched an investigation into Yee's treatment.
Yee returned to Fort Lewis and lives with his wife and daughter in Olympia. He considered remaining in the Army. But after receiving a negative performance evaluation — the first in his military career — he realized there was no hope of advancement.
Earlier this month, the West Point graduate walked away from the service, an honorable discharge in hand but his reputation forever tarnished. He has not publicly discussed his case but said he will in due time.
Many of his military colleagues are still mystified that a soldier so well-respected by his commanders could have seen his life and career shattered so easily.
After all, it was just two days before his arrest that three of his commanders issued a glowing performance evaluation for the 10 months he had served at Guantánamo. "His dedication and commitment ... is unquestioned," one wrote. The commanders made special note of his cultural-awareness briefings on Islam. By then, the chaplain had given the same briefing more than 30 times, to more than 4,000 soldiers.
But on at least one day, in post-9/11 America, somebody heard something different.