Visit to Deployed Cutter Underscores Coast Guard’s Global Reach
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
ROTA, Spain, Sept. 22, 2008 Civilian leaders who visited here today had seen the Coast Guard in action in U.S. waterways, patrolling ports and harbors, interdicting drug smugglers, and sometimes conducting heroic search-and-rescue missions as depicted in the movie, “The Guardian.”
So Coast Guard Capt. Robert Wagner, commander of Coast Guard Cutter Dallas, greeted Joint Civilian Orientation Conference participants here today with the rhetorical question he knew all had on their minds: “What is the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Dallas doing in Rota, Spain?”
In addition to its historic role protecting U.S. coastlines from external threats while promoting safe navigation, the Coast Guard has had a little-known or -understood role supporting U.S. combatant commanders overseas for the past 15 years, Wagner told the group.
“We are an armed force of the military at all times, and our missions are global,” he said. “U.S. interests don’t stop at our borders, so the Coast Guard pretty much hits all seven continents.”
Since leaving its home port of Charleston, S.C., this summer, the 378-foot USCGC Dallas has demonstrated the broad scope of the Coast Guard mission and the way it works cooperatively with the U.S. military to advance U.S. interests.
The 170-member crew, most half the age of the 41-year-old vessel that saw duty in Vietnam, first traveled to West and Central Africa to support U.S. Naval Forces Europe’s Africa Partnership Station, Wagner said.
This initiative aims to build partnerships with regional militaries to help them build capacity to improve maritime safety and security in the region.
The crew visited several African nations and participated in the first collaborative at-sea exercise between U.S. and Equatorial Guinean naval assets in decades, Wagner told the group. The Coast Guardsmen shared their expertise in search-and-rescue procedures, boarding, search and seizure techniques, counterterrorism operations and other operations.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Les Swert, a gunner’s mate with two and a half years in the Coast Guard, recalled the gratification he found teaching the Cape Verdean Coast Guard how to conduct interdiction operations.
“It was great. Their crew came on our boat, and we did joint boardings from our boat, but under their authority because it was their country,” he said. “It was good training, and they pulled a lot of good out of it.”
But Dallas’ higher-profile mission came later in the deployment, when it delivered humanitarian assistance to the Georgian city of Batumi in late August after Russia invaded Georgia earlier that month.
Dallas delivered 76,000 pounds of food, milk, juices and hygiene items as part of Operation Assured Delivery, the U.S. military’s support to the Georgian government’s request for help.
Wagner recalled what it felt like to be the only ship supporting the operation, with a draft that enabled it to pull directly into port to offload its 80 pallets of cargo. “It was clearly one of the highlights of the deployment,” he said.
“Being greeted by crowds of Georgians, all so happy that we were there, felt really great,” he said. “We became the faces of America, representing all those people who donated those supplies and reached out to offer help.”
Petty Officer 3rd Class Chad Hermann, an electronics technician who spent four years in the Navy before joining the Coast Guard, remembered the thrill of seeing people on the piers waving the U.S. flag as well as the Georgian flag as the Dallas approached. “You couldn’t help but feel really good about that we were to help them,” he said.
“It gives you a lot of pride being out there doing what we did,” agreed Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew Boscarillo, a fellow electronics technician. “I mean, who doesn’t want to help people?”
For the Dallas crew, the mission brought an unaccustomed level of exposure. They watched live TV broadcasts of their ship as it pulled into port. “It was real-time news, and the ship and the crew were in the thick of it,” Wagner said.
After seeing TV images of Wagner greeting the cheering Georgians, Petty Officer 2nd Class Brandon Pritchett later teased his commander that he’d become a rock star. “He told me, ‘No, you are all the rock stars,’” Pritchett said.
Public interest in the Dallas and its humanitarian mission went beyond TV news. Internet searches using the terms “Coast Guard” and “Georgia” spiked. Blogs started batting around quips about a misguided navigator landing his Coast Guard vessel in Georgia.
“It just shows you that most Americans really don’t appreciate the global role of the Coast Guard,” Wagner told the JCOC participants. “We really do protect America’s interests everywhere around the world.”
The civilians got insight into how the Coast Guard carries out its diverse roles as they toured the ship, watched a demonstration of law-enforcement tactics the crew uses and learned how they train to respond to a fire or other onboard emergency. They took every chance they got to chat with the crew about their jobs and their experience in the Coast Guard.
John Sullivan, group publisher and chief executive for Atlantic Media Co., said he was impressed with the caliber of the “kids” he met aboard Dallas. “They all seem to have really found themselves, and it’s obvious that they’re really proud of what they do,” he said.
A highlight for many in the group was a zip around the harbor in an “over-the-horizon,” rigid-hulled inflatable boat used to pursue high-speed vessels. They suited up in life vests and helmets, getting a sense of the boat’s speed and handling abilities as it banked into curves at speeds up to 45 miles an hour. Sky Dayton, founder of Earthlink, was one of the braver participants who accepted an offer to take the controls.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Ray Bryant, Dallas’ head mechanic, called the JCOC visit a great opportunity to increase awareness about the Coast Guard’s diverse roles. “A lot of people don’t know what we do, period,” he said. “We work far beyond U.S. borders, and we are truly ‘multitaskable.’”
The message resonated with the civilian leaders.
“I had no idea of the breath of activities the Coast Guard is engaged in,” said Nancy Hawthorne, chief executive officer for the Clerestory advisory firm in Boston. “When you think of the Coast Guard, you think of the guys who do rescues. … I didn’t realize that they play such a big role in national defense.”
The group’s visit to USCG Dallas was the second stop in a week-long trip to military activities throughout U.S. European Command. Yesterday, the group visited USS Iwo Jima off the coast of Crete.
The first U.S. defense secretary, James V. Forrestal, created the JCOC program in 1948 to introduce civilian "movers and shakers" with little or no military exposure to the workings of the armed forces. Nearly six decades later, it remains DoD's premier civic leader program.