Though the Coast Guard's top priority is to rescue people, one of its newer roles is to protect the marine environment. After a major oil spill caused by the wreck of the oil tanker Argo Merchant off the New England coast in 1977, the Coast Guard set up a National Strike Force. Formed to protect the marine environment from man-made catastrophes, the strike force can muster a team of experts within two hours to handle major oil or hazardous chemical spills anywhere in the world.
''We just had a man dodging bullets in the Persian Gulf checking on the war-related oil spill over there,'' says Adm. Richard A. Bauman, in command of the First Coast Guard District in New England. But until the fighting between Iran and Iraq stops, he says, ''There's not much we can do.''
Last January the Coast Guard dispatched its Atlantic division's strike force to Bermuda, where a loaded oil tanker ran aground. The call came at ''9 in the evening,'' says Comdr. Roger Rufe of the marine environmental response division, ''and by sun-up we were lightering (off-loading oil from) the distressed ship.''
Coast Guard experts served as consultants to the Mexican government during the world's largest oil spill, in the Gulf of Mexico, two years ago. When the service leaves United States waters, the tab is picked up by the host country.