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GTMO says farewell to remaining Cuban workers

Naval Station Guantanamo Bay’s last two Cuban commuters, Harry Henry and Luis LaRosa, cut their cake following a retirement ceremony honoring their nearly 120 years of combined service to the base and U.S. government. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Justin Ailes

GTMO says farewell to remaining Cuban workersEdit

Story by Kelly A. Wirfel
Naval Station Guantanamo Bay Public Affairs Officer

Harry Henry and Luis LaRosa, the last two Cuban commuter Naval Station Guantanamo Bay employees, were honored during a retirement ceremony Dec. 14.

As dawn breaks each morning, these two employees take a cab from Guantanamo City, Cuba and make the hour-long commute to the naval station’s Northeast Gate. At the gate, the workers are stopped and checked by the Cuban frontier brigade, after which they pass through a gate beneath a sign that says “Republica de Cuba.”

They then walk across a 50-yard open stretch, divided by a painted white line that demarcates Cuban and American territory. At the second gate, marked “U.S. Naval Base, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba,” U.S. Marines exchange the workers’ Cuban identification cards for naval station badges.

LaRosa is then given the keys to a blue Ford truck and drives approximately eight miles to drop off his co-worker before ending his commute at the Cuban Community Center, where he serves as a maintenance man. They repeat this same process at the conclusion of each day.

“This is all just routine for us, but sometimes you feel like you are living in two worlds,” Henry said. “They are two systems any way you look at it. But we are used to it.”

Their unique commute is quickly drawing to an end. The two will cross through the gate one last time Dec. 31.

Both men brought their wives and family members to the base for Friday’s ceremony, the first time the families have been able to visit the installation.

GTMO’s commanding officer, Navy Capt. J.R. Nettleton, welcomed the retirees and their families at the event.

“I would like to take a moment to recognize some of our special guests. First and foremost, to our retirees and their families, you have given so much to this base and are truly part of the Naval Station Guantanamo Bay family,” Nettleton said. “Your years of dedication and support will always be honored and remembered here.”

The guest speaker, Cuban-born retired Cmdr. Carlos Del Toro, honored the two in his speech.

“It is often the case that the first to achieve success is often the one who receives the recognition. Today we honor two different but equally important individuals. The last of a breed – a duo of hard-working Cuban commuters venturing day-in and dayout, across no-man’s land and through fenced borders to go to work every day,” Del Toro said. “To Mr. Henry and Mr. LaRosa, your distinguished career is cherished by those of us who have come to know you as peers and friends. We wish you wonderful retirement. You’ve earned it. Congratulations. Muchas felicidades.”

Following Del Toro’s speech, Nettleton and Navy Capt. Kevin Head, the commanding officer of Naval Supply Systems Command Fleet Logistics Center Jacksonville, presented Henry and LaRosa with the Meritorious Civilian Service Medal and their retirement certificates. Nettleton then presented the “walking stick” to both men. The passing of the walking stick is a tradition that was started by the commuters in the 1960s, and the walking stick has been passed along to the most senior commuter throughout the years.

These men have not only served as government employees, they have also served as an important conduit for the Special Category Residents, often referred to as “Cuban Exiles,” who fled Cuba in the late 1950s and were permitted to settle on the base. Many of these “exiles” communicate with their family members who remained in Cuba by passing messages and pictures to Henry and LaRosa, who then deliver it to their family members.

Henry began working on the base at the age of 17 and throughout his long and distinguished career held numerous positions to include duplication equipment operator, property supply clerk and stock control clerk before being assigned to his final position as a supply technician. When he officially retires on Dec. 31, Mr. Henry will have served a total of 61 years, eight months and one day to the U.S. Government.

LaRosa began working on the base in 1957 and held numerous positions to include a bodyworker, plumber, sheet metal worker, maintenance man and most notably as a welder. When he officially retires on Dec. 31, he will have served 53 years, 10 months and 10 days to the U.S. Government.

“Retiring is bittersweet,” La Rosa said. “I have a lot of pieces of my life here. My heart is sad about leaving, but I know it is time.”