Civilian Leaders See Coast Guard Contributions in Iraq, Persian Gulf

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

MANAMA, Bahrain, April 27, 2006  - Civilian leaders got an introduction here today to one of the least-recognized success stories in the Middle East: how the U.S. Coast Guard is helping keep Iraq's offshore oil terminals operating and training Iraq's new marine force to maintain port and waterway security in the region.

Civilian business, civic and academic leaders participating in the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference got a crash course today in this vital Coast Guard mission and its implications for the new Iraq and the region.

With just 220 members deployed here as the Coast Guard's only full expeditionary mission, U.S. Coast Guard Patrol Forces Southwest Asia are making critical contributions to long-term security in the region, Commodore Daniel McClellan, the unit's commander, told the JCOC participants.

The implications of keeping Iraq's offshore oil terminals operating are huge for the country's future, McClellan explained. Two terminals, Kaabot and Aanbot, provide the lion's share of income to the new Iraqi government, he explained.

"Hope alone doesn't feed a nation or build a school system," McClellan told the group. "But money does."

By protecting Iraq's oil supplies, the Coast Guardsmen are helping ensure the Iraqi government is able to make good on its promises to the Iraqi people, he said. "It translates to hope and the reality of an opportunity for a brighter Iraqi future," he said.

JCOC participants toured two of the six 110-foot patrol boats the Coast Guard uses to perform its missions here, Coast Guard Cutter Aquidneck and CGC Adak. Lt. j.g. Ben Spector, Aquidneck's executive officer, described challenges the crews face during their three-week patrols.

"Every day is a little different," he said. "It can be very quiet, especially if the weather is bad. But in the summer, when the fishing traffic picks up, there's usually a lot of activity."

Fishing dhow crews operate as close to the platforms as they can, because that's where they typically catch the most fish. But because these vessels often have no navigation systems, their crews often don't realize when they've ventured within the 3,000-meter warning zone around the oil platforms, Spector explained.

Coast Guard patrols respond by sounding their ship's whistle and sending other warnings to keep boats out of the mandatory 2,000-meter exclusion zone, he said.

"It can be exciting late at night when a fishing dhow goes barreling toward the terminal, he said. The patrol boats rev up their engines and move in at speeds up to 30 knots to divert them.

"You really have to stay on your toes," Spector said of the missions.

Sometimes Iranian boats approach the patrol boats through the still-disputed Iranian-Iraqi maritime borders. "They'll come up to us and sometimes take pictures of us, but we don't show any aggression toward them," Spector said.

The Coast Guardsmen also patrol the Persian Gulf, checking for suspicious-looking vessels and prepared to board them if necessary to prevent illicit materials from passing through.

They demonstrated some of the techniques they use when a questionable crew refuses to allow the patrols to board, then offered the JCOC participants an opportunity to try them out themselves. The civilians got a chance to clear spaces to check for hazardous materials, fire "soft air" pellets at suspected insurgents, and use battering rams to breach spaces within the training site.

"These skills don't come overnight, but with a lot of practice, they'd get to the point where they're smooth like these guys," Lt. Glenn Glaman, weapons officer for the Coast Guard Patrol Forces Southwest Asia Training Compound, said of his boarding teams.

In addition to protecting Iraq's oil platforms and conducting maritime interceptions, the Coast Guardsmen are also training Iraq's marines to prepare them to take over the oil terminal and waterway protection missions themselves.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Richard Antonucci, a training instructor, said he was impressed by Iraqis' motivation to learn and take responsibility for their own security. "They're willing, and they want to do it. You can see that they want their country to thrive," he said. "That's what gives me motivation."

The Coast Guardsmen here all volunteered for the mission, despite having to endure a yearlong separation from their families.

"I jumped at the chance," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Ben Bellucci, a medic for U.S. Coast Guard Patrol Forces Southwest Asia who said the Coast Guard is uniquely suited for the mission here. "The Coast Guard has been doing this for hundreds of years," he said. "We really know the ways of the sea and how to employ law enforcement into a wartime situation."

The Coast Guardsmen agreed there's a lot of gratification in serving here.

"I wanted a new challenge," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Travis Mills, a boatswain's mate. "It's a lot faster paced here than in the states, and we've done things that not a lot of people are going to get to do in their lifetime."

"Especially in our branch of the service," agreed Petty Officer 1st Class Terry Reed, a deck force supervisor.

Reed called volunteering to serve here "the right thing to do," not just for Iraq, but also for the United States. "I have a wife and kids at home, and I want them to be safe," he said. "That's why I'm here."

The JCOC participants said they never realized the impact the Coast Guard is making in the Middle East.

"I had no idea that they were protecting Iraqi oil terminals," said Bruce Simon, president of Omaha Steaks, based in Omaha, Neb. "What I saw today were some extraordinarily motivated men and women who are all volunteers, working under unbelievably difficult conditions."

Cathy Ann Paige, vice president of Manpower Inc.'s Northeast U.S. Division, said she was impressed to see the responsibility given to the Coast Guardsmen. "They're empowered at a very young age, and they learn so much and are in charge of so much," she said.

"You can see how dedicated they are to what they do, and they're out there, doing it every day," she said. "You can't help but be impressed."

Paige and Simon are among 47 JCOC participants from around the country traveling through the U.S. Central Command region to see military operations firsthand and meet servicemembers carrying them out.

This weeklong trip is the first to the Middle East since the Defense Department started the program in 1948 to help educate civilian "movers and shakers" about the military.

Related Sites:

U.S. Coast Guard []

U.S. Central Command []

Joint Civilian Orientation Conference []

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