‘I’m over here’

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Aboard a patrol boat in the Persian Gulf, Ethan Chittim watches planes scream through the sky toward Iraqi cities, sees the flashes of explosions on the horizon and hears the faraway rumbles.

In his own way, the 21-year-old Lewiston native is fighting the Iraq war.

“I am not comparing myself to an Army Ranger searching for insurgents,” Chittim said in a phone interview from Bahrain. “But everyone over here has a job to do, the guards on the walls at the bases and the people hunting insurgents.

“All of these jobs add up,” he said. “I’m over here.”

Since December, Petty Officer 3rd Class Chittim has served aboard the Adak, a 110-foot Coast Guard patrol boat.

Its mission: to protect two oil terminals on the Iraq coast.

It’s not a job he expected when he signed up for the Coast Guard in 2003, then a senior at Lewiston High School.

“Half of the people in my class didn’t know the Coast Guard existed,” he said. Of those who did, few knew that it was an arm of the military.

Fewer guessed he might serve in the war, which began only weeks before he graduated. He figured he’d be protecting the U.S. coast, the service’s traditional job.

But when the call for volunteers came late last year, Chittim signed up. He left a Coast Guard cutter with a crew of 80 to serve with a crew of only 20.

As a uniformed member of the military, he felt it was his duty, he said. And he supports America’s continued presence in the Middle East.

To pull out now would trivialize the sacrifices of so many, he said.

It’s an argument as old as war.

Steaming through the gulf – an activity that feels entirely literal in 100-degree heat – Chittim said he feels useful.

Because the crew is so small, he does several jobs. He helps navigate, often working on the ship’s logs. And he spends two four-hour shifts per day on the watch.

There are times, particularly when the boat is quiet at night, that he imagines he’s on a cruise in the Caribbean.

The days are busy, though.

Chittim and his crew mates spend much of their time keeping watch on fishing boats and tankers along the coast, making sure no one tampers with the terminals, which are connected to pipelines.

According to the Coast Guard, the oil passing through those terminals accounts for 85 percent of the country’s gross national product.

Chittim sees the protection they offer as helping the Iraqi people, he said.

Since his arrival in December, Chittim has decided to re-enlist for a second four-year stint when his service ends next year.

He is scheduled to stay in the Gulf until December.

For now, he’s satisfied with his job. He reaches port in Bahrain about once a month, relaxing and catching up on his sleep in a Coast Guard apartment.

When his years in the Coast Guard end, he plans to return home. His parents, David Chittim and Penelope Jessop, live in Lewiston.

Ethan’s goal: to become a Maine State Police trooper.

“It’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was 6,” he said.

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