You can say with just a little bit of hyperbole that all Americans and all American landmarks are targets of Al Qaeda in the war on terror. However, some places are more vulnerable and have drawn more attention from the worldwide network of Islamic fanatics than others. And considering the MO of Al Qaeda, it's no exaggeration to say that no other U.S. facility is more in the crosshairs of the terrorists than Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
The sprawling passenger and freight complex on the west side of America's second largest city shares a dubious honor with the now-destroyed World Trade Center. It was previously targeted by a foiled Al Qaeda plot.
In December 1999, Algerian terrorist Ahmed Ressam was arrested by U.S. border agents as he crossed by ferry from Canada to Port Angeles, Wash. In his car was a trunkload of explosives and detonators that he later said was intended for LAX. Ressam, who plead guilty to the crime, has testified that he trained for his mission in Afghanistan. Even more chilling for anyone who lives near LAX or regularly flies out of its terminals are the scattered reports from a variety of news media that American troops and intelligence agents searching Al Qaeda strongholds have found mockups or plans of LAX. When all this evidence is considered in light of the terrorists' previous tenacity once they identify a target, it makes the Los Angeles Police Department, the LAX Police, and the other men and women charged with protecting the airport just a bit nervous.
It also adds to the urgency of the mission of the 146th Airlift Wing of the California Air National Guard. As part of Operation Noble Eagle (the defense of the American homeland), the men and women of the Air Guard-sharing duties with an Army Guard unit-stand posts throughout the terminals of LAX with loaded M-16s and sidearms.
Ironically, the primary mission of the Channel Islands-based Air Guard unit is not security but emergency airlift for medical evacuations. But times of war bring unusual marching orders, and the unit is proud to be an integral part of Operation AeroSafe (South), the defense of Southern California's airports. And it's important to note that even though security is not the primary duty of the 146th Airlift Wing, when it comes to successfully executing its new mission, the unit has one major hole card: cops in the ranks.
"When all this happened in September, being a patriot and an American, and being involved in the military, I wanted to fly to New York the next day," says Lt. Bob Parks, a patrolman with the San Fernando (Calif.) Police Department in "civilian" life. "When this mission came up, I thought, 'What better mission for me with my law enforcement background?' This is both a law enforcement and a security mission. I went to my commanders, and I said, 'Hey, if you need me, I'm there.'"
For obvious reasons, Air Guard officials won't say how many troops muster at their westside L.A. armory for duty at LAX, nor what percentage of these individuals have been called up from daily life as law enforcement officers. They will say, however, that the Air Guard ranks of "Team LAX" include police officers from numerous Southern California cities, sheriff's deputies from Los Angeles and surrounding counties, corrections officers, and U.S. Border Patrol agents.
L.A. County Sheriff's Deputies Arthur "Artie" Thompson and Michael Chinery are typical of the law officers who have been activated for duty with the Air Guard at LAX. Both men are deputies with a record of distinguished service in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, and both have been on duty at LAX since Oct. 19. Sergeants in the Air Guard, they both are proud to be part of Operation Safe Passage, and they like working with a grateful public.
"When we're standing duty, airline passengers tap us on the shoulder and thank us," says Thompson. "I'd say as many as 20 people do that during a shift. Some actually want their pictures taken with us."
Chinery and Thompson are friendly and easygoing, but there's also a vibe of "Don't mess with us" radiating off both men. And that's exactly what they want the bad guys to feel: intimidated. These are not just weekend warriors standing around the airport. They're highly trained and heavily armed.
Parks is commander of "A" flight of the Air Guard at LAX, and he finds it funny that some have questioned the wisdom of entrusting his troops with loaded M-16s inside the airport. "A reporter asked me, 'Do you really feel comfortable walking around the airport with loaded guns? You're really not trained for it. You're Guard; what do you do when you're not here?'" Parks replied, "Well, ma'am, I'm a police officer." Thus ended that line of questioning.[PAGEBREAK]
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.