Filling the gaps

by Petty Officer 3rd Class Tom Atkeson

NEW ORLEANS – Migrant interdiction operations keep many south Florida Coast Guard units and cutters busy throughout the year. With eight south Florida cutters normal operations suspended for safety concerns there were gaps, which needed to be filled. To resolve the problem cutters from the Fifth and Eighth Coast Guard Districts, such as the Coast Guard Cutter Cypress, a 225-foot seagoing buoy tender home ported in Mobile, Ala., were tasked with providing a helping hand in the migrant and drug interdiction operations off the coast of south Florida.

The Cypress was tasked to make its way to Key West, Fla., to assist patrolling the approximately 90 mile-wide Florida Straits, which was the first time a 225-foot seagoing buoy tender had been tasked with migrant interdiction operations.

Over the next three weeks the crew was trained on Boarding Team Member qualifications, to board vessels suspected of smuggling migrants and standing watch to maintain a secure environment for the crew as well as the migrants.

The crew also set up the buoy deck, which is normally used as a platform to work on aids to navigation, to house migrants. Tents were set up and strapped to the deck to provide shade and a place to get out of the elements for the migrants. A shower and two toilets were setup on deck with privacy curtains.

The Cypress got underway en route Key West on April 5, 2007 along the five day voyage to Key West the crew sharpened their skills on security watch, boarding team tactics, and other drills common to any Coast Guard cutter such as fire drills, damage control drills and proficiency standards, as well as servicing a navigational buoy off the coast of Pensacola, Fl..

When the crew moored the cutter to its temporary home at Coast Guard Sector Key West, supplies for the crew and migrants were brought on board. Migrants would be supplied with a pair of coveralls, sandals, and two blankets. Other items included food, additional medical supplies and storage containers to hold the migrants property.

Once migrants were brought aboard the Cypress, regardless if they had already been on a Coast Guard cutter or not, they were checked for contraband and any objects they could hurt the crew or themselves with. Their belongings were cataloged and marked. They were also interviewed and asked about their medical history and given the proper medical treatment by the health service technician on board.

“The most important question is about their current medical condition, stuff they were diagnosed with before they left home,” said Petty Officer First Class Geoffery Daly, the Health Service Technician on board the Cypress.

Common problems and medical concerns with migrants include dehydration, heat stroke, malnutrition, cuts, sprains, bad sun burns, and chafing from wet clothing. A staff infection from a small cut or scrape can be deadly to a migrant, who can be drifting in the waters of the Caribbean for up to days at a time unable to reach medical assistance, said Daly.

Migrants were expected to follow a set of ground rules for their safety as well as the safety of the security team members, such as to remain seated, and to raise their hands when they needed to stand up to stretch or use the restrooms.

“Basically after we ask our questions we give them the ground rules, what we expect of them so we are all on the same page,” said Chief Petty Officer Michael D. McCarroll, a machinery technician, Spanish translator and security team section leader.

Migrants go to great lengths to reach America. Some pay $500 to $1500 for a trip. The smugglers often promise a free trip if they are caught and sent back. Some of the migrants even take loans to make the trip and fear how they will make the money to pay the lender if they get sent back, said McCarroll.

“Cypress and her crew demonstrated the true multi-mission capability of the 225 foot WLBs during this deployment. It was the first trip of this kind for us and we all learned a great deal, while contributing to mitigate the resource void created by the loss of the 123 foot WPBs. The crew of the Cypress is now fully ready to respond in the event of a mass migration or any other migrant related missions in the future,” said Lt. Cmdr. Sam R. Jordan, the commanding officer of the Cypress.

It was the first trip of this kind for us and we all learned a great deal while contributing to mitigate the resource void created by the loss of the 123- foot Maritime Patrol Boats. The crew of the Cypress is now fully ready to respond in the event of a mass migration or any other migrant related missions in the future, said Jordan.

During the 36-day patrol the crew of the Cypress interdicted or assisted in the interdiction of two vessels suspected of smuggling. The crew also housed 76 Cuban migrants, who were interdicted by the Cypress or other Coast Guard assets in the area. During the patrol the cypress steamed over 4,500 miles and spent over 600 hours underway diligently protecting our nation’s coasts and waters.

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