Customs dispute delays military flight home

7:12 PM, Feb 3, 2014   |    comments
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BANGOR, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- It wasn't the homecoming they were expected. More than 200 military personnel stayed over night in a Bangor hotel after a layover took longer than expected after some confusion and an alleged verbal dispute between a contracted civilian and a Customs and Border Protection officer.

It was a military flight that was nothing new to Bangor International Airport, but it was one that didn't go as smooth. They served for nine months in Afghanistan counting down every minute until they would see their families again.

And then this.

American soldiers stuck in an American aiport, forced to miss their scheduled flight home. "That's what we expected short, clear customs, get fuel, restock the plan and be on our way," said Colonel Todd Zullinger of the U.S. Army.

But what happens at the Bangor International Airport dozens of times every month, didn't this time. A customs agent in Bangor delayed the soldiers over concerns about body armor that belonged to civilian contractors also on the plane.

"It really looks like the Customs and Border Control Patrol Agent didn't understand what the rules were for allowing body armor into the country," said Contracted Civilian Justin Baty.  

The officer started confiscating all the body armor and things got ugly.

"The CBP officer became angry with one of the contractors and decided to, from what we were told, retaliate by making this process very slow. My personal experience, what I saw when I was getting my gear turned, my bags were being opened and being examined it was painfully slow," said Baty.

It went from bad to worse when the contractors called the Customs and Border agent at their final destination in Indianapolis. That agent called Bangor to see what was wrong. About 90 civilian contractors had around $300,000 worth of gear confiscated. Caught in the middle are American soldiers returning from Afghanistan who should already be with their families...but instead were forced to wait an additional 24-hours.

U.S Customs and Border Protection sent NEWS CENTER the following release about the incident.

"The United States has been and continues to be a welcoming nation. U.S. Customs and Border Protection not only protects U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents in the country but also wants to ensure the safety of our international travelers who come to visit, study and conduct legitimate business in our country. Our dual mission is to facilitate travel in the United States while we secure our borders, our people and our visitors from those that would do us harm like terrorists and terrorist weapons, criminals, and contraband.

CBP enforces over 400 laws for 40 other agencies and have stopped thousands of violators of U.S. law.  

-A military flight arrived at Bangor International Airport on Feb. 2, at 1740 eastern time with 102 military troops, 112 military contractors and a flight crew of 12 from Afghanistan via Germany. Upon arrival the plane was met by CBP officers and during the inspection process it was discovered that a number of the contractors did not have the necessary import documentation for the military gear in their possession. CBP enforces U.S. federal export control laws for a number of federal regulatory agencies including the Department of State's Directorate of Defense, Trade Controls and The Commerce Department's Bureau of Industry and Security.  The purpose of these laws is to prevent sensitive U.S. technologies and weapons from reaching the hands of terrorists, hostile countries and violent criminal organizations.  As such, the export and reimportation of certain goods/technologies/commodities requires appropriate documentation.

 -Military contractors informed CBP officers of the necessary documentation for the military gear in their possession was in their checked luggage, as such, Bangor International Airport baggage handling officials were instructed to unload the necessary baggage attributed to the military contractors. Only upon the presentation of baggage to CBP could CBP clearance commence. 

-All military troops were allowed to disembark the aircraft.

-All baggage attributed to the military contractors was off-loaded and placed into the CBP secondary baggage inspection area at approximately 1930.

-As per FAA regulations, the flight crew remained on the aircraft due to military contractors remaining on the aircraft.

-At approximately 2340, Delta rescheduled the flight departure back 12 hours due to the crew time and examination process.

-CBP worked with Delta and Bangor International Airport officials to transport the flight crew and military contractors to a transit lounge until all inspections could be completed.

-Selected baggage was x-rayed.  CBP detained the equipment requiring further documentation.  

-The inspection process and all the detention forms were completed at 0230.

-The flight is scheduled to depart at 1315. (UPDATE: Detained equipment was returned to the contractors and the flight departed at 1512).  

I am unaware of any confrontation between CBP officers and contractors. All CBP officers are on duty 24/7 and will process arriving international travelers and cargo in a professional manner at all times, and as expeditiously as possible. CBP stresses honor and integrity in every aspect of our mission and we do not tolerate actions that would tarnish the reputation of our agency, and we fully investigate any complaints. Travelers who have a concern regarding their experience should speak to a supervisor on site immediately or call or submit their concerns electronically. More information on the traveler complaint process can be found at http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/travel/customerservice/handle_complaints.xml."

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