By Master Sgt. Bob HaskellSpecial to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 8, 2001 Most civilian police officers, including Tim Hall of Albuquerque, N.M., come to grips with the idea of not always being welcome when they step into people's lives. But Hall is witnessing something uniquely different at his city's airport as a security forces supervisor in the New Mexico Air National Guard.
"The gratitude we've been receiving has been overwhelming," said Hall, a senior master sergeant in the 150th Security Forces Squadron. That, the 13-year police veteran said, is how National Guard troops, carrying weapons and wearing camouflage uniforms, have been regarded since becoming part of the Albuquerque International Airport security force late last week.
That was when President Bush announced that National Guard troops would reinforce security crews at 422 of America's largest civilian airports for the next four to six months to boost the country's confidence in the aviation industry. The Federal Aviation Administration has asked for about 5,000 troops in what is considered a historic mission for Guard forces.
A front-page USA Today picture of a South Dakota Army National Guardsman, his rifle slung barrel-down on his shoulder, signaled the new mission of homeland defense following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Virginia Army National Guardsmen reported to Reagan Washington National Airport, which reopened for business Oct. 4. The airport, the closest of three serving the metropolitan Washington area, is in Virginia on the Potomac River near the Pentagon and directly across from the city.
Other guardsmen, many of them civilian police officers, began reporting for airport duty over the weekend after completing FAA security training and a weapons refresher.
People have been baking cookies and buying coffee for the guardsmen in Albuquerque. One woman offered a young citizen- soldier $5 because her son is also a young soldier. Many have said, "God bless you," because they feel good about flying now that the Guard is on the scene.
Such are the early returns from New Mexico and other places where Guard units quickly stepped in to give airports time to improve their security procedures and systems.
"I don't think they knew how quickly the Guard could respond. We had four people on station before the FAA people knew we were coming," said Maj. Richard Almeter, Hall's Air Guard boss and the 150th Squadron's commander since 1985. Almeter also leads a 33-member Department of Veterans Affairs police force.
"This is nothing unusual for this squadron," observed Hall, who has spent 17 active duty and Air Guard years in his native New Mexico. "Half of the people are police officers, and we have performed flightline security and air base ground defense missions in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War and in many other places."
The New Mexico operation also includes Army Guardsmen and keeps about 20 people at the airports, but the force can quickly multiply in an emergency, Almeter said.
Each governor can decide which Guard troops to deploy and what they will actually do. But the job is universally the same -- providing a military presence. Duties include monitoring and reinforcing security checkpoints, monitoring the alertness and performance of the civilian screeners, and assisting screeners, supervisors and airport police as required.
New Mexico troops, for example, have helped authorities collar 10 suspected illegal immigrants, Hall said.
Nearly 200 Maryland Army Guardsmen were trained to begin working security checkpoints at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and regional airports in Hagerstown and Salisbury by noon Thursday.
Approximately 350 Virginia infantry and field artillery citizen-soldiers were trained for duty at Reagan, Dulles International and seven other airports that began Oct. 6.
New Jersey called up about 150 Army Guardsmen, including members of the 42nd Military Police Company, for duty Oct. 5 in Newark, Trenton and Atlantic City.
Vermont called about 20 military police and security force personnel to airports in Burlington and Rutland and was expected to replace them Oct. 5 with FAA-trained artillery and armor soldiers.
A National Guard Bureau historian in Arlington, Va., said the use of guardsmen for airport security is similar to the way nearly 13,000 Army and Air Guard troops were used to sort and deliver mail during the 1970 New York postal strike. This occasion, however, is believed to be the first time that Guard forces are being employed in this manner nationwide.
Guard officials pointed out these tours of duty are different from the state active duty that Guard troops perform while helping civil authorities deal with wildfires, floods and other domestic emergencies. Those pulling airport security duty will remain under their state governor's command and control, but the federal government covers their pay and benefits.
And there is a universal understanding about what President Bush intends to accomplish. "Some airports already meet high standards," he said at Chicago O'Hare International Airport on Sept. 27. "But for those airports that need help, we will work with the governors to provide security measures -- visible security measures -- so the traveling public will know that we are serious about airline safety in America."
Mobilized National Guard Units, as of Oct. 4
The following National Guard units, with their locations and numbers of personnel, have been authorized for call up under President George W. Bush's partial mobilization order for reserve components:
Army National Guard
Soldiers Participate in Exercise Bronco Rumble