Not Your Fathers History Book

PA3 Stephen Lehmann
Eighth Coast Guard District External Affairs Office

From the Civil War to the Iraq Conflict, the Coast Guard’s participation in every U.S. war is well documented; even non-traditional wars like the War on Drugs. The Coast Guard’s role in the War on Drugs has resulted in billions of dollars worth of interdicted drugs, including more than 185 tons of cocaine in 2009 alone.

Lately, it seems that the War on Drugs is becoming hidden behind the Coast Guard’s latest role in homeland security. Even the phrase “War on Drugs” seems to be used less and less in conversation. With global attention focused on the security of our borders and national defense, it won’t be long before all of the Coast Guard’s success with drug interdictions on land and sea are just another footnote…did I say on land? Yeah, I did.

Not Your Fathers Coast GuardThere aren’t too many people who know the intimate details of the Coast Guard’s last attempt at a special forces unit. Lt. Matthew Mitchell, command center chief of Coast Guard Sector Mobile, Ala., is one of these few. He discovered a piece of lost Coast Guard history and he wrote an in-depth book on the Guardians that braved the jungles of South and Central America with automatic weapons and Coast Guard ingenuity. The title of the book: Not Your Father’s Coast Guard.

Mitchell’s second unit in the Coast Guard was the International Training Division, headquartered in Training Center Yorktown, Va. Never heard of them? They’re a team of Coast Guard experts that travel all over the globe and give training in maritime law enforcement, marine safety and environmental protection, small boat operation and maintenance, search and rescue, port security and infrastructure development to countries with waterway law enforcement programs.

In his first year with the ITD, Mitchell was curious. When and why did the Coast Guard take on this international mission? The answer was more than he anticipated.

“I never intended on writing a book,” said Mitchell. “That was never the objective when I started this. It all started with a unit history, but somewhere down the line I went from writing a quick unit history to realizing I had something monumental that I had to disseminate.”

Lt. Matthew MitchellIt was a slow start for Mitchell. At the beginning, all he really had to go on was gossip and hearsay. Even the Coast Guard historian’s office was of little help; but, when his interest piqued, he was determined to get to the bottom of it.

“I was asking around about how the Coast Guard has gotten into this international mission and no one seemed to have a solid answer,” said Mitchell. “Eventually I started hearing rumors about these ‘snake-eaters,’ these guys who were special forces trained and running through the jungle and doing all this crazy stuff. This perplexed me even more. I’m prior Army, so, naturally, I was curious.”

What he discovered was the Drug Interdiction Assistance Team. DIAT was created with the purpose of deploying along with the Drug Enforcement Agency to problem areas in South America, training and accompanying local law enforcement groups in their fight with the increasingly violent drug trade.

This was exciting stuff, to say the least, and far from what the average person would consider normal operations for a lifesaving service like the Coast Guard. Whether it was the mystery of the group, or just his own inquisitive nature, Mitchell was hooked. He needed to run this to ground.

“It absolutely became an obsession for me,” said Mitchell. “I was obsessed with telling this story. Nobody, not even the guys I wrote about, knew the whole story as to why or how DIAT was created.”

From 1988 to 1990, DIAT used their expert knowledge, professionalism and determination to help the DEA and in-country partners undermine drug traffickers. Together they faced the inhospitable environment, combat situations and issues that arose from cultural differences in conducting operations.

Group Shot from the ReunionTwenty years after DIAT was unceremoniously absorbed into the much tamer International Maritime Law Enforcement Training Team, the plank owners of this amazing group attended a publication party for Mitchell’s book. The party acted as a reunion of sorts for these men who hadn’t seen each other for two decades.

“Because some junior officer decided to write a book about them, they held a reunion,” said Mitchell. “All these guys believe DIAT was the best thing to ever happen to them and they credit all their experiences in the jungle to their success today. Every one of them took a lot out of it.”

During the reunion, the men passed around a copy of the book and signed it, writing heartfelt inscriptions inside the cover. To Mitchell, each and every one of them means something, but there is one that stands out.

“My most memorable inscription was from Richard East,” recalls Mitchell. “It said, ‘If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a noise? Thank you for making it so that our felling of trees made some noise.’”

At the end of the book, Mitchell shows his admiration for the work of the proud few that served in DIAT by saying he feels it’s rewarding, “to tell the story of the Guardians who went above and beyond to ensure the U.S. Coast Guard’s international mission did not fail.”

To Mitchell, I’d like to say, if your goal was to bring credit and honor to a forgotten group of Guardians, if you wanted to shed light on lessons learned and then lost, if you were trying to demonstrate another mission that the Coast Guard took on, exceeding even more expectations, then, sir, I’d like to say, thank you for not letting this honorable mission fail.

Originally published in The Heartland Guardian blog. Reprinted by permission.

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