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NAVAL STATION ROTA, Spain — On one of their first trips out to sea, it wasn’t long before most of the Iraqi mariners couldn’t stomach the Persian Gulf’s rolling swells and became seasick.

It might have been an inauspicious start for the newest members of the Iraqi Coastal Defense Force, but the mariners have come a long way since that nauseating day.

While the Iraqis lack experience and resources, U.S. sailors say there is no shortage of desire and commitment.

“They were very, very enthusiastic,” said Lt. Rick Evangelista, a combat systems officer aboard the frigate USS Underwood who served as liaison to the Iraqi coast guard.

“Some of the proficiency wasn’t there and some of their skills weren’t there, but they were definitely eager to be out there.”

The Underwood is on its way home to Mayport, Fla., after a six-month deployment to the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea, and a brief stop in Rota. Some of its sailors worked closely with the Iraqi coast guard forces.

The 50-member coast guard has improved so much that Evangelista and some other American sailors believe the Iraqis could take over the job of protecting and guarding the country’s coastline and oil platforms in a year.

At the moment, a U.S.-led coalition takes on the bulk of that duty with the help of the Iraqi mariners.

The coast guard has not had the problems some Iraqi National Guard units have had with recruiting and corruption. The coast guard’s training has gone so well that some top officers with the coalition have observed the units to see why they appear to have done so well, said Navy Chief Warrant Officer 3 Mark Willis.

“If you really think about it, one year ago they really didn’t have a Navy,” said Willis, who spent a year helping train the coast guard. “It was gone. Within one year’s time, they’ve gone from nothing to five operational patrol boats.

“From what they have to work with, these guys are doing great.”

The reason for the success, Willis said, appears to be that most of the Iraqis enjoy what they do, they get a decent wage and the facilities are better than some of the national guard units’.

“They like it there,” Willis said. “I think that is a big part.”

Iraq has five Chinese-made patrol boats with teams of 10 Iraqi mariners in each. Every morning, coalition officers go out with the patrol boats to help them communicate with other military ships and train them in seamanship.

Ensign Henry Russell, the frigate’s boarding team and electrical officer, said the Iraqis were friendly and eager to eventually take over the task of protecting the country’s critical oil platforms.

“From the beginning when we got there to when we left, there was a pretty big difference,” Russell said. “They know exactly what they have to do.”

And that might include remembering to bring the seasick medicine.


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