Photo © Tom Sperduto, USCG
The Good Guys
What it was like to be in Iraq with the men and women
of the U.S. Coast Guard.
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?"
Describing the night I spent on MAYBOT may help explain. It commenced soon after I finished examining the Iraqi coastline from my vantagepoint by the generator. Having put in most of the day roaming the terminal's hodgepodge of rusted pipes and bullet-riddled walkways, a leftover from the war with Iran during the 1980's, I was hungry and tired. So I hit the first-floor mess hall, tore open an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat), and devoured it with characteristic fervor. Then, after shooting the breeze with my Coastie hosts for a while, I trundled three flights up to bed.
My room had only recently been occupied by Iraqi troops. Junk was strewn about. Smelly lockers lined one wall and smelly bunks the other. A dirty window at the far end rattled in the gritty wind and shed a spooky glow over the "facilities"--an old-fashioned French-style bit of plumbing with a bucket of questionable water nearby. The lock on the door had been blown away with a shotgun.
"I hope you'll be okay in here," said Lieutenant Commander Jim Howatson, MAYBOT's head honcho and, in another life, a Tacoma city police captain. Handing me a plastic poncho to serve as both sheet and blanket, he solicitously straightened a dirty rag on the floor--a sort of rug in Howatson's mind, apparently. It was a strange yet thoughtful gesture which was entirely characteristic of him. Earlier Howatson had shown me a grimy storeroom absurdly stacked with boxes of fine china. "I assume these dishes belong to someone," he'd explained. "So I'm taking the same approach I do to police work back home--I'm protecting private property."
I lay awake a long time after Howatson left. A thunder and lightning storm that was just cranking up probably had something to do with my sleeplessness. Besides casting eerie shadows across the piles of Iraqi gas masks and rucksacks in the corner, it was a not-so-subtle reminder of the way things were all around me.
There was a war going on. A raft of firing positions were set up around the terminal, each bristling with machine guns, each crewed by hometown Americans. And these folks were, at the moment, sitting in the rain, peering into the murk, looking and listening for "suicide boats," among other things, like the one that had just been found upriver, loaded to the gunnels with explosives and ringed with strings of contact-actuated detonators, Christmas-tree style. Of course, there was nothing I could do about such grim realities, so I attempted to think of other things, things I'd seen over the past several days, things I hoped would help me begin to grasp the Coast Guard's role here.
I started with the prisoners. MAYBOT had been the first thing captured in the war. Navy SEALs had taken it, quickly and with little resistance. Although the Iraqis onboard had reportedly been charged with blowing up the terminal and rupturing its pipelines in the event of an American assault, they'd surrendered instead. "There was a major with them," Howatson had explained in the mess hall earlier, "and he decided to disobey orders--he wanted to prevent an environmental catastrophe and preserve the terminal for the future of Iraq."
It fell to the Coasties, who arrived on the heels of the SEALs, to guard the POWs, some 40 of them, for a few days until they could be taken south to a Navy hospital ship. Most of the them were mere boys, 17 or 18 years old, half-starved and terrified.
"I rendered medical care right away," said health specialist Ben Mulkey of Portland, Oregon. "Gave `em MREs, candy, and cigarettes. Everybody got an IV, too--they were all pretty dehydrated. They kept saying thank you and shaking my hand."
Laying in my bunk, wrapped in the same kind of poncho I'd used as an infantryman in Vietnam, it was easy to empathize with a teenage Iraqi soldier lying in the same spot, wondering whether he'd live to see his next meal. And it was also easy to understand the relief he'd likely felt upon meeting Doc Mulkey for the first time.
At one o'clock, I got up and went to the window to peer into the darkness. The Boutwell was out there...somewhere. I'd spent a few days aboard her as well. She was a happy ship with a crew of youngsters headed up by a tough but fatherly captain, Scott Genovese of Boston. "The amazing thing is that most of the crew on here now--they're just kids, really," he told me one evening as we stood on the bridge. "But they're worthy of our nation's pride and respect. Big time!"
Besides running interference for MAYBOT, the Boutwell had been ordered to keep tabs on fishing boats and freighters at the mouths of the rivers, the point being to interdict Al-Qaeda operatives and fleeing Iraqi leadership without causing a ruckus with Iran, a neutral neighbor understandably skittish about having tons of U.S. military right next door.
I went along on a boarding with Ensign Brian Bartlett and a thoroughly armed but tactful boarding team. The objective: to check out an Iranian freighter just leaving the Shatt al-Arab. Our transportation: a Yanmar-powered Zodiac RIB that topped out around 40 mph.
The experience was typical of most, I was told. Bartlett was affable from the first, waving the freighter down with a smile. M-16s were left bracketed on the radar arch, and so was the sawed-off shotgun. Beretta pistols remained holstered. The freighter labored along like an old, heavily laden pack animal as we pulled alongside. Although an underlying tension did exist--a sense that literally anything could happen--everything was cool. The freighter's crew was all smiles, and the captain had the correct documents. "Goodbye," Bartlett grinned as we zoomed away at last, leaving behind several Iranian nationals who seemed sold on Americans, or at least on the American Coast Guard.
As I lay beneath my poncho, continuing to try to fall asleep, one last thing occurred to me: an encounter I'd had some days before with the thoroughly English captain of the British frigate HMS Chatham, Michael Cochrane, sector commander for operations involving both the Boutwell and MAYBOT. Cochrane had been both comedic and incisive.
"Power & Motoryacht, eh?" he smiled, while sipping tea in his sitting room. "Yes. Yes. I have a rather large motoryacht here myself. Shall we see what she'll do?"
We virtually raced each other to the bridge. Thereupon Cochrane directed his crew to fire up all four of the ship's Rolls Royce jet turbines and, once they were properly on-line, ordered "full speed ahead" with a flourish. The sense of acceleration that ensued was tremendous, considering the 5,000-ton, 450-foot ship, loaded with artillery, rockets, and Lynx attack helicopters, did zero to wide-open throttle (about 26 knots, as I recall) in just under two minutes. "Right-o," Cochrane admonished finally. "Time to stop now...wasting the Queen's money and all that."
But it was the man's next comment, which promptly turned our interview toward a more serious vein, that really put things into perspective. "You know," he said, looking towards a gaggle of fishing dhows (lateen-rigged Arab motorsailers) coming down from the Shatt al-Arab, "if we're not careful, these people will come to hate us. That's one reason why the Coast Guard's so useful here."
"I'm not sure I quite understand what you mean," I queried.
"Well," Cochrane replied, "white hulls are much less threatening than ominously gray ones, if you get my drift."
"So the Coast Guard," I concluded, following his line of thought while looking off towards the dhows myself, "they're the good guys."
This article originally appeared in the May 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.