U.S. Coast Guard is training anti-terrorism commandos

Posted: Monday, February 27, 2006

KODIAK - As two men in black slid from a hovering helicopter to the fo'c'sle of the cutter SPAR, the crowd watching from the bridge was less than eager to join the ranks of those known as "Coast Guard Commandos."

There were no takers when Lt. Shawn Decker, the SPAR's executive officer, asked his crew if any wanted to sign up for the created the Maritime Safety and Security Team (MSST-911), the service's own counter-terrorism squad.

"I can swim better than I can fly," one quipped. Another said, "Looks cold and wet."

One asked as he watched the drills, "What's the Coast Guard coming to?"

For several hours Feb. 16, a Coast Guard anti-terrorism unit based in Anchorage practiced vertical insertion drills or "sticks."

An HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter circled the Kodiak-based cutter before moving into position at the bow. An Army-green bag with a rope attached was tossed aboard. Then a team slid down the rope, unpacked the duffel, repacked the duffel and was lifted back into the helicopter.

Repeat about 40 times across three hours, in daylight and darkness.

The drill included two jumpers from San Francisco and a pair from Anchorage.

As the jumpers practiced nighttime sticks, one of the two hovering helicopters radioed the ship for a rescue swimmer.

One of the men had blisters from sliding down the rope so many times and needed his hands taped.

Thursday's drills were the second time the unit has trained with the SPAR. Last time the cutter remained at the pier. This time it spent about five hours anchored in Chiniak Bay.

Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Coast Guard created the teams called MSST-911.

The Alaska MSST unit was commissioned Oct. 15, 2004.

Coast Guard spokesman Christopher McLaughlin said the drills help the MSSTs prepare to storm a drug boat or a terrorist ship.

Boarding a ship from a helicopter is faster and safer in rough seas than boarding from a boat, said David Kroening, MSST operations officer in Anchorage.

"The ideal vertical insertion is an alternate means of quickly embarking on a vessel if we can't get out on our small boats safely," he said.

Kroening said the unit has two locations to practice vertical insertions, Kodiak and Sitka. Thursday's mission was so the Kodiak helicopter pilots could log training hours, he said.

The SPAR crew suggested it would pep up the practice - and add an element of realism - if they were allowed to shoot paintballs at the rappelling MSSTs.

Kroening said the more realistic an operation is, the better, even if it means his men could be splattered with paint.

"Am I opposed? No. Do I think we ought to do it? Yes," he said.

"Anytime the Coast Guard does a boarding there's always that risk they could be under fire," Kroening said. "We don't look for it or expect it, but there's always a possibility."

The SPAR is primarily a buoy tender. Along with the buoys come barnacles, star fish, mussels and other sea life onto the decks.

Before the helicopters arrived kicking up 100-knot winds with their rotors, the deck had to be cleaned of "sea critters" so no one would be smacked in the face by a flying starfish.

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