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Coast Guard Role Changes with War on Terrorism - 2003-06-08

The events of September 11, 2001, profoundly influenced the ways the U.S. government works to keep its citizens secure from terrorist attacks. One key player in the current effort is the United States Coast Guard, a military branch established in 1790.

Until recently, when it joined the newly created Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard was focused more on sea rescues and drug enforcement than on anti-terrorism surveillance and interdiction. But all that has changed.

It is 1300 hours, and at Air Station Cape Cod, a thick ocean fog is gathering on the airstrip, almost obscuring the red and white Jay Hawk Helicopter just 15 meters away. Visibility is only one of several factors Coast Guard Petty Officer Joseph Rogers considers as he prepares for a routine airborne patrol down the Atlantic coast toward New York City, about 300 kilometers to the southwest. Mr. Rogers is the four-man crew's aviation survival technician. In addition to his emergency medical training, he is also a deep-sea rescue swimmer. Both are valued skills in the Coast Guard, which routinely performs search and rescue missions in hazardous ocean waters.

In contrast to the other military branches, the Coast Guard has been best known for its humanitarian, rather than its military, role. But Mr. Rogers says that that emphasis has shifted since September Eleventh 2001. "Now we are doing Homeland Security flights. We are keeping track of folks coming in and out of harbors," he says. "We are obviously going to patrol more higher interest areas, ports and just anything that we think would be of interest to the terrorists or that we think would be a threat if somebody were to do something to it. But I think we still try to remember our roots, that we are search and rescue. Especially here at the Air Station. You've got to kind of be ready to respond in both situations…. But our guard is definitely up now."

Even on base, there is a new wariness usually associated with other military branches such as the Army, Navy or Marines. Until 9-11, Coast Guard bases were accessible to the general public.

Today, high perimeter fences surround Air Station Cape Cod, and the 2,000 or so residents of the base must show their identification at fortified gates manned by Guardsmen with rifles drawn. Visitors' cars are randomly, but routinely, searched.

No one better understands the competing challenges facing today's Coast Guard than David Brimblecom, the commander of Air Station Cape Cod. Captain Brimblecom must oversee jet and helicopter patrols over the entire coastline and some inland areas between Maine and southern New Jersey, an area exceeding 1.5 million square kilometers. "It's a big area," he says.

While it is a key part of the Coast Guard's role to protect the coast and to keep enemy vessels from entering or endangering American ports, the Guard must also ensure the smooth and secure flow of commerce along U.S. waterways. Watching as the helicopter crew makes final preparations for takeoff, Captain Brimblecom explains the dilemma. "It is an intense mission. It's difficult in that there is so much coastline around the country. We could blockade every port and keep boats out, until we inspected every inch of every container, but there would be a line of ships many miles long and commerce would not flow and certainly the economy would suffer. So it's a difficult balance to deal with. AP: Tell me: how do you achieve that balance? What goes into your calculations to know when "enough" is "as much as you can hope for?" DB: We rely on a lot of intelligence agency information on the vessel. We will put a vessel in a category of whether it's of high interest or not. And that may depend on several factors, like its last port of call, what its cargo might be, [and] certainly information on all of the crew. That determines largely whether a vessel is boarded or whether it's intercepted or the level of scrutiny that goes into it," he says.

Everyone on this crew - pilot, co-pilot, survival specialist and mechanic - is highly trained to distinguish between scores of different vessel types from the air, often with nothing more to go on than a distant fog-enshrouded silhouette. They use radar, of course, and they've been adopting new technology at a quickening pace since September 11. But for many Guardsmen, the mission has become very personal.

Lieutenant Chris Klukuhn, our helicopter patrol commander today, flew the first Coast Guard helicopter to Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks. Before the attacks, those two immense towers had always been an inspiring landmark for his crew. But on that night, they were gone. "I tell you, it felt like somebody punched us in the chest. All we saw were the columns of smoke. We smelled the acrid smoke as we flew by there. It was deathly silent. Debris everywhere. It looked like all of Manhattan had been blown up. It definitely seared my soul," he says. "Everyone in law enforcement, everyone in the Coast Guard has been working significantly harder to make sure we are defending the homeland, and closing up gaps that may have existed before."

The doors slide closed, and the ground crewman gives Lieutenant Klukuhn the famous thumbs up signal to ascend and begin the patrol down the coast. And just as on other Coast Guard patrols, everyone here hopes that they will find nothing amiss and that they'll be prepared if they do.