The US Coast Guard has come to the forefront since September 11, doing the same job, but getting more attention. Years ago, the idea of foreign attack was something for the movies. Now it's part of their everyday flights.
You could call Lt. JG Matt Sanford a sentry in the sky. By helicopter, the Coast Guard co-pilot crisscrosses the shoreline and waterways of the Coastal Empire and Low Country. Before September 11, patrols were more routine: watching for stranded boaters or maybe drug-running smugglers. Now, the ride in the sky has a whole new meaning.
"We're more focused on port security missions, other homeland security issues, Department of Defense escorts as well as traditional Coast Guard missions like search and rescues," Sanford said.
That mission was clear last month when Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield soldiers deployed for possible war. The Coast Guard helped protect the Navy ships loading the tons of equipment that would have been a tempting target for terrorists.
That's a big job for the only branch of the military that's not even a part of the Department of Defense. But starting March 1, the Coast Guard shifts from the Department of Transportation to become the largest agency in the Department of Homeland Security.
They now watch for targets that may not be as easily visible. Any of the huge commercial ships coming into either the ocean or Garden City terminals of the Georgia Ports could serve as either a threat or a target. From there, the Liquid Natural Gas plant on Elba Island is just a dot on the horizon. But up close, it's easy to imagine an enemy trying to capture or destroy it.
"We might be running a mission to check on fishing positions while making sure other things aren't out of the norm," said Sanford. "Making sure somebody's not in an area they shouldn't be, doing something they shouldn't."
"That's basically what homeland security is, it's neighborhood watch," explained Commander Gail Donnelly. "Being vigilant in your own neighborhood, your own port, knowing what is expected and isn't expected and taking action. Before September 11, nobody was thinking about using aircraft in that manner. Now we're thinking about how to prevent something like that or something similar."
"All those things are on our mind as we fly," added Sanford.
From the air, Sanford and others must be ready at all times. Ready for anything from a sinking swimmer to a sinister ship looking to bring the war on terror to our shores. Just spending a small amount of time with those pilots, you see how they are the eyes and ears of our defense.