JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. –
In late September 2017, the crew of the USCGC JAMES (WMSL 754) was finishing a deployment in support of the Coast Guard’s Western Hemisphere Strategy to combat illicit trafficking of narcotics in the Eastern Pacific. Their results were impressive; directly interdicting 15 drug smuggling vessels, seizing 10,861 kilograms of cocaine valued at $320 million and the detainment of 51 suspected narco-traffickers.
In the wake of Hurricane Irma and evacuation of the Joint Interagency Task Force-South in Key West, Florida, JAMES assumed overall responsibility for coordinating counter narcotics operations in both the eastern Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. In this unprecedented role for a Coast Guard cutter, JAMES facilitated 61 case interdictions through coordination with 11 partner nations, five interagency entities, 24 maritime patrol aircraft flights and 11 surface ships. Their efforts yielded the seizure of an additional 7,381 kilograms of cocaine and 747 kilograms of marijuana. The crew was tired and ready to head home to Charleston. However, the return passage north saw the same crew preparing for a completely different mission.
News of Hurricane Maria bearing down on Puerto Rico was spreading and nobody knew the extent of the damage. The mission had changed; the focus had changed.
JAMES made best speed to arrive on scene just as initial reports were surfacing. Immediately, many of the crew began familiarizing themselves with the local geography, nearest airports and hospitals. They began preparation to conduct urgent search and rescue, provide command and control and deploy assets and personnel to assist the worst hit areas in Puerto Rico. In addition, JAMES assumed Commander Task Unit Maria responsibilities and began the coordination of all Coast Guard surface assets responding to Puerto Rico, ensuring a key link to the island would be reestablished for humanitarian aid and commercial shipping traffic.
Shortly after arriving in San Juan harbor, JAMES personnel accomplished the major milestones of establishing communications and information sharing with the U.S. Navy task force assigned to the humanitarian and disaster relief operations in the Northern Caribbean as well as conducting assessments of many of the smaller ports of entry. JAMES served as the information conduit from the smaller assets on the ground and in the air.
JAMES, the most technologically advanced cutter in the Coast Guard fleet, demonstrated her capability to serve as a mobile communications platform, able to extend the range of fixed communications equipment. She manned local and international distress frequencies and relayed information for airborne supply drops to assist remote towns in dire need of supplies. Critical watch stations were activated onboard the ship as personnel from local units embarked to assist in re-establishing the local command and control structure.
Additionally, the crew of JAMES mobilized shore parties to assist in the physical reconstitution of Coast Guard Sector San Juan. For several days many of the crew volunteered to go ashore and help remove debris, clear roadways and effect repairs to severely damaged infrastructure. The crew even donated what little remaining personal supplies they had, knowing every little bit would help those who lost everything. Following two-weeks on scene, JAMES was relieved of Command Task Unit Maria responsibilities on October 3, 2017 and returned to homeport having completed numerous missions during an 82 day deployment.
USCG Capt. Mark J. Fedor, James’ commanding officer, described the deployment succinctly.
“Coast Guard men and women shine the brightest when adversity is the darkest,” said Fedor. “While much work remains, we made things a little better every single day.”