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Team LAX

Peace Officers stand watch at the National Guard checkpoints in Los Angeles International Airport.

April 01, 2002  |  by - Also by this author

For the record, Parks and all of the other Guard troops at LAX have passed Air Force or Army training and qualified on their M-16s and sidearms. Thankfully, they have not yet been required to use them.

That's not to say there haven't been some incidents. Even now, when terrorists are the primary concern at airports, most of the everyday security head-aches are caused by drunken passengers and disgruntled airline and airport employees. That's when the law enforcement officers (LEOs) who work the airport sometimes call on the Guard to step up and bring the intimidation.

"I had an incident where a LEO had to explain to a passenger that because of his abusiveness and drunkenness he couldn't fly, and he was being asked to leave," says Thompson. "The LEO called us over, and we arrived with the M-16s and the guy was told that he had a choice, he could leave on his own or with us."

Chinery adds that the airport police are not the only airport personnel who are glad to have armed troops available to back up their authority. "The security screeners like having us around. When there's a question and we step over, that usually resolves the situation right then and there."

Enforcing security regulations and reassuring passengers are just the most visible activities of Team LAX. California Air Guard spokesperson MSgt. Michael Drake explains that Operation AeroSafe is really about eyes and ears. "We're here for situational awareness," Drake says. "Our guys are watching. They're not just here as backup for the LEOs and the screeners.

"We've had things go on here," he adds ominously. "We file reports that go to the Pentagon and the White House about the things we observe here." Asked to elaborate, Drake ponders for a moment and says only, "Terrorists probe with baby steps. They're always probing, looking for the chinks in the armor."

Days are long and grueling for the men and women of Team LAX. Although their shifts are supposed to be 12 hours each, checking out and clearing weapons and transport to and from the terminals tacks on an adittional two hours of work time. Inside the terminals, the troops rotate among 20 different positions, pretty much standing all day except for two 15-minute breaks and a lunch period.

The standing is a grind, according to Chinery and Thompson. "This is tougher than being a deputy because we're on our feet so long," says Chinery.

Thompson heartily agrees. "I got to tell you, standing for 12 hours is hard. It's hard on the knees and the back. I'm in halfway decent shape, and for the first few weeks it wasn't so bad. But now I've got a foot massager; I've got orthotics pads in my boots, and I go see a chiropractor about once a month."

Foot and back pain are just some of the daily trials faced by Team LAX. There's also boredom and loneliness in their off hours. Although the troops realize that they are fortunate to be called to duty so close to their families, they are still away on nights when they'd prefer to be home. Chinery says that his fiancee is very understanding of his mission. Thompson wears a photo of his wife and 2-year-old daughter next to his heart. And Parks says the toughest part of his assignment is the separation from his family.

All three of the officers are also in communication with their agencies. Chinery jokes that the primary reason is so that they can pick up their pay (each of the officers receives the difference in pay between his law enforcement salary and his much lower military stipend.) But it's clear that their fellow officers are not far from their thoughts.

And the cops who serve with the Guard at LAX are also not far from the hearts of their fellow officers and the citizens that they serve on their agencies. "I have voice mail, and every week or so I call it, and it's flooded with messages that say, 'We know you're not there, but we're with you, and come back safe," says Parks. "So I'll be sitting in my quarters at night and feeling kind of lonely and wanting to be home with my family, and I'll pick up the phone and get all these messages. It makes me feel like it's all worthwhile."

Despite such hardships as aching feet and separation from friends and loved ones, morale is very high among the Guard assigned to Team LAX. Thompson, Chinery, and Parks say they are open to extending their duty when their activation is up.

They're not the only ones. "Believe it or not, we took a hands-up vote a couple of nights ago, asking who would stay if our mission was extended, and 95 percent of the unit raised their hands," says Parks.

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