By Spc. Anthony T. Zane, for Soldiers magazineDecember 1, 2011
THE number of military units packing up equipment and personal belongings is increasing as the U.S. continues to prepare its exit from Iraq as part of Operation New Dawn. But before anything crosses over U.S. borders, everything that is shipped back to the States must go through a thorough customs inspection.
All customs inspections for Contingency Operating Base Adder go through Sgt. Thomas Vice II, COB Adder customs project manager, of the 239th Military Police Company.
"Anything that's going home has to go through customs," said Vice. "To start, the units have to send in a customs request form. The standard operating procedure is to get the request in at least 10 days prior to the inspection. That way I've got time to make sure everything is right. I make sure that the date for inspection is clear and that we have a stamp reserved for that date."
After the inspection is completed, the paperwork is signed and stamped with an official customs stamp that certifies the cargo in the container has been properly inspected.
"Because we only have a certain amount of stamps, we can only have so many inspections per day," he added.
All Soldiers prepare their equipment and personal gear prior to the inspection by placing it on the ground in organized sections.
The customs inspector then briefs Soldiers on the inspection process and goes over the list of items they are not allowed to ship. All items to be inspected are laid out in front of the large metal storage containers used for shipping equipment and gear, known as Conexes (short for container express).
"It's a 100-percent inspection," said Vice. "You might have a 20-foot Conex with 80 duffle bags and 60 footlockers, all with personal gear, and everything has to be dumped out, sifted through and inspected."
While the average inspection takes about three to four hours for a seasoned inspector, said Vice, the time it takes to complete an inspection varies on how much equipment or gear the unit has to be inspected.
"One of the main things that we look for is cleanliness, because any kind of organic matter -- dirt, sand, grass, plants, anything like that -- is an absolute no-go," said Vice. "We don't want anything messing with the ecosystem back home, and we're trying to prevent that from happening."
Many Soldiers may not understand the environmental concern that is involved with the inspection process.
"It's really important, especially at the port cities, because when containers are opened and something bad is in there like animal products or soil that could have time to culture, you could get bacteria that can be harmful back in the States," said Sgt. Julian A. McKinnon, customs border control preclearance agent, 1st Cavalry Division.
The other thing customs inspectors are on the lookout for is any illegal items.
"Another thing we look for is any kind of contraband," said Vice.
"You can't have pornography, alcohol, drugs or illegal weapons."
The inspection protocol used in theater comes from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said Vice.
"People try to bring their protein powder or work-out supplements with them," said Vice. "Well, if the seal has been broken, they can't bring it."
The most effective way to find an illegal substance is to use K-9's, and the decision to use the dogs is left to Vice's discretion.
"Sometimes we bring dogs," said Vice. "The K-9 unit works with us a lot being that we're the provost marshal's office, but the decision to use them is nothing in particular. It's just random."
There have been no significant violations so far on COB Adder, but the risk is always present.
"Not that I've seen," said McKinnon, "but you hear of a few who try to smuggle drugs, alcohol or a certain type of knife that is not allowed to go back to the States."
Beyond illegal drugs, weapons and organic materials, another concern has developed since the beginning of the U.S. presence in the Middle East.
Soldiers will buy a lot of DVDs from the Iraqi vendors over here and ship them home, said Vice. But the rules have become more strict about that.
Now Soldiers are limited to one DVD title or one box set.
"There's not much room for leniency," said McKinnon. "We go by the book."
But the inspection process is not complete once all equipment and gear is loaded into the containers and sealed.
Once containers are inspected, signed off on and sealed here, then they go to Kuwait from where they are then shipped back to the States, said Vice. At that point, all containers in Kuwait are subject to another customs inspection. That inspection is done randomly to at least 10 percent of the containers.
"If they get 500 Conexes in that day, they're going through 50 of them, said Vice. "That's more or less making sure that we're doing our job; that we don't miss things."
"It's important for people to know that if the customs inspector is doing his job properly, they are not going to get anything past him," said McKinnon.
For the most part, Soldiers understand the importance of the inspections process.
"It's helping to safeguard the U.S. economy," said Vice.
"Agriculturally, it helps the farmers from losing money due to bacteria or plant diseases that could be transported from here to the States," said Vice. "It also helps to keep untraced and unmarked weapons off the streets."
The customs inspection process is vital to homeland security.
"We're not out to get people," said McKinnon. "It's not about that. It's about doing the right thing and the safety of the Soldiers."