Story and photos by Petty Officer 3rd Class Ashley J. Johnson
FLORIDA STRAITS- The crew could not have been separated from the dock for more than an hour. The thick salt air had barely filled their lungs. Cell phone towers in Key West, Florida, were still visible with a squint of an eye. A voice rang out on the back deck, “Two seven zero. Three hundred yards! I think it’s a chug!”
A crewmember from Coast Guard Tactical Law Enforcement Team South, Miami, had spotted what appeared to be Cuban nationals on a make-shift raft, headed for the U.S.
The highly trained law enforcement official was one of two TACLET South team members sent to supplement the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Kathleen Moore, homeported in Key West.
A voice rang through the 154-foot cutter, “Now set AMIO phase one!” Alien Migrant Interdiction Operations had begun.
Black boots thudded against the rough and gritted, steel deck. With only 22 crewmembers aboard, everyone had an important role to play.
In a matter of minutes, four Coast Guardsmen outfitted a small rescue boat and launched to the degraded raft; it was barely held together by sea-soaked rotting wooden planks and a blue tarp.
An arm stretched out from the rustic craft and waved an orange cloth.
Petty Officer 1st Class Jorge Canedo made initial contact with the men and women packed on to the raft. He will be the first to asses if they are drug smugglers, or migrants hoping to step foot on American soil. As a certified Spanish interpreter, Canedo said his role is vital to the mission of preventing illegal migration into the U.S.
Canedo quickly determined that they were 10 Cubans: tired, dehydrated and soaked from salt water, but thankful for help. One-by-one the Cuban men and women were handed orange and yellow lifejackets. Interpreting in Spanish, Canedo instructed how to properly wear the survival gear. He explained they would be transported to the Kathleen Moore in a series of boat ferries. A man, appearing to be in his fifties, immediately spoke of chest pains.
Aboard the Kathleen Moore, awaiting crewmembers prepared essential materials for their new passengers. Dry clothing and flip-flops replaced soggy t-shirts and tennis shoes. Blankets helped with coverage from the crisp Caribbean air and the uncomfortable floor. The cutter’s cook prepared rice and beans. A crewmember filled jugs of water.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Oscar N. Guerro grabbed a blood pressure cuff, rubber gloves and a stethoscope. He is the Kathleen Moore’s certified EMT, a Spanish interpreter, and a crewmember. With his forearm Guerro pushed back his black rimmed glasses and knelt down next to the man suffering from chest pains. Guerro checked the man’s vital signs and spoke in a calm voice. A female relative of the man stroked his shoulder and kissed his forehead periodically.
“The shear desperation and people trying to make that journey across the Florida Straits is skyrocketing,” said Chief Petty Officer Carlos Montejano, the first lieutenant aboard the Kathleen Moore. “There’s no telling how many lives we were not able to save, that we didn’t know about.”
In fiscal year 2015, the Coast Guard 7th District estimates 4,473 Cubans have attempted to illegally migrate via the sea, a 58 percent increase from just three years prior. These numbers represent the total amount of at-sea interdictions, landings and disruptions in the Florida Straits, the Caribbean and Atlantic.
After ensuring each passenger’s well-being, including the man complaining of chest pains, Guerro took to the task of paperwork. The make-shift raft, now marked with orange spray paint, became a spot in the distance.
Over the course of the afternoon the sky let out a soft drizzle, and the seas swelled. A few crewmembers passed out garbage bags to be used for sea sickness by those aboard.
And, just as quick as they arrived, the Cuban nationals were transferred from the Kathleen Moore to a larger Coast Guard cutter. There, they joined other migrants recently interdicted, all awaiting repatriation to their native countries.
The next morning the sun barely peaked over the bumpy blue horizon, and pancakes wafted through the ship.
A groggy voice rang out, “Now there will be an AMIO brief in the pilot house.”
The Kathleen Moore had been tasked to repatriate 15 new Cuban men and women, who had been cleared by U.S. officials to return to their country of origin. It is a skillfully conducted operation.
Interdicted. Vetted. Verified. And finally, repatriation.
In a few hours the cutter was on its way to Cuba with its new passengers.
Again a voice rang out, “Set special sea detail!”A wooden dock slowly appeared through the drizzle and haze. Crewmembers tightened their grips on wet ropes and threw them over to the dock.
Once tied up, all eyes were on a single U.S. official. Many had heard his speech before, but still, no one spoke. The idling engines hummed, but silence gripped the air. In Spanish he said their journey on the Kathleen Moore was over. On shore a small SUV sat next to a long passenger bus. The wipers periodically slid over the windshield. The U.S. official verified each person’s phone number and explained who to contact if they received retribution from the Cuban government for their failed journey to the U.S.
One-by-one they returned their orange and yellow life jackets, stepped one foot off the Kathleen Moore and stepped the other foot on Cuban soil.
Although this was mission complete for the crew of the Kathleen Moore, the next day, 40 new migrants were brought aboard the cutter. Some had landed off a remote island in the Bahamas; another group was in a hand-made sail boat. The Kathleen Moore had performed three migrant interdictions in the course of six hours, all within a 30 mile radius.
“Everybody gives their all to get the mission accomplished,” said Montejeno. “We will continue to do so, as long as there is this mission.”
In just three days, the crew aboard the Kathleen Moore had saved 50 lives. Three days. One cutter. A whole Coast Guard mission.