Joint operations take a big leap

by Petty Officer 3rd Class Luke Clayton, U.S. Coast Guard

Honolulu – Perched at the edge of a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter, the U.S. Coast Guard Vertical Insertion Team Members (VITM) wait for the signal. They see the deck of the U.S. Navy’s USS Crommelin rolling in the waves 70 feet below.

There’s the signal. A tap on the shoulder. It’s time to jump.

Maritime Safety and Security Team (MSST) 91107, a Coast Guard anti-terrorism team based in Honolulu since 2002, recently began a partnership with the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Navy to provide a law enforcement team designed to protect the public from terrorist threats.

To better enhance mission capabilities and use the best aviation platform available, the Coast Guard MSST members work with a Marine Corps CH-53 helicopter crew to conduct vertical insertions.

So what exactly is a vertical insertion?

A vertical insertion is a maritime-based tactic used to board high interest vessels using the element of surprise. Vertical insertions can be used at any time and are yet another layer of maritime security the Coast Guard provides to those who work and play on the nation’s waterways.

“It’s hard to board a vessel by boat when the crew doesn’t want you onboard,” said Lt. j.g. Zachary Huff, the MSST’s maritime law enforcement force protection leader, referring to the team’s ability to use stealth and speed by deploying from an aircraft.

An additional benefit of the vertical insertion technique is that it can also be used for routine at-sea boardings. Due to Hawaii’s prevailing sea states and the inherent dangers associated with the transfer of law enforcement personnel from vessel to vessel at sea, the vertical insertion tactic aims to reduce crew fatigue and provide safer boarding conditions for Coast Guard boarding teams.

“Vertical insertion leads to better safety and ultimately a more robust and responsive law enforcement capability to interface with the maritime community at sea,” said Lt. Cmdr. Tom Kuhar, the MSST’s executive officer.

The eight VITMs of MSST 91107 must practice to perfect the daring maneuvers.

Early in September 2008, members of the MSST gathered for three days at Marine Corps Base Hawaii (MCBH), located in Kaneohe, Hawaii, to train with the Marines. The first two days consisted of classroom and field exercises, which included dunk-tank training. During dunk-tank training, MSST members climbed into a gutted helicopter, buckled up and rolled the helicopter into a pool. They then tried to escape the cold, clammy hands of the water below.

On the third day, the team climbed a 50-foot rappel tower and worked with a Marine Helicopter Rope Suspension Trainer to perfect rappelling techniques.

“This is the first time our office worked with the Coast Guard, and we were surprised with how tough and squared away these guys are,” said U.S. Marines Gunnery Sgt. Eric Johnson, the lead training facilitator at MCBH.

“The Marine trainer was extremely helpful,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Jesse Knee, a VITM from the MSST. “He gave us valuable pointers from his past experiences.”

MSST members also practiced different ways to use the rappel rope, maneuver down the tower and land safely on the ground. Knee said three VITMs can be on the rope at the same time.

After a full week of hands-on and classroom training, members were ready for a full scale dress rehearsal.

Perched at the mouth of the helicopter, the team member feels the weight of the jumpmasters’ hand on his shoulder. It’s time to go. Holding on to the safety line above his head, the member leaps from the helicopter. He has one chance; one chance to get everything perfect or else something tragic could happen. But nothing will. He is ready and his training sets in. Gripping the rope with his gloves and boots, the member slides down the rope — ready for all threats, all hazards, any time.

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