By Staff Sgt. Mike R. Smith, Guard Times Staff
MANHATTAN – Several armed Soldiers stand outside a street entrance to Pennsylvania Station August 4 amidst the daily hustle and bustle. Positioned in an out-of-the-way area, they are mostly left alone. But from Penn Station’s seemingly endless flow of travelers, an occasional passerby emerges to say “thank you.”
“You guys are doing a great job,” one woman proclaims as she passes them.
“Thank you, ma’am,” they reply, in unison.
In the weeks following the deadly London transit system bombings and a failed repeat of those bombings there, a “surge force” of New York National Guard Soldiers and Airmen were on watch at various mass transit stations across the State, including New York City’s vast metropolitan area.
It’s not unfamiliar duty. Joint Task Force Empire Shield, which is carrying out the State’s homeland defense mission, has had Soldiers on duty since 9/11. But in the wake of the London bombings, Governor George E. Pataki ordered hundreds of additional Guard members to State active duty to bolster security efforts at train stations, subways, and other mass transit sites.
At Penn Station, Sgt. Milton Webb, 258th Field Artillery, said he approaches the mission and the threat seriously. He said he recently returned from one year in Iraq where he saw, first hand, what terrorists are capable of doing.
“I was doing this [Task Force Empire Shield] before I left, but after Iraq, I see it differently,” he said.
Webb and his fellow Soldiers said they patrol the transit stations, ferry stations and rail yards with local law enforcement, which in New York City includes the Metro Transit Authority.
“We assist the police,” Webb said.
Joint Task Force Empire Shield’s commander, Lt. Col. George DeSimone, said the number of Guard members activated for State homeland defense has gone up and down since the war on terrorism began.
“The Soldiers and Airmen are the key players in the Guard’s homeland security success,” DeSimone said. “In addition, we are supported and guided by State headquarters.” DeSimone went on to say that the task force is a voluntary force, meaning it is always open to good Soldiers looking for both part-time and full-time State active duty work. “Unit commanders must give their approval,” he said.
Hundreds of Soldiers deployed, here, last year during the Republican National Convention to work with law enforcement agencies at bridges, tunnels, as well as train stations, subways and rail yards. Soldiers are additionally on duty helping to protect the State’s nuclear power sites, and New York Naval Militia Sailors and Marines patrol the State’s harbors and waterways.
The relationship between the Guard members and civil authorities works well, Chief Kevin J. McConville, 1st Deputy Chief of Police, MTA, said.
“They are professional … courteous, respectful, helpful … well disciplined,” McConville said. He said that MTA members have expressed satisfaction at the [Guard members’] efforts and work.
“They have been quick to learn and develop a sense of the transit system,” McConville said.
Patrolling the “system” can include walking many miles of dimly lit passageways or standing on underground platforms where the temperature and humidity can soar, but McConville said the efforts are valuable.
“The addition of the National Guard to the deployment of MTA Police allows us to cover more territory with fewer personnel, thereby making the transportation system safer,” McConville said. “We [also] believe their presence, with our forces, makes the transportation system a more pleasant experience for users.”
“It’s good [duty],” Pfc. Jay Yoo, 27th Finance Battalion, said.
Yoo was among a team of Soldiers patrolling Grand Central Station with the MTA authorities in August. He recently transferred to the New York Army National Guard from Active Duty.
I normally work in human resources, Yoo said, but he added that the Guard members and the MTA officials have a common ground, here.
“We both have the duty to protect and serve,” Yoo said.
The New York Air National Guard also joined Empire Shield’s homeland security team. Airmen from the 105th our nation and state,” Brig. Gen. James Kwiatkowski, Director of Operations, New York Air National Guard, said. Kwiatkowski went to say that Empire Shield is one area where the Air Guard is stepping into that concept. “The Army National Guard has been performing the MTA duty almost exclusively since 9/11,” when an additional surge requirement of personnel was required, the Air Guard helped fill the need.
“We worked with the Soldiers and the MTA [police] on the [train] platforms,” Staff Sgt. Donald Masse, 109th Airlift Wing, said. Masse and three other 109AW Airmen were assigned to North Metro’s Croton-Harmon Station. They patrolled with the station’s existing Soldiers and MTA police on duty, which provided an opportunity to share and learn each other’s homeland security tactics.
“We had to adjust to their language, and they adjusted to ours,” Masse said. “But it wasn’t bad duty.” Masse went on to say that his group also experienced the daily comings and goings of city life.
“We were swamped at rush hours,” Masse said on patrolling.
General Kwiatkowski said that the ability to utilize joint forces during emergency operations gives the Governor and the Adjutant General a synergistic force, which benefits the needs of the people of New York.
“This mission was important due to the fact that it showcased the ability of all military personnel within the State to work together to support contingency operations,” Kwiatkowski said. “The Airmen performed in an exemplary manner. Whether at the command level or on the platforms, all duties were accomplished among all personnel in a seamless fashion.”
“I liked it,” Capt. Bridget Crouch, 109AW supply officer, said. “There were long [working] hours, but meeting the Soldiers and working with the Army [National Guard] was good, and it took me into a whole new role.” Crouch was stationed at Fort Hamilton where she helped provide operational intelligence to the Soldiers and Airmen including daily briefings to those deploying to the platforms. She went on to say that her intelligence team also visited the Guardmembers at their stations to observe their status first hand.
“They all performed very well,” she said.
Crouch additionally said that a NYARNG chaplain traveled throughout the MTA system, checking on the Guard members’ morale and welfare.
Army National Guard Soldiers will continue their homeland security mission indefinitely; however, there are no current plans to send additional Airmen to support the Empire Shield tasking. General Kwiatkowski said if a “surge” requirement is again necessary, the Air National Guard could be re-tasked into a joint homeland security mission.
“I think the mission will remain for a very long time,” DeSimone said. “It calms the riding public and is a deterrent to terrorism.”