CAMP COYOTE, Kuwait -- Marines of 1st Force Service Support Group have been tested many times and in many ways during the past six months of Operation Iraqi Freedom. A few of those areas are physical and moral courage, determination and leadership. Prior to returning home, they have one more test to pass customs.
Military Police Company C, Combat Service Support Battalion 18, 1st FSSG, has been given the task of inspecting Marines' personal belongings and equipment. They inspect for possible contraband and customs violations before getting on the plane to return home.
"It's just for our own safety, and the safety of the people back home," said Lance Cpl. Jason Ramos, machine-gunner, Security Company, 1st FSSG. "When you can't bring back sand and stuff like that, if you think about it, we are on a different side of the world.
"They have different germs, and they just don't want us to bring back something that could be harmful to people whose bodies aren't used to it."
"Basically, its just for the safety of us and the safety of the people back home," said the 22-year-old native of Topeka, Kan. "(These inspections) speed up the retrograde," according to Cpl. Enrique Ortega, Customs and Agriculture Inspection Team Leader.
"You have to get inspected before you can leave a foriegn country," said the 25-year-old native of Leipsic, Ohio. "It's just easier to have Marines do inspections on Marines instead of waiting for another service branch to get here. We can work a little quicker being at these camps."
The MPs have to know what they're looking for before they are allowed to serve as a customs inspector. They must know what to look for during inspections, so the Marines attended a one-day class given by Army customs representatives in Iraq before returning to Kuwait.
I Marine Expeditionary Force also added several other rules to the existing customs regulations. The MEF rules prohibit historical items, such as captured Iraqi flags and weapons, but allow servicemembers to take back certain uniform items and other "war trophies."
"People are curious whether or not they can take back Iraqi (uniform) ribbons," Ortega said. "They have heard so much different guidance concerning uniforms and flags that they do not seem to know until they get here and get to hear the inspector. That's one of the biggest questions we have."
There are two different customs inspections the company conducts in order to ensure units do not bring back dangerous items. The first type consists of individual Marines emptying their luggage, usually two sea bags and their field pack, so the inspector can pick up and open everything to make sure someone isn't hiding illegal items. This is the last thing Marines and sailors do before they load up on buses and head for the airport.
"We are it, this is the last stop," Ortega said. "Once we do the inspection, their gear is loaded into a big container, we seal it, it goes down to the airport, they break the seal there and it goes directly onto the plane. This way nothing has been tampered with by anybody else. There is no chance of anyone putting anything in their gear."
The second type of inspection is a unit equipment inspection. They follow the same procedures, but on a much larger scale. The inspectors search the larger cargo containers already packed by the unit to be loaded on a ship. The inspector sifts through all the equipment, as it gets unloaded from the container, and watches as the unit representatives repack everything. Then they seal it up for it to be opened again in the United States.
If the seal gets broken after either of the inspections, the whole process has to be repeated.
This procedure causes stress for some Marines, according to Ortega, but as long as they follow the rules, they will be on their way home as soon as it's done.
"Everyone is pretty happy about going back," he said, "but when it comes to the inspection they get kind of nervous. They're afraid someone might have some weapon or article they weren't supposed to have and their group might have to stay behind."
There is no need to worry, Ortega said. If one person tries to cheat on this test, the Marine Corps will just retain that one person. So, as long as Marines know what's in their own bags and they ensure they have done what's needed to pass the final test of Operation Iraqi Freedom, they will find themselves on a plane heading home shortly afterward.