Goodbye U.S., Hola Colombia

by Petty Officer 3rd Class Ayla Stevens

Stepping aboard the Colombian naval ship Valle Del Cauca is like stepping into their country. Sailors in their pressed, black dress uniforms raised their ships colors and sang their countries national anthem. Colombian hors d’oeuvres and drinks were served while traditional Colombian music filled the air. This was a celebration of mutual interest more than a year in the making.

The Colombian Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard celebrated the transfer of the Coast Guard cutter Gentian to the Armada República de Colombia (ARC), ending a long history of serving in the Coast Guard as a former buoy tender and Caribbean support tender.

The 180-foot buoy tender was commissioned in Nov. of 1942 and was homeported in Cape May, N.J., where it conducted ice breaking operations in the Hudson River during World War II. Over the course of the next 34 years, it helped in search and rescue missions, aides to navigation and law enforcement missions while changing homeports two more times from Miami, Fl., to Galveston, Texas.

From 1976 to 1983, it was decommissioned for the Service Life Extension Program and was moored at the Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore, Md.

It was re-commissioned in 1983 and sent to Atlantic Beach, N.C., where it once again helped in search and rescue, aides to navigation, ice breaking and law enforcement missions. In Sept. 1999, it became the first and only Caribbean support tender.

The Gentian’s mission was to improve regional cooperation between the U.S., Caribbean and South American countries. It provided an opportunity for the exchange of information and training for members that made up the culturally diverse crew.

The international crew consisted of Coast Guard members and members from maritime services of countries throughout the Caribbean and South America regions.

“Being a member of that crew is one of my fondest Coast Guard memories. I had never left the country before I joined this crew and in nine months, I put 23 eastern Caribbean countries under my belt,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Jeff Cheek.

Training with such a diverse crew did present some challenges according to Cheek.

“50% of the crew was from another country. Not all of them spoke English, but I took part in teaching them. In return, they helped me with my Spanish,” said Cheek.

The tender was decommissioned a third time June 23, 2006 in Miami, Fl.

The Coast Guard is committed to finding another vessel to make a new Caribbean support tender and continue international training, said Rear Adm. Wayne Justice, assistant commandant for response.

A ceremony for the transfer of the vessel’s title was held Oct. 15, 2007 at Coast Guard Headquarters. The ceremony was performed by Vice Adm. Vivian Crea, Coast Guard vice commandant, and Adm. Guillermo Barrera, commander of the Colombian Navy. During a re-commissioning ceremony held Oct. 16, 2007, the Colombian Navy renamed the vessel the ARC San Andres.

Colombian Navy Cmdr. Luis Jose Soler took command of the San Andres during the ceremony held aboard the Valle Del Cauca, which was formerly the 210-foot CGC Durable.

“This is my passion,” Soler said about being in the Navy as he took command of his third vessel in his 23 years of service.

The Colombian Navy is similar to the American Navy, but includes their Marine Corps and Coast Guard. José María García de Toledo created their Navy in 1810 during their country’s struggle for independence from Spain. Their naval fleet includes submarines, destroyers, frigates, coastal defenders, supply ships and their training sailing ship the ARC Gloria. Their missions include drug interdiction, search and rescue, logistic support, terrorism prevention, joint operations with other nations and enforcing laws and sovereignty.

The Coast Guard and the Colombian Navy are constantly working together to fight the war on drugs, said Soler. Transferring the Gentian over to the Colombian Navy will aid in increasing security and operations against drugs in the South America region. Because of the vessels recent decommissioning in 2006 and previous operations in the Caribbean region, it was an optimal candidate for the transfer to the Colombian Navy.

The Coast Guard has transferred the titles of 115 decommissioned vessels to 29 partner nations since 1997 for maritime services. Six of those vessels have gone to the Colombian Navy. It took 14 months for the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy and the Colombian Navy to complete the process of transferring the Gentian over to the Colombians.

Through the Foreign Assistance Act, countries are able to submit a request for military and non-military aid. When a request is for a military vessel, it goes through the Department of Defense, the Navy, the state department and the Coast Guard.

When both countries agree on a transfer, it becomes a foreign military sales case. The receiving country does not pay for the vessel but pays for any repairs and the transfer to the new home country. This type of process saves the military money on disposing of the vessel and saves the foreign country money on the purchase or building of a new vessel.

The San Andres will be leaving for Colombia Dec.3, 2007 where her main mission will be drug interdiction. Until then, the San Andres will remain in Baltimore, Md., for maintenance and new equipment installation.

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