US Coast Guard takes on Afghan retrograde mission

CAMP MARMAL, Afghanistan — Hundreds of miles from the nearest coastline, members of the U.S. Coast Guard are playing an essential role in helping international troops pack up and leave Afghanistan.

“We help redeploying units make sure they have sea-worthy shipping containers,” said Chief Petty Officer Aaron Borg, with the U.S. Coast Guard Redeployment Assistance and Inspection Detachment team, or RAID, in Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.

Borg, along with two others deployed to the NATO-led coalition’s Regional Command North, are responsible for assisting U.S. military personnel in the region properly pack containers for shipping from the war zone.

Borg, who is based at the Chicago Navy Pier, said his experience with containers and vessel inspections has made him the expert the military needed to properly, and safely, pack up their war materiel.

RAID teams first forward-deployed to combat zones in 2003 to Iraq, and then in 2006 to Afghanistan. The RAID office in Mazar-e-Sharif opened in 2012 to assist in drawdown operations.

“We were really busy November-December. We had a lot of big yards on the base that were closing down, so that’s hundreds of containers that we were doing,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Callinan.

Callinan came to Afghanistan from a Coast Guard unit based in Louisville, Ky., where he inspected shipping vessels, and oil and chemical facilities.

Among the RAID team’s responsibilities is to secure hazardous materials from redeploying Army units that may need to be shipped. Once inspected by the RAID team, the containers go by land, sea and air, back to their units in the United States.

“That’s where we come in handy a lot,” Callinan said. “Generally, the HAZMAT certifiers, who write up the HAZMAT documentation — it’s not their primary job — it’s something that was handed to them. Maybe they’ve had some training, and they generally do a pretty good job, considering they have a whole actual job to worry about. And that’s where we step in and hold their hand through the process.”

As the U.S. and NATO-led coalition prepare to remove all combat troops from the country by the end of this year, the Coast Guard unit has been busy.

The tempo could increase if the U.S. and NATO withdraw all forces from Afghanistan — the so-called zero option — in the absence of a bilateral security agreement. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the agreement with the U.S., which both Washington and NATO have said is key to retaining a small force to train and advise Afghan forces after 2014.

“Now it’s up in the air whether we’re staying or not, so if they go with the zero option, there could be a huge influx of work,” Borg said.

Despite the large amount of inspection work that stacks up in their container yards — which recently was covered in snow — the Coast Guard members are happy to be in landlocked Afghanistan.

As of mid-2013, only 216 active-duty and reserve Coast Guard members had served in Afghanistan.

Borg and Callinan’s yearlong deployment ends in May. Said Borg: “It’s something special to say you’ve been over here with the Coast Guard, because there is not a lot of us who have.”

Twitter: @Alexandermpena


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