News: Air Force accepts CENTCOM's customs mission
Story by Master Sgt. Marelise Wood
UNDISCLOSED LOCATION - For the first time the Air Force is solely responsible for the U.S. Central Command's customs mission in Southwest Asia. In a recent transfer of authority ceremony, the 387th Air Expeditionary Squadron, undisclosed location, Southwest Asia, accepted responsibility for the customs mission from the U.S. Navy who has performed the mission for the past eight years.
Lt. Col. Daniel Johnstone, 387 AES commander, accepted the mission, not long after taking command of his newly-established squadron whose sole purpose is the customs mission.
"We inspect all Department of Defense personnel and materiel leaving the [CENTCOM] area of responsibility (AOR) destined for the States," said Johnstone, deployed from Scott Air Force Base, Ill. "We are working on behalf of the United States Customs and Border Patrol and the United States Department of Agriculture to ensure no contraband or agricultural hazards find their way from the AOR into the United States."
According to Johnstone, this is done through a combination of work centers and mobile teams that travel throughout the AOR.
"We currently have teams conducting U.S. Customs clearance inspections at various air and sea ports in five different countries throughout Southwest Asia," he said. Here, at this location, "we have teams assigned at wash racks, the Central Receiving and Shipping Point, the retrograde yard, the sterile lot, and the Theater Gateway where we clear passengers."
In addition, the squadron also has a permanent presence at the Sea Port of Debarkation here.
According to Johnstone, each of the different work centers is responsible for ensuring that all personnel and cargo are free from contraband and that all cargo is clean and properly documented.
"We inspect all cargo to ensure: cleanliness (nothing more than 'pinchable' dirt/sand permitted), no agriculture hazards (insects/pests, snails, animal feces, straw/hay, seeds, nests/hives, untreated wood, etc.), proper documentation (shipping labels, packing lists, etc.) and no contraband."
Contraband includes ammunition, explosives, unauthorized pharmaceuticals, unauthorized classified / sensitive materials, weapons (non-military issued firearms, brass knuckles, butterfly knives, etc.), unauthorized merchandise (fur, counterfeit items, pirated compact disks, Cuban cigars, Persian rugs, etc.), human or animal remains, pornography, counterfeit currency, U.S. currency in excess of $10K, dirt, sand, oil, etc.
"We've only been here for about a month, but so far we've cleared over 4,500 passengers, 1,500 vehicles and pieces of rolling stock, and 11,000 containers worth over $409M," said Johnstone. "We've also seized over 20,000 pieces of contraband."
U.S. Army 1st Lt. Michael Lawler, from Ashley, Pa., is one of 24 soldiers making up the squadron's close to 50 personnel. He is deployed here from the 361st Military Police Company, a Pennsylvania U.S. Army Reserve unit, and sees the seriousness and importance of his mission.
"Having been in this job over a month now, I can confidently say that we perform a very important job. Prior to this deployment, I did not realize this mission even existed. People back home tend not to realize the importance of keeping our crops and livestock safe from agricultural dangers which may severely damage our economic system and way of life. I know we are successfully working to keep harm from entering into our country, whether that harm is a type of snail which can devastate an entire crop across the country, or the proliferation of illegal drugs or weapons from crossing our borders."
Chief Master Sgt. George Role, 387 AES superintendent, enjoys the challenge of having such a diverse squadron make-up.
"Being deployed from Pope Army Airfield at Fort Bragg, N.C., the Air Force and Army working together is not a foreign concept to me."
The squadron itself has an assortment of career fields consisting mostly of medical and dental personnel. "The Commander and I are the only two members of the squadron with a logistical background. We have Airmen from weather, civil engineer, and communications, to name a few. The medical personnel have the kind of detail-oriented skill set that really comes in handy when searching for contraband or agricultural items," says Role.
With the standards clear and the stakes high, Johnstone is confident his squadron will prevail.
"We have to be thorough and meticulous," he said. "It's critical because we're not only protecting the United States from a myriad of potential dangers but we're also maintaining relationships with partner countries by ensuring the U.S. doesn't ship contaminated material through their transportation channels. We embrace this mission, we understand its importance and we will succeed."