Each day, a small group of Airmen from Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County gear up and prepare for a shift on patrol. Instead of getting behind the wheel of a squad car, these Airmen put on life preservers and climb onto a boat to protect the base’s extensive shoreline.
In most other ways it’s similar to the patrol cars on base. It has a powerful engine, flashing lights, a radio and even a steering wheel.
It just doesn’t have those tires. Or any brakes.
Luckily, these Airmen don’t need them.
Orange and white buoys and restricted-area signs surround and mark the boundaries of Eglin’s 153-mile coastline, but that doesn’t always keep out water-borne trespassers.
“Our mission is to deter any threats in the water, help anyone in need and detect and remove those who aren’t allowed on Eglin property.”
After a new antiterrorism plan was enacted and a recent force protection condition change, the boat patrol is in the water more than ever. To help with the increased activity, new Airmen completed their Coast-Guard taught, boat training to become certified crew leaders in July. The patrol boat mission is now active 24-hours a day with random patrols occurring with each 12-hour shift.
Senior Airman Nathan Koenig, one of the recently certified Airmen assigned to the mission, came in on his off-time to learn the numerous boat patrol procedures. He said he was surprised by the amount of coastline under the base defenders’ protection.
“(The boat patrol) is very different from the road or law enforcement desk,” said the three-year Airman. “You have to change your mindset out there because there are so many more avenues of approach toward the base. It’s been a learning experience, but a good one.”
Koenig and the other Airmen underwent a boater safety course, followed by 40 hours of hands-on training that included swim tests in Choctawhatchee Bay. Upon their certification, they can train others in boat operations.
Those operations take Airmen across local Gulf Coast waterways with five specific zones in their purview. The patrol covers all of coastline along the main base, the Whitepoint and Maxwell Gunter recreation areas, shoreline up to Crab Island, inlets around Paquito housing and Paquito Bayou and the beach area East of Okaloosa Island near Hurlburt Field.
The patrols are made in a 25-foot, twin-engine boat named Nathan-25 for fallen Air Force defender, Senior Airman Jason D. Nathan, who died in Iraq in 2007. The seven-year-old watercraft was recently used to block off the waterway during the recovery effort of the crashed Army Blackhawk helicopter in March.
Tech. Sgt. Brent Young, has been on the patrol mission the longest. The former ground combat training instructor moved to boat patrol approximately six months after his squadron deactivated. The 17-year veteran said he’s feels like he’s seen it all in just the short time he’s been assigned to Nathan-25.
“We’ve seen everything from overzealous partiers at Crab Island to unauthorized fishermen in Ben’s Lake,” he said. “But we also see the wildlife as well, huge schools of fish, birds and even baby dolphins. It’s what makes this unique from the any of the other security forces duties.”