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Staying Ready

Semper Paratus is not just a promise from the Coast Guard to Americans – it’s a promise from the service to its members.

At home, she’s a wife and a youth soccer referee. But in the summer of 2011, as she prepared for her first overseas deployment with the Coast Guard’s Port Security Unit (PSU) 305, Tiffany Foranda demonstrated that she’s also a maritime law enforcement specialist, undergoing pre-deployment training at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Newport News, Va. “I just finished water survival training,” she said. “We practice manning entrance control points – checking IDs and vehicles, making sure everything is safe around the base. Since we’re on shoreside security, we practice shooting firearms, takedowns, handling people in different situations.”

The members of PSU 305 were told that they were headed to the Middle East, to help keep watch over Defense Department personnel and shipping infrastructure. When asked where in the Middle East she was headed, Foranda gave the only answer a member of PSU 305 could give: “I don’t know. But I’m extremely excited.”

The Coast Guard’s eight PSUs have been rotating in and out of places such as Kuwait, Guantanamo Bay, and Iraq. Even among the Coast Guard’s Deployable Specialized Forces, they are unusual. They’re comprised mostly of reservists like Foranda who live their lives apart from the Coast Guard, except for one three-day, intensive training weekend each month. The PSUs are staffed by 140 reservists and six active-duty personnel.

USCG RAID team member

Petty Officer 2nd Class Benjamin J. Kiger, a storekeeper, surveys the landing zone as a U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter lands to transport his team. Kiger, a reservist, is a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Redepoyment Assistance & Inspection Detachment (RAID) team. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. James Cullen

For PSU reservists – law enforcement officers, students, clerks, teachers, construction workers, firefighters, and other professionals, many of them with families – readiness is essential. Units cycle into six-month periods of “go-team” status, which means they’re required to deploy within 96 hours’ notice, either domestically or overseas. Recently, PSU 307, out of Florida, was deployed to assist with recovery after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. “We provide not only port security such as antiterrorism and force protection for facilities and shipping, but humanitarian assistance,” said PSU 305’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Mike Ferullo. “We roll with a full medical unit. I have a physician’s assistant and an independent duty corpsman.” Once in the field, a PSU is expected to be completely self-sufficient for 30 days – its members often spend days eating only Meals, Ready-to-Eat – except for its supplies of fuel and drinking water.

PSU training is intensive. All members attend port security basics school at the Joint Maritime Training Center at Camp Lejeune, N.C.; some attend the Air Force’s Phoenix Raven program for training security forces in the air and on the ground. While the training itself is delivered in a long, intense three-day weekend, it’s a mistake to assume unit members are finished with the Coast Guard once they leave. Maritime Law Enforcement Specialist 1st Class Luis Rivera,  with PSU 305, describes a typical training weekend: “My drill this month started on Friday at 7 a.m. On Saturday and Sunday, my days generally start at about 4:45 a.m., and on Sunday things will probably end at around 7 p.m. Then I’ll go back to work on Monday. But what many people don’t understand is that I’ve worked every day this month for at least a couple of hours, either dealing with Coast Guard-related paperwork or just communicating with troop members, speaking to their family members or just touching base with my division officer or the skipper in my master-at-arms capability, to make sure all of my junior members are taken care of and that everybody is going to be safe and secure.”

Reservists in all branches of the armed forces have been crucial to the surge in overseas personnel required for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Coast Guard has been no exception – it’s not only the expertise of its people, but the service’s placement within the military command structure, that allows a PSU to operate effectively as a security force in the Middle East.

Similarly, the work of Coast Guard Redeployment Assistance Inspection Detachment (RAID) represent a Coast Guard specialty – in this case, ensuring the safety and security of containerized cargo – in a forward-deployed military setting. RAIDs are deployed with the Army’s 595th Transportation Brigade, charged with moving cargo in and out of a war zone, and are within the command structure of the Coast Guard’s Patrol Forces Southwest Asia, or PATFORSWA, based in Bahrain.

As Lt. John E. Bannon, the RAID deputy commander, explained, RAID members do everything Coast Guard inspectors do, with the added complication of being in a war zone: “Our job is to assist with cargo coming back to the states, containerized cargo that will go on a commercial carrier or a Military Sealift Command ship. They’ve got to fulfill all the regulations that a commercial carrier would have to do. So we look at how they segregate the hazardous material, whether or not their containers are seaworthy, as well as a variety of different federal and international regulations.”

As Bannon explained, RAID members are also among the Coast Guard personnel deployed farthest forward in a combat zone. When 38 people, including 30 Americans and 22 Navy SEALS, died after their Chinook helicopter was shot down by Afghan insurgents on Aug. 6, 2011, Bannon said, “We had two guys up in the air and we didn’t know which helicopter they were in. They were in the same location, headed to an operating base in the mountains, in Afghanistan, to inspect containers.” Bannon’s team, composed of 17 active-duty Coast Guard members and 10 reservists, is in the midst of a year-long deployment.


Honor, Respect, and Devotion to Duty

When Rivera of PSU 305 departs for the Middle East, he’ll leave behind his wife, four children, and four grandchildren. Bannon, stationed in Kuwait, has a wife and young children waiting for him in San Diego, Calif. “I’m going to bed when she is waking up,” he said, “and when I call, I hear about how difficult the teething is today.”

How do you stay focused on a mission when you don’t know yet what the mission will be? How do you prepare yourself – and your family – for deployment into a combat zone? Such deployments are never easy, said Ferullo: “I mean, everybody is excited to deploy. We’ve trained for this. We’re ready for what we’ll be doing – but I’m seeing the stress here at home with my family, and I know it’s there for the others. Active duty is hard enough – you’re dealing with your job with the Coast Guard and your family. But from the Reserve standpoint, you’re dealing with your Coast Guard obligation, your family obligation – and then you also have a civilian employer.”

As Ferullo pointed out, active-duty personnel usually live in the general vicinity of where they’re assigned. “But reservists are spread out all over. They can’t walk out the front door and go visit their XO [executive officer] and his family if they have a question or concern.”

Mark Allen at Yellow Ribbon Program event

Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Reserve Force Mark Allen speaks with Stacey A. Ward Turko, president of the Boston Coast Guard Spouses’ Association, at a Yellow Ribbon Program event Aug. 20, 2011. The Mission of the Yellow Ribbon Program is to provide Reserve and National Guard members and their families with information and resource opportunities throughout the deployment cycle. This is a Department of Defense program that allows different service members to work on pre-deployment planning as well as reintegrating back into society after returning home. U.S. Coast Guard by Petty Officer 3rd Class Amber Mitchell

The intensive regimen of pre-deployment training required to work a RAID detachment includes courses in the policies and procedures of inspection, as well as the training, delivered at Joint Base Fort Dix, N.J., in the knowledge and skills required for entering a war zone: improvised explosive device detection, counterinsurgency, weapons training, first aid, tactical combat care, and more. For Bannon and other RAID members, these requirements add up to another four months to the year they spend away from home on deployment.

For Coast Guard reservists who, as Ferullo pointed out, share a unique set of circumstances, a unique set of programs offers additional support. The Yellow Ribbon Program, a defense-wide effort to provide National Guard and Reserve armed forces members with information before, during, and after deployments.

According to Cmdr. Karl Leonard, former commanding officer of PSU 309 who is now the Coast Guard’s Yellow Ribbon Program manager, the program begins when, in advance of a reservist’s deployment, the Coast Guard funds the travel, lodging and meals for members and their families or designated others to attend a single service delivery center, where the process begins. “We educate members and their families – spouses, significant others, parents, and children – about some of the challenges of separation and how to cope with them, whether they involve child behavior, marital stress, finances, education, physical or psychological well-being, or other aspects,” said Leonard. Once the pre-deployment program concludes and families return to their communities, program volunteers work to link them with local counseling and support services.

The structure of the program involves five phases: pre-deployment, deployment, immediate reintegration, short-term reintegration, and long-term reintegration – that leaves no doubt as to the most complicated and stressful part of the deployment: coming home and resuming family life together.

“The reintegration has a lot of unknowns,” said Leonard. “Everybody changes during the deployment, the members who deploy and the families who stay behind. There’s a lot of stress. For a service member, all the daily tasks have changed. You’re no longer responsible for paying the bills, fixing the things that are broken, taking the garbage out. Those functions have been replaced while you’ve been gone. You just can’t simply step back and say: ‘OK, it’s back to normal now.’ Your family has learned to become very independent. That doesn’t mean that everybody fails at it – we have great success in reintegration. We’re just trying to give them the tools to make it easier, make it more successful, and to make a resilient family so they’re ready for the next deployment.”

Recent enhancements to support programs have made them more inclusive – for example, the Yellow Ribbon Program now offers the same level of support to single service members. “That’s an important change, to allow us to use funds to bring designated others to these events,” said Leonard. “We need to show single service members that they’re not alone, that they can be accompanied by anyone – a boyfriend, girlfriend, or just a friend. They’re all part of the family.”

One of the support tools Rivera has found most helpful has been frequent communication with his unit’s ombudsman, a liaison who exists solely to solve problems and improve communication. “She’s been a real lifeline,” he said, “in emergencies, or if our families just kind of need someone to talk to. With her I’ve compiled a list of all my junior members’ family information. I don’t want to just know that seaman so-and-so works for me; I want to know who his wife is. I want to know how old his children are. And I work with the ombudsman to make sure she can be aware and step in if a spouse or other family member has issues. She has really helped us stay sane during deployment.”

In his “State of the Coast Guard Address,” Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., commandant, in recognition of the value of these services, pledged to hire additional full-time ombudsmen to help service members in the field. He declared 2011 “The Year of the Coast Guard Family” and pledged even greater support for families by reinvesting in improved housing, child care centers, and other programs that strengthen Coast Guard communities.

By relieving pressures on Coast Guard service members and their families, the Coast Guard not only improves their quality of life, but also improves the quality of their work, by contributing to their health, readiness, motivation, and mission focus. Coast Guard personnel have proven strong and capable and fully aware of what their work demands of them – and of what that work means.

“I’m a firm believer in the idea that freedom is not free,” said Rivera. “So I decided this is my way to give back to my country and also make sure that not only my family, but everybody’s family, is safe back home.” In this Year of the Coast Guard Family, the service is, at every level possible, striving to do the same for its own.

This article was first published in Coast Guard Outlook: 2012 Edition.


Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...