Unitas 2002

By Cortney Babel

A lot of young service members and young people in general probably don’t remember a time when, we as a country, weren’t engaged in active conflict and combat on a daily basis. It’s without a doubt that 9-11 was a game changer; we were all affected one way or another. But there was a time when the U. S. military was tasked with other missions than with a trip to the Middle East.

Sometime before going to college, securing a job in the civilian world, and re-joining the service in a camouflage uniform; I was a sailor in Uncle Sam’s Yacht Club. The United States Navy is truly a modern marvel, even if the lowliest junior sailor may think it’s really just an acronym for Never Again Volunteer Yourself.

In the waning years of the Clinton era, before the radical antics of terrorism struck home, the world’s finest navy decided that the crew of the USS Ticonderoga would be best utilized for a while as a massive haze-gray version of those police canines that keep drugs off the streets, sometimes forcibly. We spent a few months patrolling the Caribbean and Western Atlantic on Counter Drug Operations.

The cruiser USS Ticonderoga (CG-47) was the first ship to utilize the Aegis combat system. Capable of simultaneously tracking and deploying weapons to destroy many multiples of targets, it takes its name from the pages of Greek mythology. Aegis was the shield of Athena. Apparently, it was also pretty handy at running down drugs en route to America’s shores. Home ported out of Pascagoula, Mississippi, attached to Destroyer Squadron Six, and operating under the Joint Interagency Task Force-East, the Tico was just less than 600 feet long and could easily answer bells at over 30 knots on open waters.

One random night at sea, we received Intel on a contact in the middle of nowhere, so the wheels of another possible search and seizure were set in motion. Flight quarters were set, and our helo squadron, the Black Knights, put their bird in the air.  Off towards the horizon the SH-60B Seahawk went.

There were all sorts of ways the drug runners transported their loads across the sea, but on this night it turned out to be a cigarette boat. We simply just called them “go-fasts”. These boats had massive outboard engines which allowed them to go amazing speeds across the warm Caribbean waters, but really nobody could outrun America. Even if you are wearing PF Flyers, just ask Bin Laden.

At one point, we ordered a civilian cruise ship out of the area. I’m sure that ruined a planned visit to Senor Frogs for a wet t-shirt contest or two, but if we were going to keep yayo out of the hands of high school kids, they were just going to have to get out of the way.

Once contact was established, orders and instructions were put out on the airwaves to the accused party explaining who we were and what were our intentions. One of the side duties of any Spanish speaking Tico sailor was to man the bridge radio to relay our Commanding Officer’s words.

It has been my experience in life that those who are up to no good don’t really drop whatever it is they are doing and listen to instruction. That night was no exception.

The Seahawk and its crew hovered just above the offending vessel and out of boredom or hilarity, and decided to throw cans of soda at the smugglers as they tossed bail after bail of cocaine into the water.

Now, two things I observed while watching this spectacle was that cocaine bails float, and apparently the drug runners thought we couldn’t see them doing it. It reminded me of an old episode of COPS when the police officer removed something illegal from the pocket of an individual and his response was “Man that ain’t even mine, these are my cousin’s pants!” Same idea I’d say.

A man only has so much patience, some have more than others. I had no gauge to measure my Captain’s patience, but it was obvious that he’d seen enough. Warning shots were fired from small arms on deck. I guess that is if you can consider a .50 caliber M2 machine gun small. In comparison to the 5 inch/54 caliber MK 45 cannons nearby, it really was.

Still, like little kids caught with their hands in the cookie jar, the bootleggers kept scuttling their bounty. That is until a hail of aggressive, no more joking around gunfire reduced their undoubtedly expensive craft to a smoking, useless heap.

At that point, I was told the crew of the drug boat was given a choice: be turned over to their country of origin’s custody immediately, or remain under our control until a later date. For reasons only they knew, we found ourselves with a handful of prisoners onboard Warship 4-7.

The sun rose. For most of the day anyone not occupied with other duties was up on the main deck in the ocean breeze with a pair of binocs up to their eyes scanning the water for the AWOL bails of cocaine that were tossed overboard the night prior.

In all, what was eventually retrieved from the water and still aboard the go-fast was taken custody of and had a street value of roughly $17,000,000. Not bad for a single night’s work.

In the meantime, the men we had acquired spent the next few days in an impromptu jail under lock and key with armed Tico sailor’s eyes on them 24/7. Basically, they were chained to the angle irons in the starboard break passageway and men with guns were always nearby. They were fed the same meals we were, given shower and bathroom time, and cots to sleep on. Many of them spent the days in tears. The rumors were that they would probably be executed by their local authorities after we turned them over once we got where we were going.

Was this rumor true? There really wasn’t any way to know for sure, but what I do know is that most countries, especially those considered Third World, don’t really go about business like we do here in The States. At that point I pretty much understood why they opted to ride with us when given the choice.

I admit that I felt somewhat bad for them as they were probably the lowest of the low in their “industry”. More than likely they were just trying to feed their families and an honest profession just wasn’t cutting it. But, as the wisdom says, shit rolls downhill and if you’re going to do the crime…you know the rest.

Like any other sailor, solider, airman, or marine there was always another mission to complete, and after a while the calendar ends up on your day to go home. We went back home, with a deployment total of around $32,000,000 worth of cocaine onboard. How much got past us? Did we just catch who they wanted us to catch while the bigger shipments made it through? There is no way to know. But at the end of the day be it drugs, terrorism, or opposing the greatest country this world has ever seen…bring it on.

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Categories: Issue 3, Post 9/11 | Leave a comment

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