As the showdown with Iraq draws near, all eyes are focused on our soldiers overseas. But what about the people protecting us here at home? The US Coast Guard's been doing that for 220 years. It's a tougher challenge that some might think. A long time ago, the worst they might encounter would be a stranded boater or a drug smuggler. But not any more.
Since the days of clipper ships and sails, the Coast Guard has been a vital part of America's defense. Started in 1790, its members have patrolled the country's ports and shores watching for everything from pollution to pirates to foreign attackers. Much of that time has been spent in obscurity.
"Most often people didn't really consider the Coast Guard a part of the military," rescue diver Dave Toppi told us. "Lots of people didn't know what the Coast Guard was."
That all changed in a single day.
"Since 9-11, what we do, this port security function, has become the major component almost overnight," said Tim Close, a marine safety commander.
In the wake of September 11, the Coast Guard immediately mobilized more than 2,000 reservists in the largest homeland defense and security operation since World War II. What may surprise you is the Coast Guard was the only branch of the military not under the Department of Defense. But starting March 1, the Coast Guard shifts from the Department of Transportation to the largest single agency of the Homeland Security Department.
"Homeland security now occupies 75 percent of what we do at the marine safety office from harbor patrol to commercial vessel boardings," noted Close.
"The Coast Guard has definitely come to the forefront on the issue of homeland security, but we've always had that mission since our inception since 1790," said Commander Gail Donnelly.
Pilots and helmsmen not only protect the peaceful shoreline of the Coastal Empire and Low Country, they also watch over areas like the Savannah ports and the LNG plant at Elba Island with a new perspective, knowing each could be a target for terror.
"We're on the forefront of a war right now," pilot LTJG Matt Sanford told us. "That war won't be fought exclusively overseas. It's going to be fought here, like it or not."
Members of the Coast Guard say the biggest difference between then and now is a shift of priorities among their timeless missions and what the public sees, not only as search and rescue but as defenders ready for the attack they say is only a matter of time. They're focused on keeping a watchful eye in the air and on the sea for anything that might threaten what they've protected for so long.
These men and women must look for routine problems like stranded boaters as well as potential threats. The mission hasn't changed, just our awareness. One of the members we met was getting coffee on River Street before patrol. He says the waitress commented she was glad they were patrolling the river now. He said, "We've been doing it for years."