MANAMA, Bahrain (NNS) -- Embarked Security Teams (EST) based at Naval Support Activity (NSA) Bahrain continue to make up one of the most critical elements of maritime security in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operation.
Created in June 2004 under the umbrella of Operation Vigilant Mariner (OVM), the 11 12-man teams provide protection for Military Sealift Command (MSC) ships and their civilian crews as they ferry food, equipment and other supplies to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A typical EST escort consists of meeting an MSC ship in the Mediterranean Sea, embarking for the remainder of the ship's transit, and disembarking in the Persian Gulf or remaining with the ship as it returns to the Mediterranean Sea.
Lt. Edward Young, force protection operations officer for Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT), and OVM program manager, said ESTs provide protection not only to MSC ships, but also to maritime prepositioning ships, fast combat support ships and bulk fuel carriers.
Young, from Columbia, S.C., explained that these vessels need protection because they have no weapons of their own. They are not warships, but rather civilian vessels that the government has contracted to transport cargo to the troops in the region.
"Anything that moves into and out of Afghanistan and Iraq comes in either via air or on these MSC ships," Young said. "So not only are [the teams] supporting the maritime security operations, but they also are directly involved in supporting [Operation Iraqi Freedom] and [Operation Enduring Freedom] in Afghanistan, because everything that we are providing protection for is going directly into the combat zone in both areas."
"We're supplying everything they need up north [like] tanks and the helicopters," said Operations Specialist 2nd Class Dorothy McNerney. "We also bring back crews who are returning."
After Sept. 11, 2001, the demand for increased security led to the institution of Operation Guardian Mariner (OGM), a maritime security force manned by soldiers from the Puerto Rican Army National Guard. Young said U.S. Marines helped protect the ships for a while, but when OVM was formed, the Navy took responsibility for protecting the MSC ships.
"We started from scratch," Young said. "We've had some problems here and there, just like anything else, but we've managed to overcome them. We've never missed a mission, and we haven't delayed any deliveries."
Young said for most of the year there are around 15 ships in the region that require EST escorts.
"During the surge period, though, you have a deployment and redeployment going on at the same time and that ups the number anywhere from 32 to 39 ships in theater," Young said.
This is usually the time reserve Embarked Security Detachments (ESD) and active-duty Mobile Security Detachments (MSD) arrive in Bahrain to support the EST.
"They come out here temporarily to assist us in doing our mission," Young said. "We have three [detachments] which provide embarked security teams in addition to the teams that NSF provides."
Master-at-Arms 2nd Class Joey Figueroa, a former EST Chief of the Guard, said only a couple of dhows had ventured to get close to the ships since the program started, but that they turned away when the team started pre-planned responses, such as launching flares.
"Once they see the ship is what we call a hard target, then they go away," explained Young.
Young credited the EST staff with the success of the fledgling program. The predominantly junior enlisted staff members had been executing tasks usually performed by higher-ranking military personnel. He said a new command was being introduced to NSA Bahrain, Mobile Security Squadron 3 Det. Bahrain, and that its projected staff included "twice the number of bodies, and much higher ranks" than those currently running EST. He said the current teams' performance, despite having fewer members, was a reflection of the quality and magnitude of their efforts.
"You have an OS2 (operations specialist 2nd class) [currently] doing the job of a lieutenant junior grade or a lieutenant, an FC3 (fire controlman 3rd class) doing the job of a supply officer or a chief petty officer, supply-type, [and] an MA2 (master-at-arms 2nd class) doing the job of a GM1 (gunner's mate 1st class) or GMC (chief gunner's mate)," said Young.
McNerney, from Philadelphia, and Fire Controlman 3rd Class Carrie Weathers, from Baton Rouge, La., had been invaluable members of this team from its inception. Young also credited Figueroa with successfully executing the command training program and Barber with running a unit that will be supervised by a lieutenant commander in the future.
"Without a doubt, without Weathers (the command's supply petty officer) and McNerney (who schedules both active-duty and reserve team movements within the region), this whole program would have fallen apart months ago," he said. "We would never have got off the ground."
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