Written by Lt. Donnie Brzuska.
Sometimes a person gets a weird feeling in the pit of their stomach because there is more to a situation than meets the eye. This feeling is commonly referred to as a person’s “sixth sense.” Coast Guard boarding officers are trained to follow that “sixth sense” while they’re conducting counter narcotics operations in the Eastern Pacific and Caribbean Basin. That’s exactly what happened to Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Baasch and a boarding team from Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf when they climbed aboard the fishing vessel Goliat I off the coast of Colombia on June 28.
Over the next three days, Baasch and the rest of Bertholf’s boarding teams searched the Goliat I. Each hour aboard the ship unveiled new clues and new revelations that the fishermen may be involved in some sort of illicit activity – freshly painted bulkheads, positive hits on drug testing swipes, and bolts and screws in odd places. Finally, the crew was able to get sufficient evidence to warrant a search of the fishing vessel’s fuel tank, which was filled with more than 5,900 pounds of cocaine worth more than $89 million.
The crew of the Bertholf spent more than 90-days off Central and South America chasing go-fasts and boarding fishing vessels in an effort to combat transnational organized crime networks, which are fueled and funded by a drug trade that cost our cities $193 billion in losses and destabilize fragile states in the Western Hemisphere – now with 8 out of 10 of the highest murder rates in the world. The crew of Bertholf was extremely successful in their mission. They seized more than 12,000 pounds of illegal narcotics in seven separate busts over the course of their patrol worth approximately $400 million.
According to the Bertholf’s operations officer, Lt. Cmdr. James Terrell, Baasch demonstrated exceptional leadership, a can-do attitude and a commitment to excellence throughout every operation and evolution. As the sole contraband custodian, Baasch was responsible for ensuring 100 percent accountability of all the narcotics seized by the cutter’s crew. He stood out as an expert in “at-sea space accountability” and finding contraband in the most unlikely places became his forte. Using a power saw, he found bricks of cocaine hidden below the fish hold of the vessel Jandry on July 28. Baasch led an extensive search of the Jandry and found narcotics in a number of hidden compartments on the small fishing vessel.
Coast Guard Commandant, Adm. Paul Zukunft, the service’s top officer, caught wind of Baasch’s contributions to Bertholf’s successful patrol and decided to pay him a visit.
“Everyday Coast Guard men and women like Petty Officer Baasch are on the frontlines combating violent criminal networks fueled and funded by the illicit trafficking of drugs, weapons and people,” said Adm. Zukunft. “We have to take opportunities to recognize them for their service and sacrifice.”
Adm. Zukunft made a surprise visit to Bertholf and presented Baasch with the Commandant’s Commitment to Excellence Award for his actions. With the sun shining down and the crew gathered on the forecastle, Adm. Zukunft recounted the details of each case and highlighted Baasch’s contributions while the Coast Guardsman stood at attention.
The Commandant finished his speech and turned the floor over to Baasch who thanked the admiral, looked out at the crew and simply said, “This was a team effort, and I couldn’t have done it without my shipmates.”
Baasch demonstrated another quality expected of Coast Guardsman in their pursuit of excellence in front of his crew and the Commandant – humility. Baasch never took credit for his actions in the onslaught of media interviews or questions that followed the event. He gave all the credit to Bertholf’s crew.
Baasch’s actions on patrol and at home demonstrate he lives the Coast Guard’s core values every day.
It’s a good thing Baasch’s “sixth sense” doesn’t work every day, or he may have caught wind that the Commandant was going to drop in on him.