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Story Last modified at 12:22 p.m. on Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Navy Reservist volunteered straight out of left field
Gulf mission a first for land-based sailor

BY MATT TUNSETH
Alaska Star

photo:Military

Navy Reservist Eric Zimmermann recently patrolled the Persian Gulf in 32-foot boats designed to intercept and contain potential terrorist threats to ships or oil infrastructure in Kuwait and Iraq.
STAR PHOTO BY MATT TUNSETH

photo:Military

Navy Reservist Eric Zimmermann recently returned from a voluntary deployment to Kuwait and Iraq as part of a mission to patrol sensitive industrial installations and ships in the Persian Gulf. Zimmermann, 26, told his the story of his deployment at a meeting of the Eagle River Rotary Club on June 23 at Pizza Man.
STAR PHOTO BY MATT TUNSETH

Eric Zimmermann didn't enlist in the Navy Reserves to spend time on the water.

"I've always been an air person," Zimmerman said. "When I was enlisting, I immediately crossed out all the jobs that weren't in aviation."

So why did Zimmermann, 26, spend much of the last year of his life patrolling the hazardous waters of the Persian Gulf in a 34-foot boat?

Someone asked.

"There was a call for bodies," he said during a speech on his mission to the Chugiak-Eagle River Rotary club on June 23 at Pizza Man.

Zimmermann, who is set to receive his air traffic controller's degree from the University of Alaska Anchorge in December, recently returned from a voluntary deployment to Kuwait and Iraq, where he was tasked with guiding large ships into port, keeping potential terrorists away from sensitive oil installations and other on-water security tasks. Although he had no training on boats prior to the deployment, Zimmermann said he learned everything he needed to while going through training in San Diego last year.

"They teach you everything you need to know, so it really doesn't matter what your background is," he said.

Zimmermann said his air traffic control background did prepare him for things like using various communications systems – while other things he had to learn fresh.

"I picked (communications) up really quickly, whereas working on the engines took me a little longer," he said.

After training in San Diego, Zimmerman and his Maritime Expeditionary Security Squadron nine (MSRON 9) team headed for the Gulf, where they used speedy, 34-foot gray boats mounted with powerful machine guns in search of potentially hostile contacts.

They found few.

"Fortunately, our deployment went without incident," he said.

That doesn't mean it was without hardship and stress. Zimmermann said temperatures were routinely over 100 degrees, and he showed a picture during his speech of a thermometer in Kuwait maxed out at 130 degrees.

"That was in the morning," he said.

Then there was the stress of having to spend most of his working hours constantly on the lookout for hidden dangers. Zimmermann and his team patrolled areas that – though in industrial waters – were also used by local fishermen, who skimmed about in their traditional dhows.

"Every day has a dhow in the way," read one of Zimmermann's photo captions during his presentation.

The difficulty of having so many private boats about, he said, was that it's very difficult to tell which ones pose a threat and which ones don't.

"We have to determine opportunity, capability and intent," he said.

Because their job was to defend and react, Zimmermann said the fact he had to always be hyper-alert while on duty was mentally draining.

"The hardest thing about it was nothing happening," he said.

Zimmermann said he enjoyed the mission, especially the time he got to spend with his fellow Iraqi enlisted soldiers while living aboard an oil platform.

"It was just one enlisted sailor talking to another enlisted sailor," he said.

In order to foster cooperation between soldiers, Zimmermann said there was a weekly ice cream social aboard one of the platforms he stayed on. While chatting with his fellow soldiers, Zimmermann said he found plenty of common ground with his Iraqi counterparts.

"Culturally, they do have a lot of the same beliefs," said Zimmermann, who serves out of the Navy Operational Support Center at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

Zimmermann returned to Alaska in February, and plans to finish up at UAA before heading back to the Gulf to provide port security. In the mean time, he said he'll be spending his summer taking part in another all-American endeavor.

"I've played baseball all my life, and this year I'm playing with the Anchorage Bucs," he said.

A former West High standout, Zimmermann is a pitcher and outfielder on the Alaska Baseball League team.

"I'm kind of the old guy," he said.

Zimmermann said his younger teammates (most ABL players are 19 to 21 years old) are always asking about his time overseas.

"They love hearing about it," he said.

Though he's an Anchorage native, Zimmermann took time to thank one local Eagle River business for its support while he was serving. During his slide show presentation, Zimmermann showed a cup of coffee in a cup holder next to the wheel on one of the boats he was on, with the words "Thank you, Jitters," across the top of the screen.

"About once a month we got a shipment of coffee from Jitters," he said. "That was pretty cool."

Contact Matt Tunseth at 694-2727 or matt.tunseth@alaskastar.com



This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, June 29, 2011.