NORFOLK, Va. — After more than a decade of war in Afghanistan, the Coast Guard is finally bringing home the last of its inspection teams that help the military send cargo back to the U.S.
The 15 members of the Coast Guard's redeployment assistance and inspection detachment are scheduled to arrive at Norfolk International Airport on Monday, completing a roughly 11-month deployment to the Middle East that followed two months of training in the U.S. The return of the little-known inspection team is a sign of how much the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan is shrinking.
"Almost all of us are married with kids. We volunteered to leave them behind for 13 months. During our time here a child was born and a parent was lost. A wife was diagnosed with cancer. The RAID Team went home to be with their families but came right back because our mission was to ensure Soldiers and Marines were not delayed in Afghanistan," Lt. Cmdr. Stephen Thompson said in an email to The Associated Press. "We wanted to make sure they saw their families when their tours ended, without delays. The RAID Team directly contributed to the draw down of coalition forces from Afghanistan in the longest conflict in US history."
Since it was created in 2003, the Coast Guard had been sending 15 to 40 people to the Middle East for about a year at a time to ensure hazardous materials were properly prepared for shipment and re-entry into U.S. ports. Shipping containers that aren't properly inspected can face significant and costly delays while waiting in foreign ports. Those teams inspected an average of 300 U.S. government containers a month, according to the Coast Guard.
While the Coast Guard teams primarily worked with the Army, they began supporting Marines at Camp Leatherneck in 2011. A third of the containers there had failed inspections prior to the Coast Guardsmen's arrival.
The material the Coast Guard teams inspected included ammunition, chemicals, cleaning products and pyrotechnics, among other things, said Coast Guard Capt. Andrew McKinley, the Portsmouth, Virginia-based RAID program manager.
"Those things obviously have to be transported with the greatest of care," he said.
The Coast Guard drew from throughout its ranks across the U.S. to field the inspection teams, with plenty of volunteers clamoring to sign up for a rare mission to a landlocked country.
Thompson said he wanted to join a RAID team ever since it was created in 2003. Thompson, who is originally from Dover, Delaware, served as the team's officer in charge and will become the chief of the Baltimore section's investigations division once he gets back. While his family and friends were supportive of his desire to support the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, he also got some quizzical looks when he told people where he was going.
"Most people were shocked to hear I was going to Afghanistan and most of the servicemen in Afghanistan didn't realize we were there until they needed our help or saw us in uniform," Thompson said.
Since 2003, only 256 active duty and reserve Coast Guardsmen served on RAID teams.
Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis