I guess this might be old news, but I just saw confirmation in writing of this for the first time today.
Posted on Sun, May. 26, 2002
Airport soldiers'' guns were unloaded
The Pa. guardsmen''s presence was intended to reassure passengers. But they say their ability to handle an emergency was compromised.
By Marcia Gelbart
Inquirer Staff Writer
For seven months, more than 80 National Guard troops watched almost 12 million passengers walk through the gates and security checkpoints at Philadelphia International Airport.
Among the most visible responses to the war on terrorism, the soldiers stood ready, dressed in Army fatigues, their 9mm pistols strapped to their sides.
But the guns had no bullets.
Instead, the soldiers carried loaded magazines on their belts.
At 16 airports across Pennsylvania, National Guard troops were banned from patrolling with loaded weapons, according to some guardsmen stationed in Philadelphia.
"I don''t mind being in harm''s way, but let me react," said Staff Sgt. Bill Lawrence, 39, a Montgomery County mason who was stationed at the Philadelphia airport until the guardsmen left on May 10. With the seconds it would take to remove the magazine from their belt and insert it into the pistol, he said, "we couldn''t protect ourselves."
Among 19 states with the nation''s busiest airports, Pennsylvania and New York appeared to be the exception, not the rule.
In an Inquirer survey of National Guard units in those states, 12 said their soldiers carried loaded weapons during the airport assignment. Five, including New Jersey, declined comment, citing security concerns.
The airport mission was ordered by President Bush, but National Guard troops in each state were under the command and control of the governors.
Those states that decided their soldiers should carry loaded weapons said doing so was intrinsic to the success of the mission, to be able to defend themselves and the public.
States that decided otherwise said the guardsmen were there mainly to buttress local law enforcement, and they noted they could order the weapons loaded at any time.
Officially, the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs would not comment on whether the state''s National Guard troops carried loaded or unloaded weapons. "We are not going to confirm specific rules of engagement because our soldiers could be back in the airports," spokesman John Maietta said.
But last week, Lawrence and three other guardsmen - all who remained tight-lipped about their weapon status throughout their assignment at Philadelphia International Airport - decided to speak about their airport mission. One of those guardsmen requested that his name not be used.
In New York, a National Guard spokesman confirmed that the soldiers'' M-16 rifles had no bullets in them.
The four Philadelphia soldiers emphasized that the need never arose for any of the soldiers at the airport to pull their weapons. Nonetheless, if troops were again sent to patrol airports, the four do not want Pennsylvania guardsmen to be in the same position.
"It seemed like they [National Guard officials] were betting nothing would happen," said Staff Sgt. Rich Scaricaciottoli, 29, who is a systems administrator for Kmart and lives in South Philadelphia. "But I wouldn''t take that as a precedent for what''s going to happen next time."
There''s little disagreement about the principal reason gun-toting guardsmen were sent to the nation''s airports - to reassure travelers by a show of security and to provide a physical deterrent to any terrorists or troublemakers.
The mission "reassured the traveling public during an uneasy time," said Gov. Schweiker''s spokesman, Steve Aaron.
But carrying unloaded weapons in such situations is "ridiculous," said Douglas R. Laird, a former security director for Northwest Airlines who is now an aviation consultant at BGI International in Washington.
"If in fact the airport is going to come under attack, by the time they got the magazine out of the pouch and locked and loaded and started firing, they''re dead anyway," he said.
Laird said the notion of National Guard soldiers patrolling with unloaded weapons suggested that there still existed a looming shadow from Kent State, where Ohio guardsmen killed four students during antiwar demonstrations in 1970.
Similarly, one national security expert says the use of unloaded guns raises the larger question of whether the National Guard is the right military force to be deployed at airports.
"It''s clear to me there is no faith from the senior leadership [of the National Guard] that these kids will do the right thing, and that they''re trained to the level they need to be, if they can''t have a magazine in the weapon," said Phil Anderson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Maietta, the spokesman for the Pennsylvania Military and Veterans Affairs Department, said trust was not an issue for them. "The rules of engagement we established were based on a thorough assessment of the perceived threat. We have the utmost respect and pride in the maturity and judgment of our soldiers."
Both he and a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Defense emphasized the National Guard was not designed to be a lead federal agency in providing airport security; that was the Federal Aviation Administration.
In addition, working alongside National Guard in each state were professionally trained law-enforcement officers, with loaded weapons. At Philadelphia''s airport, for instance, two guardsmen worked with one state trooper; city airport police were also present. At New York''s Kennedy and LaGuardia airports, Port Authority police were the primary law-enforcement agents.
"If need be, and thankfully there was no cause for this, the weapon could have been rapidly loaded," said Scott Sandman, a spokesman for the New York division of Military and Naval Affairs.
Whether guns were loaded is not a critical question, said Lawrence Korb, a national security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. What was critical, he said, is that the National Guard achieved its airport mission by "calming people down and giving them the assurance that we were doing something."
In Georgia, Lt. Col. Jim Driscoll, the National Guard spokesman, chafed last week at the idea of his state''s soldiers carrying unloaded weapons. "We''re not like Barney Fife, who carries one bullet in our pocket. The gun is only effective if you can use it," he said.
The sentiment was the same in Maryland. "Our soldiers were carrying live ammunition," said Maj. Drew Sullings, public-affairs officer for the state National Guard. "It would defeat the purpose of putting them in there [the airports] if they didn''t. What if something had happened and they needed to defend people, to defend themselves?"
In the Philadelphia area, more than 400 guardsmen volunteered for the mission at the National Guard Armory, home of the 56th Brigade of the state''s 28th Infantry Division.
About 100 were selected. They received FAA training on the security procedures for screening luggage. And they learned how they were to interact with state troopers.
It was not until after they received firearms training and passed firing tests that they learned they would be carrying unloaded pistols, the four guardsmen told The Inquirer.
When they questioned their command, the response, they said, was: "We don''t want any John Waynes."
But, Lawrence said, "the people who made these decisions about rules of engagement didn''t have to stand at the checkpoints."