By Donna Miles
MANAMA, Bahrain, Oct. 17, 2006 – The U.S. Coast Guard here is playing a vital role supporting the Iraqi government as it protects Iraq's offshore oil terminals and maintains waterway security in the region, Coast Guard men here told visiting civilian leaders today. About 45 civilian leaders kicked off a whirlwind visit to U.S. military sites throughout the Middle East with a crash course in the U.S. Coast Guard mission here and its implications for Iraq and the region.
The business, civic and academic leaders are participating in the Defense Department's Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, a program that introduces civilian "movers and shakers" to see military operations and meet the people who carry them out.
Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Richard Burke, executive officer for Patrol Forces Southwest Asia, told the group that about 250 Coast Guardsmen deployed here are playing a vital role in protecting Iraq's offshore oil terminals in the North Arabian Sea.
Two terminals, Kwhar al Amayi and Al Basrah, referred to as "Kaabot" and "Aanbot," respectively, provide more than 90 percent of the country's gross national product, Burke told the group. "These oil terminals ensure Iraq's future, so it's imperative that they continue to operate," he said.
The JCOC participants climbed aboard Coast Guard Cutter Wrangell, one of the six 110-foot patrol boats deployed here to enforce the protection zone around the oil terminals. Twenty-two crewmembers assigned to the vessel squeeze into a space typically configured for a crew of 16 and run patrols that range between two weeks and a month.
"We're here to handle any threats to the oil platforms," said Lt. Willie Carmichael, the Wrangell's captain. "You definitely have to put safeguards to ensure the safety of these terminals, because they are so important to the country's economy."
Coast Guard patrols maintain a 3,000-meter warning zone around the platforms. When a vessel ventures within the zone, a common practice for fishing dhows with no navigation systems, 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, Burke said.
The cutters also patrol the Arabian Sea, checking for suspicious-looking vessels and boarding them if necessary to prevent illicit materials from passing through. These maritime interdiction operations more closely represent the law enforcement work Coast Guardsmen are known for in the United States, Carmichael said.
In addition to showing off their cutter, the Coast Guardsmen demonstrated some of the techniques they use when the crew of a questionable vessel refuses them permission to board, then offered the JCOC participants an opportunity to try them out themselves.
Carmichael explained the quick decision-making Coast Guard patrols go through when they encounter a suspicious vessel. "They have to make a split-second decision: Is there a hostile intent? Should they engage?" he said. "People here have a lot of responsibility."
All Coast Guardsmen here recall a 2004 incident when terrorists aboard a vessel blew themselves up as a Navy patrol boat approached. In the process, the terrorists left several sailors and a Coast Guardsman dead. "So the threat is definitely there," Carmichael said.
Petty Officer 1st Class Brett Stewart, a ship's cook, said he volunteered for duty here because it's such a unique experience for a Coast Guardsman. The missions are demanding and the operating tempo high, "but it's very rewarding over here," Stewart said. "We do the same job, day in and day out, but every day we do it a little better than the day before. There's a lot of job satisfaction here."
Carmichael told group members a one-year tour here gives his crew as much experience as they'd get during a typical three-year assignment. "We all get pretty seasoned," he said.
The Coast Guardsmen here all volunteered for the mission here, and most said they consider it a once-in-a-lifetime experience. "It's an opportunity to learn new techniques and see the other side of the Coast Guard," Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Payne, an electrician's mate, told the civilian leaders.
Many JCOC participants said they never realized how much of an impact the Coast Guard is making in the Middle East. "I had no idea what the Coast Guard was doing here," said Heide Richards, founder and chief executive officer of Women's Ecommerce Association in Miramar, Fla.
"It makes you proud to be an American, because you see the pride they take," she said. "You can see it in their eyes when they talk about their jobs."
Dick Stevens, owner of Telecommunications Business in Bethlehem, Pa., said today's visit gave him a better appreciation of the broad range of missions the Coast Guard conducts, not just in the United States, but elsewhere in the world. "Here they are with a force about the same size as the New York Police Department, and they are everywhere!" he said. "It's pretty remarkable. This is terrific stuff."
Richards and Stevens are among qmong about 45 JCOC participants from around the country traveling through the U.S. Central Command region this week. The Defense Department started the JCOC program in 1948 to help educate civilian leaders about the military.