The seas that faced United States Coast Guard Cmdr. James Robertson in a year’s deployment with Operation Iraqi Freedom were not typical oceans. They were storms of sand, waves of heat, and floods of bottled water, all things atypical for a District 17 Station Juneau member.
“I spent very little time out on the water in Iraq but a lot of time on convoys going across the desert,” Robertson said, surrounded by friends and shipmates in the airport terminal on his arrival. “It is awesome to be back. Words don’t even begin to describe it. It’s a beautiful day. I am speechless at the turnout, it has just wowed me. The first thing I thought was they must be here for somebody else.”
Robertson was the officer in charge of the Port Advisory Coordinating Element in Iraq.
His mission was to work with the government of Iraq and the Port Authorities to develop a port security program that met international standards.
Robertson oversaw the development of the Port of Umm Qasr into a commercial port, thus aiding the citizens of Iraq by getting the port operational and up to security standards to become an international port.
Umm Qasr is in southern Iraq on a canalized estuary called Shat al Arab, formed by the meeting of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, and which then leads into the Persian Gulf.
Robertson first stayed in Camp Bucca and moved to Contingency Operating Base Basra. Days started at 5 a.m. with briefings and planning missions, going out to the various ports to meet with key leaders, and coming back in for reports. Ports included El Maqall, Abu Flouf, Khor Alzubyar, and Al Faw.
“They actually have six ports plus the offshore oil platforms which are considered deep water ports,” Robertson said. “We were able to open up these six ports to American forces as well as help the Iraqis understand that they need to implement this program to improve their economy as well as bring in commerce.”
Robertson said difficulties working there ranged from adjusting to the 12-hour time difference to the lifestyle of the Iraqi people being entirely different from anything he had encountered previously. He also carried a weapon 24 hours a day and wore 40 pounds of body armor as he traveled from place to place.
The temperature topped 100 degrees each day for one 186-day stretch. He also noted 270 days without rain.
“Of course it was a desert,” Robertson said. “I should have expected that, but it was so oppressive.”
A security detail accompanied his work team whenever they worked outside of base.
“It is very humbling to put people in charge of protecting us,” Robertson said. “There were plenty of credible threats against us as well as the insurgency trying to take shots at us.”
Robertson said the people of Iraq were very warm and open to him.
“There is so much promise there,” Robertson said. “If we can get these and other programs in place, the education system back on track, and get commerce flowing other than just oil, the country can once again rejoin the modern world and the global community.”
Robertson said the ports were third-world status, still working with 1950s technology and to some extent a 1950s to 1970s management style.
Due to 30 years of war and sanctions, the education system and senior management had not been trained beyond 1970s standards, he said.
“We had a lot of hurdles to overcome to get them to embrace modern technology and modern thought processes for management,” Robertson said. “The senior management were survivors from the Saddam regime. They still had the Stalinist mentality. Very little empowerment, very little free thinking, it was a lot of group thought. Getting them to embrace capitalism and change their understanding of the entire Stalinist state-run companies was a huge process.”
Training programs were implemented in his time there, including the Maritime Academy and the Merchant Marine Academy for Iraq.
“It used to be the pearl of training in the Gulf and we are trying to return that to its former excellence as well,” Robertson said. “I do miss the staff I have left behind. There are Coast Guard officers still over there, still facing the perils of living and working in Iraq.”
Robertson has some time before he begins his duties in the prevention division of District 17 Station Juneau, overseeing the majority of the inspection programs.
Wife Whitney Robertson said, “I am so happy, I am really glad to be back on schedule again. It has been lonely, but I am so proud of him.”
Son Piper exclaimed loudly as he hung from Robertson’s arm, “Life will now be exciting again.”
As the Robertson family exited the Juneau airport, 17th District Chief of Staff Capt. Norman Buddy Custard said, “When the opportunity came up he volunteered to go over there and help the Iraqis build these ports. We don’t have a lot of Coast Guard men and women over in Iraq but we do have several. And we want to welcome him back home and for a job well done.”
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