Two oil platforms in the northern Arabian Gulf generate the majority of Iraq’s revenue and are the shipping point for a significant portion of the world’s oil. In 2004, terrorists attempted to attack one platform, but coalition forces deterred them. Today the U.S. Coast Guard provides maritime security for these terminals, which some call the “crown jewels.”
Command Master Chief Jim Sirois called from Bahrain and spoke with Tribune correspondent MyLinh Shattan recently. Sirois’ home is in Rhode Island, and he looks forward to seeing his wife and his youngest child’s graduation from high school next year. With 25 years of service, he shared his thoughts on the U.S. Coast Guard’s often-overlooked role in the war on terror.
Tell us about your assignment. I’m the assistant engineer officer and command master chief for Coast Guard forces, Southwest Asia. The main job I do is coordinate major maintenance for Coast Guard patrol boats. I’m second in charge, working with 37 people like welders, electricians, mechanics, trying to make sure the ships are kept in the highest possible means of readiness.
I’m similar to a command sergeant major in the Army. I’m career counselor and confidant. I’m down on the pier whenever a crew goes out. I see everyone, shake hands, wish them a safe trip. My rule of thumb is that on my watch, everyone gets home safe. No one goes home in a box.
What’s the Coast Guard mission there? Our mission is to secure the two main oil platforms in the Arabian Gulf. The Coast Guard has always been excellent in “brown water” or shallow water operations. The patrol craft here don’t draw as much water and draft. We have a lot more maneuverability, a lot more response time, and we can get into the areas that larger ships can’t because of their draft. We work well with the Navy. They have certain patrol craft that are similar to our patrol boats.
We have six 110-foot patrol boats over here and 150-200 people in theater on board ships and shoreside. That includes assigned tactical law enforcement detachments from California or Florida that help with boardings and training the Iraqi marine units. We’re 100 percent volunteers – no one told us to come out. And there are men and women.
Why do you conduct boardings? We do a lot of security boardings on boats. It could be a cargo, container ship or just a tanker, and we need to conduct security sweeps. We get the crew in one area and sweep the boats to see if there’s any contraband, stowaways, goods, weapons – anything illegal. A lot involves the local fishing fleet on boats called dhows.
How do you deter criminal activity in the region known as “Ali Baba”? Most of it is “overt presence” like that police officer on the side of the road, holding the radar gun. It keeps people honest. It’s one of our strengths – we’re always there.
The cutters responded a couple times to an incident on the radios; people trying to push the envelope, like the fisherman that’s going along and crosses into the patrol area. They get too close to the security region, so we respond. People have done it on purpose to see how close or how far they can push this. They realize they can’t, so they back off.
What’s life like on the boat? The crews, 19 to 22 people, spend a year on the 110-foot boats. When they pull in, we go on board and augment and take care of 90 percent of any type of maintenance. That’s how we give them a break. About every five days they’re pulling into Kuwait to take on fuel and stowage. They’ll have a night where the boat’s not moving or beating the heck out of ’em, and they’ll get a good night’s sleep. A lot of times that’s the only rest they’ve seen. They’ll do 16-, 20-hour days as common practice.
Picture a 110-foot aluminum boat. The majority of what’s there is for operations, and you’re with 21 other people, shoulder to shoulder for a month at a time, living, eating, sleeping, everything with these people. Either you get really, really close, or if you don’t like other people around, if you’re claustrophobic, it’s not the job for you.
They come back with that thousand-yard stare of just being totally exhausted. But believe it or not, that makes time go faster. They’re doing three-, four-week trips, and every time they come back in, that’s one month down. One month closer to going home.
Does Iraq have a Coast Guard? Right now they have some small patrol craft, mostly on rivers. But 95 percent is coalition forces, the Aussies, Brits out there.
How’s Iraqi training? We have one facility here and are finishing a facility where they have a lot of different containers to practice entrance techniques and tactics in the small confines of a ship. The one in Bahrain we use to train ourselves. The one in Iraq, the Iraqi marines and their forces can practice tactics and techniques. Hopefully in the near future, I’ll be able to see the first graduating [Iraqi] class from our new facility.
[Iraqis and our Coast Guard] train together. They see how we operate. They’re always absolutely willing to learn, wanting to do the right thing, wanting to take over. They’re very enthusiastic.
When can Iraq assume the Coast Guard role? Just like anything else, that’s our ultimate goal, saying, “Hey, you’ve got it,” and then hand over the baton to continue on the fight for their independence.
Unofficially, as me personally, it’s going well – hoping within the next five years. I hope it happens a lot sooner.
What’s the reaction from the locals? When they’re out fishing, doing their work, they see us doing boardings, our overt presence. They actually feel safer from any type of illegal activity where someone might come on board, steal their goods, fish. It’s like a double-edged sword: “I’m getting boarded, but as long as I’m close to them, nobody’s going to come and mess with me.”
I’ve heard a term in the past about shoreside support: We’re the storm before the calm. We’re the ones behind the scenes, taking care of what needs to be done.
Tribune correspondent MyLinh Shattan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.