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Goodbye to OPBAT.

MORE than 20 years ago, drug runners in and around the Bahamas got a rude awakening when the "Screaming Eagles" of the 101st Airborne Division took to the Caribbean skies to break up their party.

Now, the Army's aviation community is preparing to end its involvement in the mission the same way it began with the Eagles soaring one last time through paradise.

The mission? Operation Bahamas, Turks and Caicos.

"OPBAT was started back in 1982 to combat the drugs flowing into the United States through the Carib bean," said Kevin Stanfill, the Drug Enforcement Administration's group supervisor for OPBAT.

The DEA coordinated the operation with the Department of Defense and law-enforcement officials from the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands to prevent drugs being smuggled through the 100,000 square miles of water surrounding 700 islands that encompass the OPBAT area of operations.

According to the Department of State's budget justification for fiscal year 2007, OPBAT is the largest and cooperative effort by any government involved in drug enforcement. 2001, joint Bahamas-U.S. investigations have resulted in the takedown of three major Bahamian drug rings and hundreds of arrests in the United States and the Bahamas.

A Mission Based on a Legend

The operation began alter drug smugglers George Jung and Carlos Lehder, most widely known from the movie "Blow," had created a massive drug-smuggling business in the area.

Starting with the purchase of an island in the Bahamas, the smugglers created a base for running cocaine between Columbia and the United States, and the cost of cocaine soon dropped considerably due to its availability.

"Around 1978, a kilo of cocaine sold for around $800,000," Mr. Stanfill said. "Cocaine had become so popular and so easy to get in the early 1980s that by the time OPBAT started, a kilo of cocaine was selling for around $30,000."

The Jung-Lehder ring was eventually brought down by DEA agents and both are still serving sentences in the United States. But the empire they built continued after them, hence the need for OPBAT.

Army Assets Leaving OPBAT

The Army's involvement in OPBAT began in 1986 with an aviation unit from the 101st Abn. Div., four years after the program's inception, said Mr. Stanfill. The 101st will also be the last Army unit to support OPBAT. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently ordered the Army to pull out of the mission by October of this year, to better support ongoing operations in the Middle East.

"The Army has been the backbone of this mission and the service's participation will truly be missed," Mr. Stanfill said. "The OPBAT mission will go on, but it will be without the Army."

The Soldiers of Company B, 4th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 159th Combat Avn. Brigade, are currently serving on Great Exuma Island at a base known as the "Hawk's Nest." There are 24 Soldiers--aviators and crew chiefs--working with DEA and Bahamian Drug Enforcement Unit officials, flying missions on three UH-60 Black Hawks.

Two other companies from the same battalion will rotate in and out of Great Exuma on a three-month basis until the Army officially pulls out of OPBAT in October.

The Army provides flight support to the U.S. and Bahamian drug-enforcement agents. The DEA and DOD are still working on how they will replace the Army assets.

On Patrol

Most of the missions conducted by the Army are patrols, which scout for suspicious-looking boats, freighters, aircraft and ground sites. Typically, a DEA and DEU agent will be on each flight.

"We come across boats and planes weekly, but this is an intelligence-driven mission. We rely heavily on information that we're getting from other agencies," said Doug Behtens, a special agent with the DEA. "The critical part of this mission is our presence in the waters. All these crooks know we're here. Just the mere fact that we are flying and doing patrols keeps them on alert. It makes them wonder, makes them worry and makes them sweat."

According to Mr. Behrens, who has been working on the OPBAT mission for nearly two years, many big drug cartels have relocated their businesses from the Caribbean as a means of avoiding the DEA.

"You've got to think of drug trafficking as a business," Mr. Behrens said. "Where there is a need, people respond. They are thinking of it as profits, what's most cost effective, how easy it is to get stuff.

A typical drug-trafficking organization considers drug seizures a part of the cost of doing business. That's factored into the cost of the dope as it's coming up."

Mission Success

Although not every patrol results in a drug seizure, the Army aviators have seen a few mission successes during their rotation. Their first flight was in pursuit of a small fixed-wing aircraft that crash-landed while trying to evade an OPBAT Black Hawk. The crewmembers survived the crash and were apprehended. The marijuana onboard burned along with the wreckage.

"We had high hopes that this would become a regular thing, but it hasn't," said Capt. Walt Green, Co. B's commander. "Our mission successes have been few. I was expecting there to be more opportunities for contraband seizures and arrests. In that regard, it has been a little frustrating."

Capt. Green leads the 23 Soldiers stationed at the Hawk's Nest. He schedules his pilots and crew chiefs for the patrol missions and also prepares quick-reaction flights for missions flown to specific targets in response to intelligence reports.

Most recently, his Soldiers helped clear a marijuana field that was discovered on Andros Island, near Nassau, by U.S. Coast Guard pilots.

"It's called a weed-eater mission. You fly around over land, looking for pot fields," Capt. Green said. "Out on Andros Island, there was the largest cultivated pot field in the history of this mission. It was a very big seizure."

As the Soldiers are nearing the end of their deployment and preparing to train their replacements, they are hoping to get at least one great bust before leaving.

A Deployment is a Deployment

The company was only back five months from a yearlong rotation in Iraq before deploying in support of OPBAT in February.

"This is a beautiful place and a great experience, but it's a deployment and these guys work very hard," Capt. Green said. "The crew chief and the maintainer are on the aircraft at 7 a.m. They work Saturdays and Sundays. These guys all have a requirement to have one aircraft up and running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. These guys are always on duty."

Capt. Green admits that his Soldiers do have ample opportunity to enjoy recreational activities on the island when they're not on duty. But their primary objective is to support the DEA and DEU.

"It's fun being here. It's kind of like being in a firehouse. We eat dinner together, we hang out together. You learn a lot about everybody. It's a different environment. It's a lot of fun, but we are substituting each other for family right now," Capt. Green said. "At the end of the day, you're still deployed. You're talking to your wife or your spouse or your family members via e-mail or on the phone."

At the time this article was written, Capt. Green and his Soldiers were looking forward to returning to the States and to their families. They were to redeploy in May.

Staff Sgt. Dallas Courrege works in the 101st Airborne Division Public affairs Office.
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Author:Courrege, Dallas
Publication:Soldiers Magazine
Geographic Code:5BAHA
Date:Aug 1, 2007
Words:1249
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