Jerry Snyder, a former public information officer for the Stanislaus National Forest and a Sonora resident for the past 15 years, remembers George H.W. Bush with respect because he had interactions with the Reagan and Bush administrations at the White House in the 1980s and 1990s, when Snyder worked in Coast Guard photography, surveillance and counter-intelligence.
Snyder, 65, served 28 years in the U.S. Coast Guard. In 1973 he got training to become a Coast Guard photojournalist, and he saw Bush in person for the first time when he was assigned to take photographs at President Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration in January 1985. Snyder did not speak to Vice President Bush or interact with him that day but he said Bush’s demeanor left an impression.
“Bush was the subdued gentleman standing close to the president, wearing a smile and greeting people,” Snyder said Monday. “I didn’t know then what a major impact he would have on my career.”
Snyder’s duties for the Coast Guard included training as a Coast Guard law enforcement boarding officer on fishing vessels and suspected drug vessels, enforcing international fishing regulations, and on other suspicious vessels while looking for concealed drugs that were allegedly being smuggled.
In the nation’s capital, Snyder was based at the old Coast Guard headquarters at Buzzard Point in southwest D.C. close to the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. His duties as Coast Guard photo team supervisor included going on flight missions over the Atlantic Ocean, from Nova Scotia to the Caribbean, over the Caribbean from Jamaica to Trinidad & Tobago, and over the Gulf of Mexico, to take photos and gather photos and negatives and raw film from agents, to prepare visuals that would be used to brief the president and vice president and others at the White House.
Reagan had directed Vice President Bush to lead his international war on drugs during Reagan’s first administration in 1981 or ‘82, Snyder said.
Snyder was supervisor of the Coast Guard photo team in Washington, D.C. from 1984 through 1988. The Coast Guard’s photo surveillance and photo intelligence programs were vital to help identify berthed and docked suspect vessels in their home country waters, so that Coast Guard aircraft and ships could track and later stop or seize vessels involved in smuggling and other criminal activities in international waters.
The photos Snyder helped take and gather and collate would be taken to the White House for briefings. Sometimes Snyder would be required to go to the briefings in case the president or vice president or anyone else wanted to ask questions. He had a top secret clearance and he remembers three times being in the same room with Bush at the White House during briefings, and Bush never asked him questions or spoke to him. Snyder said he liked it that way because “in intelligence you just want to be a fly on the wall.”
One time in 1987 there was a briefing at the White House and Snyder was not required to go, but a Coast Guard briefing officer came back and told Snyder that Bush was impressed by the Coast Guard surveillance and intelligence photos Snyder had prepared for the briefing. The briefing officer told Snyder that Bush had remarked the scenarios documented in the photos “played out like some kind of movie.”
Snyder was also doing work with Coast Guard public affairs, and Vice President Bush’s remarks inspired Snyder to put together and produce a Coast Guard film called “At the Ready.” The film was 100 percent dramatization, and it showed recreated scenes of Coast Guard helicopters and speed boats pursuing, running down and surrounding a boat intended to portray a drug smuggling vessel.
It was the last 16mm film produced by the Coast Guard as the agency and others switched from aging film technologies to three-quarter inch videotape and other formats in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Snyder was transferred to Miami in September 1988, two months before Bush was elected the nation’s 41st president. Snyder’s new job was supervisor of photography for the Coast Guard 7th District, and he did work for Coast Guard law enforcement and others who needed Coast Guard photos.
Once inaugurated, President George H.W. Bush backed the Office of National Drug Control Policy, created by law in November 1988. Snyder said Bush came to Miami to help start a new, joint U.S. Coast Guard-Customs Service counter drug operations unit in Miami.
Bush came down and toured Coast Guard facilities and chatted with staff. Snyder was there and once he again he did not meet or speak to Bush. Snyder said the new Coast Guard-Customs Service counter drug operations unit helped track drug smugglers working for Panamanian President Manuel Noriega and other drug smugglers from other countries, including Colombia, Guatemala and Jamaica.
The new unit provided evidence needed to justify the capture and arrest of Noriega in 1990, and evidence that later helped convict Noriega of drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering.
Snyder said he also did work for the Bush administration in environmental protection. The devastating Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in March 1989, prompted Bush to create the Coast Guard’s National Strike Force Coordination Center, to respond to hazardous materials spills, including uncontained nuclear spills, and other human-caused disasters.
Snyder said he got reassigned to the nation’s capital, this time as a chief warrant officer with the Coast Guard’s Division of Marine Environmental Protection. In October 1990, Snyder became project officer to commission the new National Strike Force Coordination Center, which started out with 35 Coast Guard personnel in September 1991. They had three strike teams at their disposal, the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific teams, all based in the 48 continental United States.
Coast Guard units under the National Strike Force Coordination Center provided expertise to mitigate horrific oil well fires during the first Gulf War, Snyder said. They also responded to devastating spills in Uzbekistan, Puerto Rico and across the U.S., in New Jersey, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas and California.
Summing up his admiration and respect for George H.W. Bush, Snyder said, “President Bush’s vision and leadership helped to improve our environment and stem the flow of drugs targeting our children. I am proud to have served such a decent and humble man.”
Contact Guy McCarthy at email@example.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.