The Good Guys
|The Good Guys|
What it was like to be in Iraq with the men and women of the U. S. Coast Guard.
By Capt. Bill Pike — June 2003
What really blew me away was that all 39 were reservists--men and women, firemen and cops, with a dozen college kids mixed in. From Tacoma, Washington, or thereabouts. With mortgages. Backyard cookouts. PTA meetings. Sunday football on TV. And all the other stuff that goes with being an average American.
Yet here they were smack dab in the middle of a war, Port Security Unit 313 of the U. S. Coast Guard, a relatively recent kind of detachment belonging to a branch of the armed forces that's constantly diversifying these days, adapting to a world increasingly threatened by terrorism and fast, furious wars in far-away places.
They called the spot they were assigned MAYBOT, a suitably apocalyptic-sounding acronym that stands for Mina al-Bakr Oil Terminal. For years Saddam Hussein had used it to get the crude oil of southern Iraq into supertankers and concomitantly boost the wealth of his regime. At one end of the rambling, ramshackle structure, a huge portrait of the dictator hung aloft, symbolically upended now, above the entrance to what the cops among the Coasties called "The Crack House." A multistory living quarters now serving as a barracks, it stank, despite ongoing efforts to disinfect and clean it. And although the Iraqi soldiers who'd lived there were gone, rats, cockroaches, and refuse remained.
I stood by a roaring old Caterpillar generator, below Hussein's portrait, looking north. Beyond the green shallows of the Iraqi coast lay the mouths of two big rivers, the Khawr Abd Allah, descending from the port town of Umm Qasr, and the narrower Shatt al-Arab, which serves the city of Basra. It was in Basra that Hussein's 394-foot yacht Al-Mansur had just been hit by coalition pilots using laser-guided bombs. They'd been aiming for her state-of-the-art communications systems but hadn't minded trashing her oak-paneled staterooms, glass-domed atrium, and mother-of-pearl toilet paper holders, either.
I reflected on a rather pivotal question, the same one that had been repeatedly posed by the folks on the succession of military ships, helicopters, and patrol boats that had brought me here. Why would a guy like me, who works for a magazine like Power & Motoryacht, come to a broken-down, old oil terminal that's perched on the edge of a war?
The answer was simple. PMY is a recreational marine magazine and, like most others, we periodically do stories about the Coast Guard and the contributions it makes to the enjoyment and the safety of recreational boating in the United States. Iraq, at the moment, was the biggest, fattest Coast Guard story ever, and it was, for some strange reason, going largely unreported. More to the point, the fact that there were 650 Coasties--along with four 110-foot patrol boats, a buoy tender, a couple of port security units like the 313th, and the 378-foot cutter Boutwell-- on the firing line here was news to everyone I'd mentioned it to stateside. Most everybody's response had been, "What's the Coast Guard doing in Iraq?"
This article originally appeared in the May 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.