Local accepts an unexpected assignment

Juneau Coast Guard officer volunteers for Iraq deployment

Posted: Sunday, January 03, 2010

U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jim Robertson never imagined he would be stationed in Iraq, but he was quick to jump at the opportunity when a wartime assignment presented itself.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Robertson said Thursday as he finished clearing out his Juneau office before deploying to the Middle East on Saturday. "It's a great mission. One of the reasons I jumped at it is because I believe in the mission so much."

Robertson, who has spent most of his 24-year Coast Guard career in Alaska, is headed to the inland deep-water port city of Umm Qasr to help Iraqi authorities establish a port security program and bring the port up to international standards. The assignment is different from the security work the U.S. Department of Defense has been conducting in the area since the war began, he said.

"I'm going to obviously protect the nation, but at the same time I'm going to help the Iraqis build a constructive port that will enhance their commerce, create jobs and bring stability to the region," Robertson said.

It's not a simple assignment by any means, he said. Umm Qasr is the only deep-water port in Iraq and it handles millions of tons of cargo but isn't adhering to the international port standards for traffic monitoring and security, Robertson said.

He will initially begin overseeing the installation of perimeter fences and surveillance cameras but also will train Iraqi authorities on how to properly check for identification and screen incoming vessels.

"We start with the facility itself and hardening up the facility (so) it's designed to prevent unauthorized entry into the facility, either to prevent pilferage or any kind of smuggling or other nefarious acts," Robertson said.

Robertson will be one of only several hundred members of the U.S. Coast Guard presently serving in the Middle East, and one of only five serving in Iraq, he said.

"Our mission is extremely unique," he said. "We have always been viewed as life savers, but we are also specialists in the port security world, and that's what we're bringing to the table here."

The Coast Guard is playing a vital role in the war and its members have critical missions to further develop the country and train Iraqis, Robertson said.

"If we do our job correctly by generating commerce and making it cheaper to conduct business in Iraq, it will attract more business, generate more tariffs and monies for the government, (and) give them stability as well," he said. "Once we get stability in the region, then everybody will be able to come home."

Robertson, who has been serving in Juneau as chief of inspections and investigations, said he expects to return here in 2011 after his one-year assignment is over. He said he has been fortunate to spend much of his career in Alaska, being stationed in Anchorage, Kodiak, Juneau and Valdez. Robertson has worked on some of the most well-known maritime incidents in Alaska, including the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound and the sinking of the Arctic Rose in the Bering Sea.

"I have been very fortunate," Robertson said. "The Coast Guard has taken great care of me and given me great opportunities."

Robertson said his family has been extremely supportive of him accepting the assignment. He said he is looking forward to his newest opportunity and getting to serve his country in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"It's a mission that I believe in," he said. "I know I sound like a Boy Scout, but I really think we can make a world of difference there."

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

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