The Forgotten War
Underequipped. Underfunded. Overshadowed. Life on the front lines of the drug war.
“If you’ve got anything to say, say it now!” Chris Fertig stammered while being electrocuted.
Fertig, a Coast Guard lieutenant junior grade, had been riding shotgun in a stubby, 22-foot boat with inflatable sides, plowing through rough Caribbean seas at a neck-snapping 35 knots. He and his four-man crew were chasing drug smugglers racing north from Colombia in a cigar-shaped speedboat called a “go-fast.” They believed the boat was packed with cocaine. But with their target in sight, the engine on Fertig’s vessel broke down, and the boat went dead in the water.
Cast adrift, Fertig had tried to radio his mother ship, the 270-foot Coast Guard cutter Bear, which was coordinating the chase from dozens of miles away. But the wires connecting his headset to the radio had come apart. So, standing ankle deep in seawater, Fertig took the broken wires in his hands and forced them together. Shock waves pulsed through his bones, and his mates heard him yelling through their head sets to speak up.
The crew took turns holding the connection a few seconds at a time and updated the Bear‘s commanders. The sailors had been only 1.5 nautical miles off the go-fast’s tail. A Coast Guard helicopter, launched from the Bear‘s aft flight deck, had trailed Fertig’s boat along the way. If the smugglers failed to stop, the Coast Guard had authority to shoot out the go-fast’s engines.
But the helicopter carried no guns. The Coast Guard didn’t have enough armed helicopters for all its ships. The only hope was that Fertig, whose crew was armed, could get close to the go-fast in their boat, called an “OTH,” because it launches from the Bear and travels “over the horizon” and out of sight.
The OTH had powered at full speed toward the fleeing smugglers. The cacophony of boat engines and helicopter blades was deafening. Crew members hung on for their lives. Whenever the OTH hit a wave, the sailors felt like they had been tossed into a concrete wall. At such times, the human body’s instinct is to stiffen like a signpost and fight to stay upright. The crew members’ every muscle clenched, diverting energy to the spine and their inner thighs, which were gripped around saddle-like seats so high off the deck the OTH sailors were actually standing through the chase. As the OTH broke through waves, the sailors looked like pegs bolted into the deck.
An OTH has no seat belts or harnesses. A pair of canvas foot stirrups screwed into the deck on either side of the saddle keeps crew members from being ejected. Fertig, not quite tall enough to reach both his straps, held on with one foot, fighting not to be flung into the radar console in front of him. The strain of a chase on the OTH is so great that when it finally returns to the Bear, mechanics must turn a wrench on all the boat’s bolts to retighten them.
Fertig’s OTH was no match for the go-fast. The smugglers’ boat skipped like a stone over the waves, which come close together in the Caribbean and make for a choppy ride. The OTH, with its thick, rubbery skin and ribbed underbelly, has to negotiate each wave carefully. To keep the boat from leaping out of the water, the driver eases back on the throttle when riding up a wave, and increases speed on the way down. When the boat goes airborne – as it often does – it crashes back onto the ocean surface with the force of a gigantic belly flop.
With the salty seawater whipping the sailors’ cheeks, their muscles ready to snap and the radio connection failing as darkness fell, the chase became a farce. An OTH crewman carried an M-16 rifle. But even if the engines hadn’t failed and the bouncing boat had come within firing range, he couldn’t hold his aim for more than a few seconds.
After the OTH crew spotted the Bear on the distant horizon, the men took turns holding the radio wires and were rescued.
Fertig hadn’t scored a single go-fast bust in almost two months at sea. He was hungry. He could have attributed the foiled pursuit to bad luck. But Fertig had plenty of stories just like this one. Failing equipment, insufficient resources and hand-tying policies had conspired many times to let go-fasts slip through the Bear‘s fingers. “We could have had those guys,” some crew members would say later, cursing the engines, radios and other defective equipment.
Fertig and his shipmates fight a war they didn’t start, one that was declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971, before many of them were born. For nearly three decades, the U.S. government has waged the drug war in the news media, in classrooms, at border crossings and on the high seas.
The Coast Guard stands point on that last front, as the lead federal agency for maritime drug interdiction. Cutters like the Bear are deployed in a 6 million-square-mile area that stretches from the Caribbean Sea to the Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern Pacific Ocean. The Bear sails back and forth across its patrol zone, which stretches across the smuggling routes from Colombia, where the bulk of the U.S. cocaine supply is produced, to drop-off points in Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
The Bear‘s motto is: “Greatest strength through versatility.” The ship’s crew stands by to discharge any of the Coast Guard’s myriad duties, which include search and rescue, fisheries enforcement and the evolving task of homeland security. But chasing go-fasts is the biggest rush and the largest source of pride. For every cocaine seizure, the crew paints a single snowflake outside the bridge. The cutter sports seven such insignias and 14 marijuana leaves for pot busts.
Yet the sailors of the Bear are fighting a forgotten war. The drug war has been overshadowed by bigger, more troubling conflicts: war in Iraq, the global campaign against terrorism, and simmering dangers on the Korean peninsula, in Iran and elsewhere. The Coast Guard’s sailors fight with too little equipment, much of it antiquated, and can expect few of their circumstances to change.
Fertig’s bittersweet run-in with the go-fast, in October 2002, was his last chase before the Bear returned home to Portsmouth, Va., the following month. He recalls the event on a wintry afternoon the following January, as he and his shipmates are finishing a two month “in-port” stint and are preparing to embark on another Caribbean tour.
The Bear‘s crew rotates between Portsmouth and the open seas, usually in two-month cycles. Fertig, 24, had spent his shore time with his wife, working at home on his own boat and making repairs to the Bear.
OUT TO SEA
While the respite was welcome, as winter envelops the port town, the lure of warm Caribbean seas and the pursuit of go-fasts is irresistible. As the enlisted men stock their berthing areas with the necessities of life at sea – clothes, towels, crackers, peanuts, CDs, magazines – Cmdr. Charley Diaz gathers his officers – half of them under the age of 25 – for a navigational briefing.
Diaz is new to the Bear. He’d been serving as a Coast Guard congressional fellow in Washington when he was offered the command in 2002. Few such billets open each year, so he jumped at the job. At 43, Diaz is nearly old enough to be his officers’ father.
Diaz sits at the head of a long table in the wardroom, the officers’ all-purpose dining, meeting and recreational quarters. Ensign Aaron Delano-Johnson, a fresh-faced recent Coast Guard Academy grad, stands before maps of Portsmouth harbor taped to the walls. “OK, D.J.,” Diaz says. “Tell us how you’re going to get us out of here.”
D.J. walks the crew through his plan to navigate one of the most treacherous parts of the patrol – the short chug from the pier to open shipping lanes. The journey will take about two hours, and along the way the Bear risks running aground on a shoal, veering off its preset course or colliding with another vessel. This is D.J.’s first time taking the cutter out, so half a dozen senior mariners will watch his every move on the bridge.
As D.J. performs his dress rehearsal, Diaz quizzes him like a schoolmaster. Is he sure his heading is correct? How does he plan to make his first turn? What if the wind changes direction? Diaz places his hand flat on the table, pretending it’s the Bear. He slowly pivots it to show D.J. how to nuzzle the bow into the pier and fend off the structure, bringing the stern about and clear of another cutter moored behind them.
“Keep it simple,” he admonishes. “Patience is a virtue.”
Fertig can’t wait to get moving. D.J. finishes the briefing, and as talk turns to drug smugglers, Fertig gets jumpy. An ear-to-ear grin overtakes his face, and he asks the chaplain if he’d say a prayer “that we find some fatty go-fasts.” Fertig bounces in his seat and the other officers laugh and nod approvingly.
“Pray for many go-fasts,” one officer agrees. “And no migrants.”
In mid-winter, Cuban and Haitian refugees take to the sea in dilapidated boats and pray that warm currents will carry them to Florida. Few on the Bear have fond stories about immigrant interdiction. On Christmas Day 2000, the ship picked up more than 160 Haitians heading for Florida. Not knowing what foods and spices might make them sick, the cooks prepared plain red beans and rice. The Haitians told the chef his food was terrible. The ship’s doctor let the cooks add a few spices. Then the Haitians accused the chef of trying to poison them. Rescuing immigrants takes the Bear out of the go-fast chase, the sailors say.
For the crew, the drug war is a matter of thrills, not politics. Most of the men on board are the same age as many convicts serving time for drug offenses. But none of them talks about the morality of stopping the drug trade or its consequences. Most of them would rather drive fast boats and visit tropical islands.
Only Diaz speaks idealistically about the drug war. During his Capitol Hill fellowship, he served as drug policy adviser to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. Diaz says his biggest achievement was getting Hastert to publicly link the sale of drugs to the financing of terrorism.
Ten days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Diaz says he told Hastert that Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers, who had given safe harbor to Osama bin Laden and his terrorist training camps, produced more than 70 percent of the world’s heroin and collected more than $20 million in annual tax revenue from its export.
Hastert looked at Diaz disbelievingly. Diaz insisted that the information was accurate, that he’d just confirmed it with Asa Hutchinson, then the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Minutes later, Hastert stood before a throng of journalists to announce the creation of a new congressional drug task force, saying that the heroin trade supported terrorists.
One go-fast can carry up to 1.5 tons of cocaine – about 1 million individual doses. That’s the figure Diaz keeps in mind every time his crew busts a boat. In fiscal 2002, the Coast Guard seized almost 59 tons of the narcotic.
Yet the government has little evidence that it’s winning the drug war.
In June, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy will abandon a $150 million media campaign linking drug sales to terrorism. One of the campaign’s primary goals was to reduce drug use among youths. However, recent General Accounting Office and White House studies have concluded that drug usage rates aren’t declining. A drug office official blames the Clinton administration for failing to craft a coherent anti-drug campaign in the late 1990s.
Funding is another issue. From fiscal 2002 to fiscal 2003, the federal drug control budget dropped by 2 percent. The Coast Guard received $610 million for drug control in fiscal 2002, and is requesting $669 million for fiscal 2004. But walking the decks of the Bear, it seems clear that not enough anti-drug money is making its way to sea.
The ship’s combat command center is the best seat in the house during a go-fast chase, other than a saddle on the OTH. At the peak of a chase, about a dozen sailors gather around radars and satellite telephones, which keep them in touch with command headquarters in Florida. The loudest sound in the room is the hum of the air conditioner, which struggles to keep the quarters cool.
The room’s array of blinking radar screens and elaborate maps makes it look like a modern military nerve center. But in reality, the technology the Bear uses to track go-fasts is so antiquated that, outside the Coast Guard, the only place it’s likely to be found is in a maritime museum.
The Bear‘s primary radar system, which shows the position and identity of ships in the patrol zone, only refreshes data a few times an hour. If the Bear is deployed with more sophisticated Navy vessels, as it was during NATO-led operations in the Balkans in 1999, those ships don’t receive regular updates on the cutter’s position. The crew must verbally relay that information to other ships’ commanders, so they won’t mistake the Bear for an enemy ship and fire on it.
At times, the Bear is the only Coast Guard cutter in its Caribbean patrol area. The ship sails in small, square-shaped sectors, waiting for Coast Guard intelligence experts to relay tips about smugglers seen leaving Colombia. Navy surveillance airplanes often spot the go-fasts from the air and relay their location to the Coast Guard. But under U.S. law, the military can’t participate in the actual interdiction. The Coast Guard has no long-range, sensor-laden planes of its own. “Without [the Navy] . . . we’re just never going to find these guys,” Diaz says.
At night, the hunt is harder. Before 2003, Coast Guard helicopters, which take off and land from the cutters, weren’t even allowed to fly after dark. That policy has changed, and now, pilots wearing night-vision goggles can help sniff out go-fasts. But the work is confounding. “It’s like trying to spot a fly on a wall looking through a straw,” Diaz says.
Once the Bear‘s crew learns that a suspected smuggling boat is in the area, the best tool for tracking it down is the simplest: geometry. Mike Moyers, the operations officer, compares calculating the ship’s position and the go-fast’s likely heading to deer hunting. “He’s here,” Moyers says, drawing a boat-like shape on a pad of paper. “We’re here.” He draws a series of lines called “threat vectors,” the most likely tacks the go-fast will take. “There are only so many places he can go.” Still, Moyers, who hangs a calendar illustrated with big game photographs in his stateroom, would appreciate some modern technology to augment his predator instincts.
When the ship spots its prey, Coast Guard regulations strictly limit the crew’s ability to use force, mainly to keep chases from escalating into shootouts. OTH crews or helicopter pilots must make several attempts to communicate with smugglers on go-fasts, by using international hand gestures to indicate they should stop or even holding up signs, before they can shoot at the boats’ engines.
Before this year, helicopter crews couldn’t fire unless an OTH was present to provide cover in case the smugglers shot back. Coast Guard officials hoped helicopters could intimidate go-fasts into stopping.
But smugglers figured out the Coast Guard policy, and when they saw helicopters with no OTH backup, they often communicated to the pilots with another well-known hand gesture – the extended middle finger. The smugglers have learned many of the Coast Guard’s hunting techniques. When they see a Navy plane overhead, they often stop and throw a blue tarp over the boat, making it virtually invisible from the air.
Coast Guard sailors have tried other means to stop the go-fasts, including shooting the smugglers with paint pellets and pummeling them with “malodorous devices” – stink bombs. But the smugglers just adapted. They started wearing hard plastic masks and thick clothing to guard against the projectiles.
The smugglers know their greatest strength is their superior equipment. They drive their nimble go-fasts in tight corkscrew maneuvers around the less agile OTH boats, to confuse and dizzy crews. If two OTH boats are in pursuit, the smugglers use the spiraling dance to try to make them collide.
The Coast Guard has taken steps to even the odds. In addition to letting helicopters engage smugglers at night, now they can take shots without backup from an OTH. Realizing that an OTH can’t keep pace with a go-fast, Coast Guard officials plan to make the helicopter crews the primary shooters in the future. The aircraft provide a stable nest for Coast Guard marksmen, and can outrun the fastest boats on the water.
Policies have been easier to change than working conditions. The Bear‘s officers had no money in the ship’s budget to replace the malfunctioning headset that caused Fertig to take matters into his own hands. Moyers finagled a deal for new helmets from a general Coast Guard fund, but only got enough for half the OTH crew. The new helmets cost $1,000 a piece, and, unlike their predecessors, they’re waterproof. The helmets Fertig and his crew had been using were designed for Army tank drivers. Saltwater corroded and severed their wires.
In addition to better helmets, the crew wants better boats. OTH engines break down frequently because of the hours-long strain of chases. Far too often, smugglers get away simply because they have better equipment.
When the stars finally align – the Bear finds a go-fast, the OTH catches it, the rules for use of force are met, and nothing breaks – a single bullet can bring the go-fast to a halt. Then, the OTH crewmen storm the boat, guns drawn, and handcuff its crew. The fact that neither side understands each other’s language matters little, says Lt. j.g. Chuck Banks, one of the OTH crew. “Everybody speaks 9 millimeter.”
OVER THE HORIZON
The raucousness of go-fast chases is belied by day-to-day life on the Bear. At times, the ship feels like a floating summer camp. The sailors pass time lifting weights, watching movies, smoking countless cigarettes or dueling on the Sony PlayStation purchased with money from the ship’s morale fund.
Frittering away the hours can keep the crew from thinking about the future, but not for long. Many of the officers will be transferred to new assignments after they return to Portsmouth. A Coast Guard billet only lasts a few years. Some will be reassigned as far away as Alaska.
Fertig wonders if he’s had enough go-fast chases for a while. He wants to get an assignment in port and spend more time with his wife. He wants to work on his house and his boat. But it won’t be easy to leave the Bear.
D.J., the ensign who drove the ship out of Portsmouth, had planned to request a command position on a 110-foot boat, but now he’s decided he wants to be a diver, like his father who served in an Army Special Operations unit. D.J. would dive to repair buoys or as part of a scientific expedition, but the job sounds exciting enough.
His superiors tell him it’s a bad career move, that as a Coast Guard Academy graduate he should go for a command billet. But D.J. won’t listen. He grew up on a 1,000-acre dairy farm in Oregon, and if things don’t work out with the Coast Guard, he could always go back, he says.
Keeping options open might as well be the Coast Guard’s new motto these days. In February, the agency officially transferred from the Transportation Department to the new Homeland Security Department. John Philip Sousa marches and a military color guard marked the occasion at a “change of watch” ceremony in Washington.
Yet, on the Bear, it seems the transition will change little more than the letterhead. Few sailors are sure what homeland security really means. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the ship patrolled the waters off Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C. It was monotonous work, and the crew wondered whom, or what, they were supposed to guard against. Coast Guard leaders say the drug war must be widened to encompass the war on terrorism. Go-fasts could easily replace their usual cargo with a weapon of mass destruction, says Rear Adm. Jeffrey Hathaway, the Coast Guard’s top counterdrug official.
For now, though, the Bear‘s role in homeland security remains unclear. And the reality of scarce resources and higher priorities is sinking in.
On the second day of the patrol, some of the officers huddle with Diaz in Moyers’ stateroom and discuss whether to test fire the massive 75-mm gun mounted on the ship’s bow. They don’t want the crew to get rusty, and they want to be sure the gun is in working order. But some officers question whether there’s enough ammunition to spare. Most of it has been loaded on ships heading for the Persian Gulf. It’s unclear whether a requisition for more will be granted.
Banks speaks up, earnest concern on his face. They have to test the gun, he says plainly. “If it’s broken, and we get the homeland security call . . . then we’re out of the game.” Everyone is silent. The officers look at their shoes, and then look past each other. The elders among them have learned to play things by ear. For the moment, they decide not to decide. They’ll worry about firing the gun later.
The Coast Guard’s senior leaders best understand the agency’s untenable circumstances. In 2002, they launched a long-term project called Deepwater to replace the aging fleet and the dilapidated OTH boats and to outfit new and existing vessels with modern technology and equipment. The project is scheduled to last 20 years. In March, at Congress’ request, the Coast Guard assessed whether Deepwater could be completed in 10 years and whether truncating the schedules would enhance homeland security. No one was surprised when the agency’s leaders said yes.
Accelerating Deepwater would cost an additional $4 billion over the next five years, but it would save $4 billion over the course of the project, the Coast Guard said in its report. “Providing newer assets [ships, aircraft and technology] sooner will reverse adverse trends in deteriorating material . . . dangerous conditions and spiraling maintenance costs,” the report said. Coast Guard officials also said the agency could not meet “today’s challenges” because of a “lack of a Coast Guard-wide capability to intercept . . . ‘go-fast’ boats.” And they emphasized that cutters don’t have “real-time [electronic] connectivity to other units.”
But despite the conclusions, congressional appropriators aren’t likely to approve a plan to accelerate Deepwater, which is budgeted at $500 million a year for 20 years. If the timeline were shortened, $1.89 billion would have to be pumped into the project for fiscal 2005. From then on, it would receive $1.2 billion a year through fiscal 2010. That’s more than one-fifth of the Coast Guard’s 2004 budget request.
Fertig and his shipmates aren’t holding their breath for improvements on the Bear anytime soon. But Fertig doesn’t seem to care. On a cloudy January morning off the coast of Jacksonville, Fla., he just wants to go for a ride.
Barely a week into what may be Fertig’s final trip on the Bear, he and his crew climb into the OTH for the first time in months. The skies are menacing. The water is chilly, and it pours onto the deck. The microphones on the headset are shorting out. And Fertig’s eyes are brighter than they have been in days. Sliding onto his seat, slipping one foot into the deck strap, he orders his driver to go. With a roar, the boat lurches forward. Fertig is again wearing an ear-to-ear grin, and he says quietly, to no one in particular, “This is what it’s all about.”