By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
April 17, 2009 - It's tempting to want to scoop up a handful of sand to take home as a souvenir after deploying to Iraq, or maybe a rock from the mountains in Afghanistan.
But deployed troops who do so can find themselves sidelined in their journey home by the Navy. The Navy provides more than 400 sailors who act as U.S. customs agents at the Theater Gateway – the military group in Kuwait charged with getting troops and goods in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan. It is the last stop for thousands of troops leaving the combat zones before returning home on leave or at the end of their deployments.
The unit's job is to stop restricted and prohibited items, as defined by U.S Department of Agriculture and the Customs and Border Protection Agency, from entering the United States. They inspect troops and civilians who are traveling on military contracted flights back to the United States, along with their bags.
Horror stories circulate throughout the theater about the rigors of the inspection, and the embarrassment of having all of your personal belongings dumped onto a table and rifled through. But the truth is, according to many, that it's simply not as bad as it's rumored to be.
"[Several troops] had heard all of the horror stories and the nightmares about it, and it wasn't anything like they thought it would be," said Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Larry Chambers, the master-at-arms for the unit. "I don't think our goal is to keep people from getting home. It's to get them home."
The battalion of sailors is made up of Navy reservists on eight-month deployments, and most are cargo-handling specialists. The sailors are qualified as customs border clearing agents and certified by U.S. Customs training before deploying. They also receive more training once they reach the Theater Gateway.
While the main mission is to prevent unwanted items from making it into the United States, the screening process also minimizes the delay of Defense Department personnel at customs here.
The unit can run more than 1,000 troops through in 24 hours, and each inspector can process about five people an hour, depending on how many bags they have.
While the process may not be as painful as some anticipate, it is every bit as thorough.
"We're required to do a 100-percent inspection, and we go into all the nooks and crannies. ... We have to check everything," said Navy Chief Warrant Officer Kenneth Helm Jr., an assistant company commander at the unit.
And there are lots of nooks and crannies in uniforms, tactical vests, ammo pouches, belts and shoes.
But it is more the accidentally overlooked item, rather than one intentionally concealed, that is most likely discovered during the process, Helm said.
The troops are briefed three times before they are inspected: first at their unit before going through customs, again when they arrive at the secure customs area, and finally at the table just before inspection.
Amnesty boxes are located throughout the process, allowing the troops to dump anything they realize they shouldn't be carrying. Still, sometimes restricted and prohibited items make it to the table.
The most common item found in a carry-on that should have been packed is a small knife, or multi-tool, that most troops carry, Helm said. Sometimes it is sand, rocks or shells kept as souvenirs. Also common is food, such as fruit, that troops carry to eat during their trip. Sometimes troops try to bring home more exotic souvenirs, such as scorpions or spiders, dead but preserved.
Unit officials say they are more concerned with the intent of the infraction. "It's a matter of concealing something intentionally that really becomes a problem," Chambers said.
Once those traveling are briefed and given the opportunity to get rid of any goods they shouldn't have, they line up at an inspection table. All of their bags are X-rayed and dumped for inspection. They are scanned by a hand-held metal detector.
Most times, if someone being inspected knows something in the bag could cause embarrassment, he or she notifies the inspector. That helps, Chambers said, because the inspector can then be discreet while still performing the inspection.
"[The inspectors] don't bring any attention to it. [They] don't make it a big deal," Chambers said.
After the inspections, the troops and their carry-ons pass through another metal detection and X-ray process and are sent to a "sterile" area to wait for the bus to the airport.
They are greeted there by air conditioning, comfortable leather seats and snacks. They can order pizzas or get a cup of coffee. The intent is to make it as comfortable as possible, Helm said.
"They do an important job, and we like to think that we recognize the job that they've done out there," Helm said. "It's important for people to feel like they're appreciated and recognized for their efforts and they're treated well."
Still, because the customs inspection is the last stop before heading home, and troops have spent hours, or days, traveling to get there, it is not uncommon for tensions to run high. This requires the sailors to keep their cool and stay focused on the inspections.
"Not only do we have to stay focused, but we also have to try to get them to stay focused on the prize, so to speak," Chambers said. "It's just a part of the process to get them out of here and get them home."
Chambers, who is a full-time police officer in his civilian life, said he understands that people are not always happy to see him. But it's important to treat them with respect, and not to aggravate the situation or make it worse, he said.
Helm said a little understanding, a kind word and a smile goes a long way to making the process easier.
"You understand that they're tired; it's been a long journey for them," Helm said. "You recognize that up front, and you realize the importance of maintaining a smile on your face, establishing a dialogue with them. Talk about families and things at home.
"It really eases their minds and makes the process go smoothly," he said.
Bringing down the tension not only makes the process more pleasant, but also makes it more efficient, Chambers said.
"To do the opposite is far less efficient," he said. "Things take longer, cause people stress, and it takes more energy to get things done."