BANGOR — What was expected to be a routine stopover at Bangor International Airport for a plane filled with returning U.S. troops and defense contractors Sunday night instead became a frustrating ordeal for many of those aboard.
For the 102 U.S. troops returning from Afghanistan and Kuwait on Delta flight 8964, getting off the plane was fairly routine and featured a hero’s welcome from the Maine Troop Greeters in attendance.
It was a different story for the 112 Department of Defense contractors — those hired to fly drones, do intelligence analysis, fix computers and other jobs — some of whom were kept on the plane for more than seven hours as their baggage was methodically inspected and cleared through U.S. Customs.
A defense contractor said the problem began when two of the first contractors to get off the plane got into a verbal altercation with a Customs and Border Protection official in the terminal. A spokeswoman for customs said Monday the delay stemmed from the contractors transporting undocumented items.
“They confiscated my vest, with [armor] plates, helmet, gas mask and my medical kit,” Texas resident Justin Baty, a Department of Defense contractor who operates drones for a living, said while standing in the domestic terminal at BIA Monday waiting for the group’s departing flight. “(The medical kit) is designed, if you get shot, to stop the bleeding.”
The kit contains gauze, tape and a wound sealant, said Baty, who is from Wichita Falls and was kept on the plane waiting for more than six hours Sunday night.
The troops and military personnel had been processed through customs in Kuwait but “that was not enough,” the Texas contractor said.
The items were detained, not confiscated, because they were not documented, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, which caused the lengthy delay. Baty said the delay had more to do with the verbal confrontation between two contractors and a CBP officer, who responded by “being obstinate and slowing things down.”
“I am unaware of any confrontation between CBP officers and contractors,” Shelbe Benson-Fuller, spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said in an email Monday. “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.”
“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,” Benson-Fuller said. “Military contractors informed CBP officers (that) 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.”
The plane landed at 5:30 p.m. and the contractors’ baggage was off-loaded at 7:30 p.m. and the inspection was completed at 2:30 a.m., she said. The military contractors and the flight crew were kept on the plane until the inspection was complete.
“It went on so long that the troops — a hundred military personnel who worked overseas in Afghanistan for a year — were delayed from going home to their families by a day,” Baty said.
Selected baggage was X-rayed and the “CBP detained the equipment requiring further documentation,” Benson-Fuller said.
“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,” Benson-Fuller said. “As such, the export and re-importation of certain goods/technologies/commodities requires appropriate documentation.”
Airport director Tony Caruso said there are strict rules for what can and cannot be brought into the country. He said U.S. Customs and Border Protection asked for assistance and the airport supplied it.
“There are certain regulations and requirements for clearing international customs,” he said. “We were asked to bring them through in small groups.”
Once it was learned the plane would be delayed, the airport worked to find hotel rooms for the 214 returning troops and military contractors and the flight crew.
Another military contractor, Joe Whitehurst, said he and others on the plane were frustrated.
“It took us seven hours and 50 minutes for Delta Flight No. 8964 to transit the Atlantic Ocean from Frankfurt/Hahn, Germany, to Maine,” he said in an email. ”It took longer to process U.S. Customs at Bangor, Maine.”
The flight was originally scheduled to leave at 1:30 p.m. Monday but was delayed again at the last moment so the detained equipment could be returned, Whitehurst said.
“Our departure from Bangor has again been delayed by U.S. Customs as they move to correct their interference with our military charter flight,” he said. “No explanation or apology was offered but U.S. Customs has been busy returning all military issued equipment they seized from defense contractors, yesterday.”
The flight transported military troops from Afghanistan and Kuwait and to many, including Col. Mark Eubank of the 4th Infantry Division from Michigan, the delay was nothing new. In the military it’s often hurry up and wait, he said.
“In Afghanistan, it takes us three days to get from Kandahar to Kabul,” said Eubank, who had been through BIA during prior deployments. “I don’t really worry about domestic flights after Afghanistan.”
The military transport departed BIA for Indiana shortly after 3 p.m. Monday.