Counter-drug team goes aquatic

  • Published
  • By Capt. Megan Rutell
  • 964th Expeditionary Airborne Air Control Squadron
With three months of counter-drug experience already behind them, AWACS crews were confident that they could handle the special task with which they were presented. July 30, they were armed with rubber gloves, trash bags and wet suits in an effort to clean up more than one-half mile of Curacao beach, much of that area under water.

The event was organized by Capt. Christopher Nagy, co-pilot for the 964th Expeditionary Airborne Air Control Squadron, in partnership with Project AWARE, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of underwater environments, and DiveVersity SCUBA diving schools.

More than sixty people assembled in a hugely cooperative effort to clean beach and coral reef areas. These reefs serve as barriers against erosion for the island, as well as nurseries for 5,000 fish species and 7,000 coral species. Coral grows at a rate of less than one-half inch a year, taking decades to repair even small amounts of damage, according to Project AWARE.

At least five nations were represented, including Colombia, one of the partner nations in the counter-drug effort in the Caribbean. Although the 964 EAACS works closely with the Colombian Air Force, events like this one present a special opportunity to integrate in a non-operations environment. "We like to stay heavily involved in community relations," said Colombian Air Force Capt. Oscar Rodriguez, "We've been able to be much more involved with the community in Curacao [than we were in Ecuador]."

Lt. Col. Solomon E. Boxx, commander of the 964 EAACS stated that the forward operating location at Curacao and the US Consulate have been trying to organize the cleanup for some time. "Luckily the timing was right and we had an opportunity to give back to the island," said Colonel Boxx, "Not only were we able to partner with local island agencies and build relationships, but we also raised money through the sale of T-shirts for future community relations events."

Volunteers were broken up into specialized teams for each area of the beach. There was one group dedicated to shore cleanup, and two groups of divers for various depths of underwater waste removal. The findings ranged from animal bones to large fish hooks, as well as an array of plastic cups and bottles.

"I was surprised at how much trash we found on that short stretch of beach," remarked Air Surveillance Technician Senior Airman Benjamin Polish, "We must have had twenty bags from just the shore area."

Plastic bags are a relatively common waste item found in the ocean and can cause a surprising amount of damage. Endangered sea turtles can mistake the bags for jellyfish, one of their food sources, and suffocate while trying to feed on them, according to DiveVersity sources.

"Every year more than six million tons of trash end up in the ocean," explained Maurice Lefferts, diving instructor for DiveVersity, "If we clean up even a little bit we can save corals and sea animals."