PORTSMOUTH, VA -- Coast Guard Capt. Charles Allen Mathieu talks proudly of the four paper symbols he calls "snowflakes" that hang on a bulletin board in his small office aboard the Coast Guard cutter Tampa.
Mathieu said each snowflake represents a major drug bust by the Tampa's crew.
The 270-foot cutter is one of 13 medium-endurance vessels in the service, six of which are based here at the Coast Guard Integrated Support Command.
Mounted on two of the snowflakes are empty bullet casings, meaning the cutter's crew had to shoot out the engines of the "go fast" boats the speedy vessels smugglers use to transport illegal goods. The rounds were from a .50-caliber rifle shot from a Coast Guard helicopter assigned to the ship, he said.
Last year, the Tampa's crew was involved in four drug seizures while on deployment to the Caribbean, one avenue for narcotics bound for the United States. In October, the Tampa hauled in a total of 134 bales of cocaine weighing nearly 9,000 pounds.
In January, two more drug busts led to some 7,000 pounds seized. Overall, the crew has seized 7.86 tons of cocaine that might have ended up on U.S. streets. Thirteen suspects are now in custody.
This month, the Tampa deployed back to the Caribbean, where Mathieu said he suspects there will be more of the same activity.
Although fighting the nation's war on drugs by catching smugglers has become one a primary mission of cutters like the Tampa, the ship and its crew also are heavily involved in the war on terror by helping to interdict migrants trying to enter the United States illegally.
The maritime mission is one of five outlined in the 2002 Homeland Security Act, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 focused attention on stemming the flow of undocumented aliens entering the country from Cuba and Caribbean countries such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
It's a mission, however, that presents a unique challenge for the Tampa's crew. Mathieu said the situation often turns from interdiction to humanitarian, as many of the vessels encountered by the Tampa are overcrowded and not seaworthy.
"We can't count how many (boats) that just disappear, with lots of people on board," he said. He said his crew has found boats from Haiti that were "so grossly overloaded, that people were just laying on top of people."
"There was a boat that we found designed to carry 10 people, and there were 68 (people) on it," he said. "Any kind of wave and that thing is going over."
At the rear of the cutter, bunched together on long cables, hang some 400 bright-orange life vests that came into use last year when Mathieu said the ship had to bring aboard some 400 migrants.
The cutter must bring migrants aboard for two reasons, he explained: "You can't leave them on that boat or they'll die," Mathieu explained. "And two, they're trying to get into the United States, so you can't let them continue on in."
Mathieu said the Tampa's crew often has rescued undocumented migrants drifting at sea for weeks with no food or water, and dying of starvation.
"So this is not just about illegal migrants," he explained. "This also becomes a humanitarian mission."
Mathieu said migrants brought on board are given food and whatever medical care and clothing the ship can provide. They are then repatriated to their country, he said.