As American troops head to the Middle East, others stand ready to defend us at home. The Coast Guard has watched our coasts and ports for 200 years. Next week, the Guard will become the largest agency in the Department of Homeland Security.
Beside the biggest ships on the sea, they watch the waterways for trouble. The Coast Guard patrols the coast and rivers looking for anything that could be a danger or in danger, anything that might stand out from all the scenery.
To most of us, the Savannah River is as calm and picturesque as a post card painting. But to Lt. Commander Alan Reagan, it's the watery equivalent to Interstate 95, complete with tons of commerce in transit. A reservist for nearly 20 years, he says the Coast Guard is now more visible in this age of terror.
"It's a different outlook now," Reagan said. "The Coast Guard has taken a very proactive outlook to it since September 11. We started a sea marshal program where we ride the major ships in."
Their watch begins far beyond what we see from shore, 12 miles out to sea to be exact. Then all the way to the docks upriver. It's all about positive control.
"That's not a catch phrase with us," Reagan said. "It's what we do. If we ride a commercial vessel inland, we want to make sure there's no one affecting that vessel."
The idea of someone attacking a ship at the Georgia ports or the natural gas plant on Elba Island no longer sounds like the plot of a bad movie to those charged with protecting them.
"Whereas before we'd board these vessels looking for compliance with international safety and pollution rules violations, now we're more likely to board with armed teams looking for security issues and problems," Commander Tim Close told us.
Commander Close says part of the homeland security focus may mean inspecting vessels like the large cargo vessels that routinely travel the Savannah River before they leave international ports to come to this country to reduce the possible threat these awesome structures carry.
If the view of these vessels is impressive from River Street, the view from water level is even better. They're 15 to 16 stories in the air with four floors of basement underwater. Multiply that by the length of two football fields. Now imagine buildings that size popping in and out of Savannah every day, each a potential threat or target.
"The trick is not identifying everything that could happen cause that could be a very long and scary list," noted Close. "The trick is identifying what is more likely to happen."
"Everybody has to remain vigilant and I think that's how we'll deter things from happening," Reagan said.
But the danger that something could happen at any time doesn't escape anyone's mind.
"You just have to put it to the wayside and do it," said Petty Officer Rich Hogan. "If you sit and worry about it, you'll never come out of your house. You have a job to do and you do it the best you can."
While they may be nothing more than part of the scenery for the tourists they pass, they patrol the water with a watchful eye for anything that could put today's date along side September 11 in history. Just spending a little time with these men and women, you see how vital they are as the eyes and ears of our frontline.