Face of Defense: Customs Inspectors Keep U.S. Secure

CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE ADDER, Iraq — The num­ber of units pack­ing up equip­ment and per­son­al belong­ings is increas­ing as the U.S. mil­i­tary pre­pares to depart Iraq at the end of the year.

Army Sgt. Julian A. McK­in­non, cus­toms bor­der con­trol pre­clear­ance agent, 1st Cav­al­ry Divi­sion, from San Anto­nio, Texas, seals a con­tain­er after con­duct­ing a cus­toms inspec­tion on Con­tin­gency Oper­at­ing Base Adder, Iraq, Oct. 15, 2011.
U.S. Army pho­to
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But, every­thing that’s shipped to the states from Iraq must first go through a thor­ough inspec­tion. All cus­toms inspec­tions here go through Army Sgt. Thomas Vice II, cus­toms project man­ag­er, 239th Mil­i­tary Police Com­pa­ny, from Alexan­dria, La.

“Any­thing that’s going home has to go through cus­toms,” Vice said. “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,” he con­tin­ued. “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.”

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 that are not allowed to ship. All items to be inspect­ed are posi­tioned in front of large met­al ship­ping con­tain­ers — known as conex­es — used to trans­port equip­ment and gear.

“It’s a 100-per­cent inspec­tion,” Vice said. “You might have a 20-foot conex with 80 duf­fle bags and 60 foot lock­ers, all with per­son­al gear, and every­thing has to be dumped out, sift­ed through and inspect­ed.”

An aver­age unit inspec­tion takes about three to four hours for a sea­soned inspec­tor, he said, not­ing the time it takes to com­plete an inspec­tion depends on how much equip­ment or gear the unit has.

“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,” Vice said. “We don’t want any­thing mess­ing with the ecosys­tem back home, and we’re try­ing to pre­vent that from hap­pen­ing.”

Some sol­diers may not under­stand the envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns involved with the inspec­tion process, said Sgt. Julian A. McK­in­non, cus­toms bor­der con­trol pre-clear­ance agent, 1st Cav­al­ry Divi­sion, from San Anto­nio.

“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 … you could get bac­te­ria that can be harm­ful back in the states.”

Vice said cus­toms inspec­tors also look for numer­ous ille­gal items.

“You can’t have pornog­ra­phy, alco­hol, drugs, or ille­gal weapons,” he said.

And, some peo­ple “try to bring their pro­tein pow­der or work-out sup­ple­ments with them,” Vice said. “Well, if the seal has been bro­ken, they can’t bring it.”

The most effec­tive way to find an ille­gal sub­stance is to use snif­fer dogs, he said.

“Some­times we bring dogs,” Vice said. “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, Vice said. But the risk, he added, is always present.

Beyond ille­gal drugs, weapons and organ­ic mate­ri­als, there is anoth­er con­cern that has devel­oped since the begin­ning of the U.S. pres­ence in the Mid­dle East, Vice said.

Some sol­diers would buy a lot of DVD’s from the Iraqi ven­dors and ship them home, he said, not­ing the rules have become stricter. Now sol­diers are lim­it­ed to one DVD title or one box set.

Once con­tain­ers are inspect­ed, signed off on and sealed here, they go to Kuwait, where they are shipped to the states, Vice said. At that point, he said, 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, Vice said. “That’s more or less mak­ing sure that we’re doing our job; that we don’t miss things.”

For the most part, he said, sol­diers under­stand the neces­si­ty of the inspec­tions.

“Agri­cul­tur­al­ly, it helps the farm­ers from los­ing mon­ey due to bac­te­ria or plant dis­eases that could be trans­port­ed from here to the states,” Vice said. “It also helps to keep untraced and unmarked weapons off the streets.

“We’re not out to ‘get’ peo­ple,” he added. “It’s not about that. It’s about doing the right thing and the safe­ty of the sol­diers.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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