U.S. Coast Guard
has patrolled North Carolina's coast for nearly a century. Since Sept. 11, its mission has gained new meaning.
"One of the goals right now, according to the president, is homeland security. And that's where it starts, with the Coast Guard," said Petty Officer Joe Graham.
No longer the silent service, the Coast Guard plays a critical part in national defense. In fact, the Coast Guard has been on its highest level of port security seen since World War II.
These days, members of the Coast Guard dress in fatigues and carry guns. They patrol and search just about every boat and question every move.
The Coast Guard is responsible for protecting 300 miles of North Carolina coastline, but members said that the Cape Fear River is one of the most important places they patrol.
Every month, 30 to 40 ships dock at the
Port of Wilmington
. Ships come from all over the globe, including South America, Korea, and Saudi Arabia. Most ships usually carry thousands of containers full of products like salt and steel, which are then distributed all over the country.
Tom Eager of the
N.C. Ports Authority
said that because the Wilmington port is so busy and that it
sits on a mile's worth
of open water, it can be considered a prime target.
"When you think about chemical, biological and nuclear threats, it's all there. It's really a scary situation to think 'What if?'" he said.
Before Sept. 11, ships were required to file plans 24 hours before pulling into port. Now, plans must be filed 96 hours in advance and Coast Guard officers check the ships before arrival.
"They board the vessels, they check the crews, the backgrounds and their cargos," said Eager.
The port operates around-the-clock with guards checking and double-checking every car and every truck that enter its gates. Even with heightened security, Eager said that there is still more work to be done.
"I can't be comfortable telling you we're fully prepared. We can certainly put up the deterrents and the systems to safeguard, but 100 percent foolproof, no," said Eager.
Checking out bridges, scanning shorelines and protecting the port, the Coast Guard is motivated and determined to make a difference.
"In light of everything that happened on Sept. 11, it makes us proud to be out here, that we're doing our part," said Graham.
Until further notice, it will be up to the fifth branch of the armed services to make sure the coast is clear.
The Coast Guard activated 25 reservists in North Carolina who will remain on duty for the next year.There has also been talk in Washington recently about merging the Coast Guard with the Border Patrol and U.S. Customs.
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