Petty Officer Brian Giunta was stationed outside Manama, Bahrain, just one year ago when government troops tore down the Pearl, a 300-foot-high monument comprising six curved struts and topped with a giant pearl, a tribute to the kingdom’s pearl-diving history.
It made Manama a kind of sanctuary from the “eye of Allah,” a place considered somewhat removed from the strictest religious dictates. “Saudis came over the bridge [King Fahd Causeway] and they would no longer be sinning,” said the 25-year-old machinery technician second class, who now serves at the Coast Guard’s Montauk search and rescue station.
Mr. Giunta said Bahrain was a vacation spot with grand hotels, a place long considered safer than Iraq for people in the oil business to meet.
Then came the Arab Spring. Pearl Square became the site of anti-government protests, that is, until troops from Yemen moved in to quell the protests. Bahrain’s ruling class is comprised of Sunni Muslims. The country’s Shiites were pushing for greater freedom. “The riot control was never non-lethal,” Mr. Giunta said.
“There were a lot of fatalities. Tear gas engulfed our housing every night. We saw flashes, heard gunfire. But, it was like night and day. Once the sun came up everything seemed normal, but at night it was chaos. A very strange atmosphere. In the morning we were debriefed, updated, told where not to go. But it didn’t seem to faze the people. They’re used to it. It’s an ongoing battle over there. It never ends.”
One day last week, he poured a visitor a cup of coffee in the station’s mess deck and described his one-year tour protecting oil depots in the North Arabian Gulf aboard an aging 110-foot cutter.
His deployment coincided with the transition from the military’s Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn and the departure of some 50,000 U.S. troops. The exodus did not include the Coast Guard.
“We were part of the Fifth Fleet Coalition along with the Brits and Australians. There were German ships, and French, but mostly the Royal Navy.”
The Montauk station has a history with the Iraq War. In April of 2004, one year after its shock-and-awe start, Petty Officer Nathan B. Bruckenthal was killed in an exBruckenthal was killed in an explosion when he and his team intercepted a boat packed with explosives heading for the Al Basra Oil Terminal, the same terminal Mr. Giunta patrolled. Nate Bruckenthal, who served at the Montauk Station, was the first coastie killed in action since the Vietnam War.
Heather Kendall, a boatswain’s mate second class attached to the Montauk Station’s cutter Ridley, will leave for the Coast Guard’s area of operations in the North Arabian Gulf in December.
Mr. Giunta said last June was a “big turning point” in Operation New Dawn when the Iraqi Navy and Marine Corps were “polished” enough to take from coalition forces the job of protecting the country’s main source of income from insurgent attacks.
He said that because of its unique capabilities as the nation’s only service with both military and police powers — including the power to board vessels on the high seas and waters “over which the United States has jurisdiction” — the Coast Guard would remain on what is being called “a contingency basis.”
While the Navy does not have the same police powers as the Coast Guard, a naval ship could assume those powers as long as there was a Coast Guard contingent on board, he said.
Mr. Giunta was assigned to the 110-foot Aquidneck. The cutter was transferred from the Guard’s Atlantic Beach, N.C., station to Bahrain in 2006.
“There are six of them. They have low draft so they can go up the rivers,” Mr. Giunta said, adding that the cutter’s “op-tempo” was just about nonstop in the gulf and with sea conditions that changed in minutes. The winter is the worst. “They were built in the early ’80s,” he said of the 110s. “They’re far past their life expectancies.”
Aquidneck patrolled two big oil terminals off of Basra that filled tanker after tanker, day and night. The cutter patrolled in company with ships from the coalition navies. Tankers were not boarded, but vessels that ferried food and the terminals’ crews were always checked. Mr. Giunta said fishing dhows caused the most stress.
He explained that fish were attracted to the waters around the terminals, and fishermen were always pressing the strictly patrolled boundaries. “They were a big mission for us. We would veer them out of the way.”
When not on duty, Mr. Giunta said the Coast Guard crews lived in hotels or gated communities in Bahrain where the day would begin at 4 a.m. at about 100 degrees with the first call to prayer from local mosques. “By afternoon it would reach 110 to 120 with 100 percent humidity.”
“Bahrain is civilized with subways, McDonald’s, the people are used to the U.S. presence,” he said, but there were times when the cultural gulf was challenging. Mr. Giunta said the heat of August coincided with the Muslim holy days of Ramadan. “We abide by the cultural rules, no drinking, eating, music, shorts, or short-sleeved shirts. You could leave the base, but couldn’t even drink water in public.” A surfer, Petty Officer Giunta said the local culture precluded hanging at the beach.
The two months of training required before deployment to the gulf included several days of classroom work devoted to the Koran, customs, and courtesies. “General (David) Patreus enforced that,” Mr. Giunta said of the former commanding general of the multi-national force in Iraq. The recent accidental burning of Korans in Afghanistan has had catastrophic consequences, he observed.
He said he did not get the sense that the women viewed staying covered as oppressive as many in the West assume they do. He recalled going to a swimming pool where a woman was “swimming” in full burka. “My buddies were jumping in, but I felt funny.”
At first the early morning calls to prayer seemed calming, Mr. Giunta said. “It was nice, but I was done by the eighth month.”
Coast Guard personnel are rotated out of the area after one year. The young machinist mate said it was considered a plum assignment in terms of career advancement as well as pay. There is no income tax on money earned overseas. Only experienced and trained individuals are considered. “No one goes there right out of boot camp.”
Mr. Giunta said the Coast Guard would allow him to go back if he chose to. “I know what I’m capable of. I would be more confident, but it was tough. It took a toll on my personal life. I would go back but there would have to be a damn good reason.”