Fifty Years and Counting at Diego Garcia

Fifty Years and Counting at Diego Garcia

Predictably, festivities marking the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Naval base on Diego Garcia focused on the base’s strategic importance instead of its controversial past.

“For 50 years, the Master-at-Arms rate has upheld a tradition of high standards of conduct, courtesy, and military excellence,” said Master-at-Arms 1st Class Andrew Bourdier, president of the MA ball committee, during the opening ceremony of the MA ball. “Today, the Master-at-Arms rate boasts over 10,000 brave men and women from E-1 to E-9 who continue to uphold the same virtues and high standards as our forebears did 50 years ago.”

According to the Department of the Navy MA rating information card, Master-at-Arms are security specialists who perform antiterrorism, force protection, physical security, and law enforcement duties on land and at sea. They may operate a force-protection watercraft, direct an investigation, control a base access point, or supervise a K9 asset.

“One of the most important things about tonight’s ceremony is learning about what makes the MA rate a family,” said Master-at-Arms Seaman Apprentice Gabriella Bomjardim, assigned to NSF Diego Garcia. “Being an MA allows me the opportunity to protect my family.”

The Chagos Islands

Seamen definitely were not the first people on Diego Garcia. That distinction probably belongs to Chagos islanders. 

No one really knows where the first Chagos Islanders came from. Most likely, they were the descendants of lost or shipwrecked Maldivians. The Portuguese visited the area around 1520 and named the islands Bassas de Chagas, or the crucifixion-related wounds of Christ. The locals eked out a living by raising coconuts and fishing. Since the archipelago had little strategic or economic value, at least back then, the Portuguese never incorporated the islands into their empire.

The French arrived between the late 1600s and early 1700s. They settled the nearby islands of Isle de France (modern-day Mauritius) and Isle Bourbon (Reunion) and claimed the Chagos as part of the French empire. Once again, because the islands had limited value, no one really cared.

In 1814, following Napoleon’s initial defeat, the French ceded all these territories to Great Britain. Mauritius, which was also a British colony, administered the Chagos on behalf of the Crown.

Then, along came the Cold War, and pretty much everything changed in this region. Between the end of World War II and the mid-1960s, European powers pulled out of most of their African and Asian colonies. In the early 1960s, the British began negotiating their departure from Mauritius. Just before the Union Jack stopped flying, the British stripped the Chagos Islands from Mauritius and moved it into the BIOT (British Indian Ocean Territory). The Brits bought existing coconut plantations on Diego Garcia and leased them to the United States, which planned to build a military base on the island. The American lease on Diego Garcia is set to expire in 2036.

Normally, military bases are good for locals because they pump money into the local economy. But that was not the case this time. Between 1967 and 1973, the British and Americans, mostly the British, forcibly relocated Chagos natives to the Seychelles and Mauritius. 

Much later, in 2021, the United Nations ruled that the UK illegally removed the Chagos Islands from Mauritius. The two countries are currently negotiating a handover. No one is sure what that transfer means to the U.S. servicemembers and contractors on Diego Garcia.

What Contractors Do on Diego Garcia

In 1723 and 1823, Diego Garcia was almost literally in the middle of nowhere. In 2023, it is in a vital strategic area. The base is about 4,300 miles from Beijing. That is a long flight but well within the range of modern bombers. Diego Garcia is even closer to Southwest Asian hot spots like Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, the Americans used the military base as a staging area during these wars.

Bombers and other advanced aircraft cannot stay aloft forever. Many of the runways, hangers, and other military facilities on Diego Garcia date back to the Cold War. Therefore, most of the contractors in Diego Garcia are construction contractors. Runways need lengthening, harbor facilities need updating, and the list goes on. Every year, the DoD deploys bigger and faster airplanes, which means these facilities must be updated yet again.

Other Diego Garcia contractors are morale officers. Strategically speaking, this island is in the middle of the action. For most other purposes, it is still in the middle of nowhere. Contractors and servicemembers often get lonely and depressed, especially since this island is pretty quiet most of the time. 

Morale officers plan events that make deployment at an isolated place like Diego Garcia a little more bearable. Additionally, highly-trained morale officers know how to spot the early signs of depression and other illnesses. If doctors get ahead of these problems, they are much easier to treat.

There is some overlap between these two areas. While they update military facilities, construction contractors also update barracks and other such facilities. No one wants to live in facilities that were barely good enough for their fathers.

Moreover, almost literally everything and everyone who comes onto or leaves this island uses a ship or plane. So, there is a high demand for longshoremen. This occupation is dangerous enough in the United States. It is even more hazardous when the victim is literally thousands of miles from the nearest large medical facility.

Injury Compensation Available

The pay contractors in Diego Garcia earn barely compensates them not only for their labor but also for the isolation they feel. So, when they are injured, wage replacement is an important benefit. Additionally, their families back home usually count on the wages they earn. So, the Defense Base Act replaces lost wages in several ways, as follows:

  • Temporary Total Disability: Most injured contractors have TTD injuries. They can return to work full-time as soon as they recover from their injuries. In these situations, the Defense Base Act usually pays two-thirds of their average weekly wage for the duration of their disabilities.
  • Temporary Partial Disability: Some victims can work as they recover. However, they must reduce their hours or accept a light-duty assignment. To fill in the gap, the DBA pays two-thirds of the difference between their old and new wages. Once again, this benefit usually lasts as long as the temporary disability lasts.
  • Permanent Total Disability: Sometimes, an illness or injury is so severe that, based on the victim’s educational, vocational, and other background, the victim cannot work again. If that’s the case, the DBA usually pays a sum of money to compensate the victim and the family for this loss.
  • Permanent Partial Disability: Frequently, injuries never fully heal and illnesses are never cured. So, the DBA compensates victims for the loss of function or use. The amount usually depends on the nature and extent of the loss, as well as the victim’s average weekly wage.

The AWW not only includes regular cash compensation. It also includes irregular or non-cash compensation, like performance bonuses and housing allowance.

To learn more about DBA procedure, contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A.