National Guard ending airport security mission
by Master Sgt. Bob Haskell
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, May 20, 2002) - Many Army National Guard troops are returning to life as they knew it before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks now that they are no longer helping to safeguard the nation's airports.
This month Guard troops are leaving more than 400 airports where they have steadfastly stood watch in their camouflage uniforms at security checkpoints since President George Bush asked the governors for the Guard's help late last September.
The mission for all Guard troops who have become familiar figures to millions of airline passengers from coast to coast will end May 31.
Virginia Army Guard Sgt. Ishma Hodges gained a new respect for the civilian security screeners, and Spc. Derrick Kysar discovered that boring could be beautiful during the seven months they served at Reagan National Airport near Washington, D.C.
Both are traditional, or part-time, soldiers in the 29th Infantry Division that ended its mission at Reagan on May's second Sunday, Mother's Day.
"I gained a lot of respect for what the civilian screeners do," said Hodges, who took military leave from his civilian job as a land acquisition negotiator for the Virginia Department of Transportation to do his bit for the war against terrorism.
"It's hard but tedious duty," said Hodges. He added that the civilians with whom he worked closely at passenger-security points "get a lot of abuse, but under the circumstances, they do a really good job."
Kysar, meanwhile, balanced his airport duties with his part-time job as a geology instructor at George Washington University in the District of Columbia.
All told, nearly 9,000 Army and Air Guard troops were assigned to 444 airports by last December after President Bush asked for additional personnel through the holiday season, said Greg Funk of the National Guard Bureau's homeland security staff in Arlington, Va.
Many of them, like Kysar, continued to hold down civilian jobs while pulling regular shifts at airports from Boston to Los Angeles. Others put their civilian jobs and college on hold.
The Guard's numbers were reduced to 5,071 troops at 341 airports by May 10 and then to 2,182 personnel at 223 on the Monday after Mother's Day, Funk added.
"The Transportation Security Administration, being committed to creating a workforce that commands the respect of the traveling public, is in the process of hiring security screeners and supervisors at over 400 airports who are taking and will take the place of our Guard members," stated the National Guard Bureau.
"This has gone extremely well. There was a lot of competition to do this mission, so we were able to select the best National Guard soldiers and airmen," explained Lt. Col. David Green, who coordinated a force of about 50 Army and Air Guard troops for four airports in New Mexico. "It has certainly boosted the National Guard's image."
The fact that the vast majority of passengers accepted the additional security measures made the duty pretty mundane most of the time, said Kysar.
"Hey, boring is good," he added before recalling some less than boring moments.
One man, for example, intentionally dropped his trousers after being asked by a civilian screener to open his belt buckle, Kysar said, because he felt his personal rights were being violated.
Another man threw his shoes at a screener when asked to remove them so they could be checked for wires. The shoes did not hit the screener, Kysar added.
And there was the occasional government official or diplomat who, Kysar said, would try to cut through the security process by impatiently asking the tired old question "Do you know who I am?"
"Usually we could defuse a situation by walking up and making our presence known," he explained.
"Your mere presence at the checkpoints no doubt averted would-be criminals and terrorists who have, presumably, chosen other paths of less resistance," Christopher Browne, Reagan National's vice president and manager, told the departing Guard soldiers.
"You have been absolutely instrumental in restoring the nation's confidence in this critical mode of transportation," Browne added, "I truly hope we can maintain that confidence in your absence."
Others echoed Browne's praise as the mission winds down.
"They did a good job," said a Harbor Police officer in San Diego about the troops who ended the mission at that international airport on May 5.
"I want to express my appreciation to the National Guard men and women in the airports," said Margot Cranford of Little Rock, Ark., about the troops she encountered at half a dozen airports in California, Texas, Florida and Georgia.
"Their presence should be intimidating to the wrong people, but they have been so friendly and helpful to the general public," she added. "It makes me feel that I am part of them instead of apart from them."
(Editor's note: Master Sgt. Bob Haskell is a member of the National Guard Bureau public affairs team.)
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