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My Coast Guard
Commentary | Feb. 13, 2023

Part One: Taking the PSU back to its roots

By Anastasia M. Devlin, courtesy of Reservist magazine

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Reservist magazine’s fourth and final issue of 2022. It has been edited for length, and made into two parts. You may read the original story here.

For the last 20 years, the Coast Guard’s Port Security Units (PSUs) have become associated with their continual, rotational deployments to Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  

However, while demonstrating the versatility of the units, these missions didn’t test all the operational capabilities that PSUs were designed to execute. PSUs are expeditionary units, which means they’re required to be ready to deploy in as little as 96 hours.

“Guantanamo Bay is an established mission with an existing infrastructure in a permissive environment with a predictable rotation cycle,” said Cmdr. Erin Bennett, the Coast Guard’s expeditionary program manager at Headquarters. “We need to keep sharpening our actual skills for the expeditionary mission.”

PSUs are one of the larger types of units in the Coast Guard. They have a complement of approximately 150 people comprising 12 boat crews, three security squads, and command, logistics, communications, and engineering departments. They integrate with Department of Defense (DOD) and host-nation military partners to provide layered defensive protective functions, including protection for strategic shipping and high value assets.

Two years ago, Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Kowalske, executive officer for Coast Guard PSU 309, began forming a plan to bring the PSU back to its roots. The best time to implement it would be during the unit’s two weeks of active duty, or ADT-AT. Commanding officer Cmdr. Todd Remusat supported Kowalske’s idea unequivocally.

Make a plan, and make it wide

Not only did the unit need a location that could support all the personnel as part of Exercise Desired Effect, but they’d need a range, berthing, instructors, and a boat ramp with access to an expanse of water. After coming up short trying to identify internal training options, Kowalske found Asymmetric Solutions, a contractor in Farmington, Missouri, about 600 miles from the PSU’s home base in Port Clinton, Ohio. 

Moving 80% of the unit, four trailered vessels, an armory and enough gear and supplies to support them for two weeks called for a massive plan. 

The engineering shop chief, Chief Petty Officer Shawn Spicer, secured C-17 and C-130J airframes for personnel and gear transport; he also trained members of the engineering department on truck and trailer use, saving the PSU tens of thousands of dollars in transportation costs. 

Smokin’ ‘em

Command cadre members recognized the huge training opportunity. More than half of its members had advanced or promoted in the past year, and they were understaffed by about 25% of the unit. But as the excitement about the training spread, members who’d be reporting in the following month requested to report early.

Early on a Saturday in September, the PSU’s personnel flew via C-17 down to Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, convoyed to the training site in Missouri, and began the process of setting up the bivouac.

Waterside, shoreside, and engineering personnel worked together to put up massive tents with air conditioning units to combat the 95-degree days. Four gray transportable port security boats were dropped neatly next to a floating lakeside dock, and fixed fighting positions were set up along the water. Meals ready to eat (MREs) sat on a pallet under a nearby pavilion with picnic tables and white boards for scheduled and impromptu training, and a plastic “water buffalo” nearby offered a constant source of hydration. The communications division set up a working tactical operations center overlooking the water and the entry control point (ECP); there, they tested both regular PSU communication equipment and previewed potential new “situational awareness” software that could generate a real-time common operating picture.

The sight of folks sharpening knives, trading more valuable pieces of MREs, and going over manuals became commonplace. While some blue uniforms were worn in the first few days, the supply petty officer worked to get everyone’s camouflage-style Navy Type-III uniforms ordered and on scene by the first weekend.

Every day (with the exception of a Sunday off for a morale barbecue), the unit worked through signoffs and trainings, and every evening, after a family-style dinner (catered by the contractors), they studied and planned for the following day’s events.

“We ran training from 0600 to 2200; they were smoked at the end of every day,” said Remusat. Master Chief Petty Officer Rick Ilcisko agreed, noting the increase in crew cohesion.

"Those relationships come from spending that many hours together,” said Ilcisko. “It’s like a big family living together in a college dorm. You’re stuck to figure things out together.”

From the frying pan into the fire

Once the tent city was established, waterside and shoreside divisions split off for a week’s worth of layered trainings specific to the petty officers' needs, depending on their qualification progress. Shoreside division worked through PSU insignia requirements, team movements, and weapons qualifications. They established elevated watchtowers and mapped out an ECP for practice scenarios. 

Waterside division went down to the lake and spent time recertifying on the gray 32-foot transportable port security boats (TPSB), alternating lessons in general seamanship and familiarization with relevant manuals.

The 270-acre lake provided the perfect amount of space to open the throttles on the TPSBs and practice waterside protection of high value assets. 

The PSU’s command cadre worked in concert with the contractors to ensure the courses taught adhered to the required syllabus from the Coast Guard. The company also offered other trainings based on the instructors’ military and law enforcement experience that sparked the interest of many PSU members, such as hand-to-hand combat, emergency field medicine, and emergency vehicle repair using a welding technique involving car batteries. 

Kowalske said the contractors real-world experience gave perspective to the training.

"A good example is this: when you believe there’s an IED [improvised explosive device] present in your entry control point, everybody tells you go to ‘radios silent’ because keying up your radio could potentially set off the bomb,” said Kowalske. “Our guys can get hung up on that, avoiding use of the radios. These contractors, having been in that situation in real life, reminded them not to focus on that. If it’s more important to get the message out, just use the radio. The chance of it setting off the IED are extremely low. We get so focused on the binary black-and-white in some of our training events, but these instructors with real-world experience are able to provide insight.”

Despite the long days and high heat, the excitement and pride in the crew was palpable as they moved through the second week, which culminated in both a two-day exercise and a range of qualification boards.

Please click here to read the second part of the story.