By Sgt. Maj. Michael PintagroMarch 10, 2014
MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU AIR BASE, Romania -- Unless they traveled overseas during a family vacation, none of the military policemen serving with the 202nd MP Company in Fort Bliss, Texas thought a great deal about customs procedures last fall.
But a lot changed between fall and winter. Expecting to deploy in support of operations in Afghanistan, Africa or the Middle East, two-thirds of the 2nd Platoon, 202nd MPs instead found themselves manning the new MK customs facility constructed by 21st Theater Sustainment Command engineers and partners in January.
"Deputizing" MPs as customs cadre may appear counterintuitive, but the idea seems less arresting on reflection. Capt. Thomas L. Dixon, the director of emergency services at MK and, until recently, the commander of the 202nd, does not view the change of mission as a speed trap for his Soldiers.
"It's an essential mission that has to get done," the Belleville, Ill. native said. "It's probably better to have Soldiers handle the customs mission -- they have empathy as Soldiers themselves. They're still enforcing the same standards and they have to take the same categories of stuff away. But they probably have a little more understanding and empathy than guys who have never been in the military."
Soldiers and Marines transiting through the facility en route to their home stations start the customs process like many other military activities, with a brief. "We tell them what can and can't go onboard without a memorandum," said Pvt. Brahim El Idrissi, an MP-turned customs briefer and native of Cranston, R.I. "We tell them what foods can go on, what drugs they can carry, and the rules on war souvenirs and weapons."
Soldiers require written approval by a theater-level commander in order to redeploy with "war booty," such as arms and ammunition taken from enemy troops. Strict rules also govern less exotic weapons. "We emphasize weapons, knives, multi-tools and ammunition of any kind," El Idrissi said, adding that other prohibited items include flammable, pressurized substances like aerosols, liquids and a variety of food products.
Meats, unpackaged foods, agricultural items and organic materials pose greater risk than many realize. "The customs mission here is geared toward ensuring our homeland is safe from any pests, illegal substances or contraband items," said Robert K. Walters of U.S. Army Europe Headquarters, who serves as the chief customs agent at MK transit center. "We want to ensure we don't take something back that will damage our agriculture or our ecosystem in the United States." "When you realize the damage that small amounts of dirt and parasites can do to people and crops and everything you understand why they're so strict about it," added Sgt. Norman Pierce, a military policeman with the 202nd, an astute student of the customs training Walters oversaw in February and native of Zaneville, Ohio. "Plants, dirt and germs can destroy crops in the U.S. and hurt the economy."
Rules restrict rather than prohibit the import of such other items as medicines and tobacco products. "Over-the-counter medicines can't be mixed, and prescription medication must include the proper labels," El Idrissi said. Whether smokers or not, customs agents count cigarettes. "They're allowed up to 100 cigarettes, 10 cans of dip or one bag of chewing tobacco," El Idrissi said.
After the initial briefing, processing Soldiers move toward the clearing area. According to Spc. Jeffrey Otero, a communication specialist until the onset of his customs career, a ranking officer, baggage detail and two medics enter first to assist during subsequent inspections and preparation of gear for shipment. "We send them in waves of 20 at a time," the Bayamon, Puerto Rico native said. Transiting personnel walk to the amnesty point, where they receive a second brief and another opportunity to surrender questionable items while customs and cargo administrators await mobilization. Afterward, Otero said, "they're scanned by wand or full body scan. If the scanner picks anything up, the CCA checks anything that beeps.'"
Walters, a five-year veteran of the customs service who retired from the Army as a senior NCO following an active-duty career in explosive ordnance disposal, described deciphering X-ray imagery and navigating the labyrinth of rules and regulations issued by an alphabet of agencies as the most challenging part of the mission. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. European Command and U.S. Central Command among other agencies, he noted, all contribute to the MK regulatory burden. "Understanding all the different standards, all the different regulations, from the CBP to the USDA, EUCOM regulations, CENTCOM regulations, trying to put it all in one piece to make this process go easier to for the Soldiers" poses a significant challenge for even the most seasoned and skilled of agents.
Leaders and Soldiers alike report three main categories of items as the most frequent source of violations and the most likely to appear in amnesty boxes. "Ammunition, weapons and USDA violations -- food items, are the most common," Walters said. Despite repeated and thorough briefs, a certain share of passengers invariably carries contraband. According to Otero, the "perps" range from fatigued and exhausted troops who fail to follow instructions or misjudge their cargo to conscious rule-breakers who underestimate the odds of detection or the significance of the process.
According to Dixon, the penalty for Soldiers caught with contraband varies with the severity of the offense. The MPs rarely "throw the book" at perpetrators of "good faith" mistakes. If transiting Soldiers wrongly assume a utility tool or knife falls within tolerance, they simply lose the item.
"If something's legal but outside regs for customs, it's usually confiscated," he said. "If they're trying to bring something illegal back to the States, they're going to be charged." Customs crime doesn't pay. Any attempt to smuggle illegal drugs or weapons, for instance, might result in prosecution. The senior commander on the ground can charge Soldiers carrying prohibited items under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. "If Soldiers violate Romanian law, they can also be prosecuted by the Romanians," Dixon added.
Customs looms large in the redeployment process. "Before Soldiers move from Afghanistan to the United States, they need to clear customs," Dixon said. "It's a show-stopper. If the process stops, nobody goes anywhere. It's the last step before they hit the sanitized area and wait until they board the plane."
Engineers from the 21st TSC and partner agencies devoted special attention to the development of the customs facility as they constructed the MK Passenger Transit Center, ensuring the building adhered to all regulations and administrative requirements. The final product satisfied even the most discerning of critics.
"The facilities they constructed for us are working great," Walters said. "The engineers out here did a great job for us. Everything here was constructed in a very short time and it meets all the needs we have."
The Fort Walton Beach, Fla. resident also offered unqualified praise for the performance of Romanian colleagues and counterparts. "So far, the interaction with the Romanian customs team has been fantastic," he said. "They've given us all the support we need and they've always been there for us."
Walters takes a broad view of his mission. The job entails everything from public safety and interpretation of impenetrable regulations to interface with allied governmental agencies and law enforcement. But the most rewarding aspect of the job, he said, involves putting redeploying Soldiers "on that bird so we know they're going home, and we know the baggage is clear of any contraband -- and knowing that when they get home they'll have no issues. They'll go home and be with their families and life will continue for them."
The 202nd policemen themselves traveled a unique route from the deserts of greater El Paso, Texas to the cool mists of Romania. Whereas most Soldiers and Airmen supporting the passenger transit center deployed into MK from bases in Europe for relatively short rotations measured in weeks, planners expect the MPs to serve a longer nine-month stretch. The MPs view the mission as a long-term deployment analogous to a rotation in Afghanistan or Kuwait rather than an intense, "short-burst" task-driven operation -- reasonable since the company's initial "warning" traffic anticipated a consolidated Operation Enduring Freedom mission and the other two platoons deployed to Afghanistan and Africa in the same timeframe.
The new mission permeated the very air around them. The damp, dark Balkans winter climate contrasted starkly with the cloudless skies of their arid Southwestern U.S. base. "As we first flew in we saw a wall of fog," Pierce said with a laugh. "One of the transiting guys asked me about the weather here. I told him I'd been here two weeks and seen the sun once."
After experimenting briefly with a daytime schedule supplemented by "on call" personnel, the MPs adopted a shift system due to the volume of flights at all hours. According to Pierce, leaders organized living space by shift to maximize the comfort of Soldiers; MPs operating the customs center overnight necessarily eat, work and conduct physical fitness training at unconventional times. "The guys working the same shift are on the same schedule, so they're working, sleeping and doing PT at the same time; so they're not waking each other up as much. And they also encourage everyone else to get up when it's time to go on shift," he said.
Morale and motivation remain high even if clouds hover low. It takes considerably more than fog, congestion, overnight shifts and mission changes to handcuff Texas lawmen. Key leaders describe the Army cops-turned customs cadre as skillful, resilient and enthusiastic.
"They're the best group of Soldiers I've worked with," Walters said. "They're extremely competent and professional. They learn, and they've applied what they learned over the past few months here."
"The guys are excited to do this operation and play a part in the larger mission," Dixon added. "They're excited about supporting an important mission and helping the guys leaving theater get back home. Everyone wants to go to Afghanistan and get their combat patch; but they understand where they fit into the big picture -- and they're proud to be a part of it."