"Sand is part of my DNA now," Lumas Garrett says. From August 2003 to March 2004, Garrett, a 33-year-old reservist, was one of more than a thousand members of the Coast Guard assigned to port security duties in Kuwait, south of Iraq on the Persian Gulf. Garrett and other "coasties" billeted at Camp Spearhead battled brutal desert heat, a constant wind-whipped sand, boredom and homesickness. "Even though I wasn't in Iraq, I have a greater appreciation for what our brothers and sisters in arms are going through in that part of the world," he says.
Working grueling eight-hour shifts that changed every three days, Garrett, petty officer 2nd class, patrolled the docks of Kuwait's main port. As part of Port Security Unit 308, he helped guard against a repeat of the kind of terrorist attack that killed 17 sailors aboard the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. "It's mundane," he says of guard duty. "But there was never a period where you felt nothing was going to happen. You always felt you had to be on your toes."
Despite temperatures that soared up to 130 degrees, Garrett and other port sentries began each shift donning their mandatory 8 pounds of gear atop their desert fatigues: a Kevlar helmet, flak vest and magazines for their M-16s.
On duty, they faced hot, driving winds that blew in from either the desert or the Gulf. "First, it felt like someone was holding a blow dryer to your face," he says. "Then, 20 minutes later, the wind shifted and it was humid. Four hours later, we looked like we had jumped in a pool with our uniforms on."
Their camp tents were air-conditioned -- sometimes. Generators broke almost daily. Climbing into bed at 7 a.m. after a night of guard duty, Garrett says he would suddenly wake up a few hours later gasping for air in suffocating heat. "Sometimes I would be the last one out of the tent," he says.
A shower offered no escape; the water tanks were exposed to the sun, producing too-hot showers. The summer heat smothered most signs of life. "Around October, you start seeing flies, birds, rats, cats and sand fleas," he says. During the winter months, temperatures would drop into the 30s. And the rainy season (November through January) soaked the coasties' camp daily. Sand remained another constant irritant. "It was like a fine talcum-powder" and "impossible to keep out of your personal electronics, laptop, shoes, everything," Garrett says.
A native New Orleanian and former officer for the Tulane University Police Department (1997-2003), Garrett was shot in the leg during a 2000 scuffle with a suspected thief, whom he managed to arrest despite his wound. As a trained volunteer for the New Orleans Police Department Reserve (1993-1997), he worked in the tough Sixth Police District and later earned a place alongside regular cops on the NOPD's SWAT team.
Although raised in a family of Marines, Garrett joined the Coast Guard Reserve in 1999. He now works as a fulltime reservist in New Orleans, conducting river and port security patrols.
When stationed overseas, Garrett had constant reminders that he was far from home. "Muslim mullahs would issue calls to prayer four times daily. If you were listening to a radio broadcast and it suddenly cut off, that is when you knew it was prayer time," he says. During the Muslim feast of Ramadan, all "liberty" was cancelled. With the exception of "morale runs" to other American bases, the only contact Garrett had with Arab civilians was on rare, official duty trips to Kuwait Airport. "We would draw straws to see who got the duty," he says. When he won, he bought some of the national currency for souvenirs, Cuban cigars and a little Kuwaiti wooden ship. "Kuwait has some of the beautiful sunsets I have ever seen," he says. But the best parts of his tour were the relationships he developed with his desert-trapped "shipmates." The worst part: the homesickness. Reservists with families were hit harder than single guys like him, he says. But packages from home helped everybody. "Some guys I knew from Tulane University knew that I liked PJ's coffee so they sent me some Colombian beans," he says.
- Lumas Garrett (bottom row, left)