The Long Blue Line - 20 Years OIF: Coast Guard combat operations in Operation Iraqi Freedom

By William H. Thiesen, Ph.D., Atlantic Area Historian


110-foot patrol Coast Guard Cutter Wrangell and its crew. (U.S. Coast Guard)As in so many American conflicts,Coast Guardsmen endure a sandstorm during Operation Iraqi Freedom. (U.S. Coast Guard) Coast Guard units and personnel in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) performed several missions including escort duty, force protection, maritime interdiction operations (MIO), and aids-to-navigation (ATON) work. From the very outset of Middle East operations, the Coast Guard’s training and experience in these and other maritime activities played a vital role in OIF.

Late in 2002, Coast Guard headquarters alerted various units in the service’s Pacific Area (PACAREA) and Atlantic Area (LANTAREA) about possible deployment to the Middle East. From November 2002 through January of 2003, these units began activation, training, and planning activities for an expected deployment in early 2003. In January, PACAREA’s first major units deployed to the Arabian Gulf, including the high-endurance Cutter Boutwell and ocean-going buoy tender Cutter Walnut. Both vessels had to cross the Pacific and Indian oceans to arrive at the Persian Gulf and begin operations. Their responsibilities would include MIO and Walnut, in conjunction with members of the Coast Guard’s National Strike Force, would lead potential oil-spill containment operations.

LANTAREA provided many units of its own, sending the high-endurance Cutter Dallas to the Mediterranean to support and escort Military Sealift Command shipping and Coalition battle groups in that theater of operations. LANT sent four 110-foot patrol boats (WPBs) to Italy together with support personnel and termed their base of operations “Patrol Forces Mediterranean” (PATFORMED), and it sent four patrol boats to the Persian Gulf with a Bahrain-based command called “Patrol Forces Southwest Asia” (PATFORSWA).Wreck of an Iraqi patrol boat left along the Khor Abd Allah Waterway. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The service also activated Port Security110-foot patrol Coast Guard Cutter Adak interdicts a local dhow in the Northern Persian Gulf. (U.S. Coast Guard) Units (PSUs) and law enforcement boarding teams (LEDETs), which had proven successful in the Gulf War in 1990. LANTAREA sent PSU 309 out of Port Clinton, Ohio, to Italy to support PATFORMED while PACAREA sent PSU 311 out of San Pedro, California and PSU 313 out of Tacoma, Washington, to Kuwait to protect the Kuwait Naval Base and the commercial port of Shuaiba, respectively. LEDET personnel initially served aboard the patrol boats and then switched to Navy patrol craft to perform MIO operations.

At 8:00 p.m., on March 19, Coalition forces launched Operation Iraqi Freedom. When hostilities commenced, all Coast Guard units were manned and ready. On March 20, members from PSU 311 and PSU 313 helped secure Iraq’s offshore oil terminals thereby preventing environmental damage and ensuring the flow of oil for a post-war Iraqi government. On March 21, littoral combat operations began, and the Cutter Adak served picket duty farther north than any other Coalition unit along the Khor Abd Allah Waterway. Adak captured the first Iraqi maritime prisoners of the war whose patrol boat had been destroyed upstream by an AC-130 gunship. On that same day, Adak participated in the capture of two Iraqi tugs and a mine-laying barge that had been modified to plant its deadly cargo in the waters of theLt. Holly Harrison, Coast Guard Cutter Aquidneck commanding officer and first female recipient of the Bronze Star Medal. (U.S. Coast Guard) Northern Persian Gulf.

Once initial naval operations ceased, Coast Guard units began securing port facilities and waterways for humanitarian aid shipment to Iraq. On March 24, PSU 311 members deployed to the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr and, four days later, the Cutter Wrangell led the first humanitarian aid shipment to that port facility. In addition to their primary mission of boarding vessels in the Northern Persian Gulf, Coast Guard LEDETs secured the Iraqi shoreline from caches of weapons and munitions. Buoy tender Cutter Walnut, whose original mission included environmental protection from sabotaged oil facilities, surveyed and completely restored aids-to-navigation for the shipping lane leading to Iraq’s ports.

President George Bush declared an end to Port security unit crewmember mans a .50 caliber gun guarding an Iraqi oil rig. (U.S. Coast Guard)combat operations in Iraq May 1. However, in less than a year the Coast Guard suffered its first and only death associated with OIF. On April 24, 2004, terrorists navigated three small vessels armed with explosives toward Iraq’s oil terminals. During this attack, the Navy patrol craft Firebolt intercepted one of the watercraft and members of LEDET 403 and Navy crewmembers proceeded toward the vessel in a rigid-hull inflatable boat (RHIB). Terrorists aboard the small vessel detonated its explosive cargo as the RHIB approached, overturning the boat, and killing LEDET member Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Bruckenthal and two Navy crewmembers. Serving in his second tour of duty in Iraq, Bruckenthal had already received the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal and Combat Action Ribbon. He posthumously received the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart Medal, and Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal. He was the first Coast Guardsman killed in combat since the Vietnam War and was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

In OIF, the Coast Guard demonstrated the importance of a naval force experienced in shallow-water operations, MIO, port security, and ATON work. The PSUs performed their port security duties efficiently despite their units being divided between three separate port facilities and two oil terminals. The patrol boats operated for countless hours without maintenance in waters too shallow for Navy assets and served as the Coalition fleet’s workhorses in boarding, escort, and force protection duties. The personnel of PATFORMED and PSU 309 demonstrated that Coast Guard units could serve in areas, such as the Mediterranean, lacking any form of Coast Guard infrastructure. PATFORSWA performed its mission effectively even though it was the first support detachment established by the Coast Guard. Fortunately, Walnut never had to employ its oil spill capability, but the cutter proved indispensable for MIO operations and ATON work on the Khor Abd Allah Waterway. Cutters Dallas and Boutwell provided much-needed logistical support, force protection and MIO operations. OIF was just one of the many combat operations the Coast Guard fought since 1790 and its heroes are among the many members of the long blue line.

PSU 309’s port security boat underway. (U.S. Coast Guard)
Ocean-going buoy tender Coast Guard Cutter Walnut performing aids-to-navigation work along the ship channel of the Khor Abd Allah Waterway. (U.S. Coast Guard)


Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Bruckenthal, who made the ultimate sacrifice during a boarding operation as member of a Coast Guard LEDET team. (U.S. Coast Guard)


In the News: 


Image Gallery

1 - 12 of 17 results
CGD 24 Wainwright Unknown port; photo taken from quarterdeck of unnamed USCG cutter. Boston? Photo...
USCG patrol boats during Prohibition
"Coast Guard Destroyer Downes (From a Painting by the Destroyer Force Bugle Staff Artist, Marius...
"Ensign Roland making end run, Coast Guard-Marine game, Washington, D.C., 1929." Scanned from...
"1929 - Coast Guard Football Team - 1929. Back Row: -Lieut. Baker, Coast and Manager; Wineke,...
A photo of Coast Guard Destroyer CONYNGHAM on patrol during Prohibition.
Coast Guard Destroyer's baseball team (no date).
Hand-written caption on reverse of photo reads: "Officers and crew of CGC Beale (Navy destroyer...
Hand-written caption on reverse of photo reads: "R R Waesche Sr., CGC Snohomish, Port Angeles, or...
"BEALE (CG-9) (Of the old U.S. Coast Guard Destroyer Force - 1924-1930) An early 20th century...
"Engineroom Force of the Coast Guard Cutter PONTCHARTRAIN. 3-5-29 (1)." CCG Scrapbook (CG...
Copy photo found in the CG Historian's Office Special Collections Archive in the "Uniforms" folder....

U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office
2703 Martin Luther King, Jr., Ave, SE
Washington, DC 20593-7031

U.S. Coast Guard Museum
Coast Guard Academy - Waesche Hall
15 Mohegan Ave
New London, CT 06320-8100

Contacting us:  U.S.C.G. Historian's Office