National Guard troops leave California airports after months on duty

By Paul Glader, The Associated Press
Saturday May 11, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO — Concluding an eight-month operation that involved about 800 troops and cost the state about $40 million, the last of the National Guard units that provided added security at 30 California airports headed back home Friday. 

“Our job there was to protect the public from any untoward activities that might occur and to provide a presence that connoted a trained, armed and disciplined force,” said National Guard Lt. Col. Dick Loesch. 

Gov. Gray Davis ordered the guardsmen into airports around the state to boost security following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. At a cost of up to $5.5 million a month for payroll and operations costs, Loesch said the overall cost was about $40 million. 

The departure marked the end of insomnia for David Young, Brett Brendix and the rest of the Moon Dogs, a troop of reservists who worked from midnight to noon at San Francisco Interational Airport. 

“We’re ready to go,” said Brendix, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the 12 soldiers on the night shift. 

Brendix said he hasn’t slept well during the day, and is looking forward to being closer to his family in Sacramento. 

“My wife told me she can’t wait until I can be home to help with family responsibilities again,” said Brendix, a father of two. “She’s had to be both mom and dad, and it’s been pretty tough on her.” 

On their last day at San Francisco’s airport, National Guard soldiers reflecting on their months of duty said that one passenger stood out — the naked woman who tried to stroll through an airport checkpoint. 

“A woman got out of the taxi, stripped down to her skin and tried to walk through this checkpoint naked,” said Chief Warrant Officer David Young, pointing to a United Airlines checkpoint. 

The woman was arrested, and the soldiers returned to their mundane routine. 

The soldiers, who wore camouflage uniforms and carried assault rifles, will be replaced with armed police officers. Federal transportation officials hope to hire at least 60,000 screeners to replace private employees at the nation’s 429 commercial airports by Nov. 19. 

At Sacramento International Airport, 50 members of the National Guard who have been staffing security checkpoints since Oct. 12 were feted at a ceremony to thank them early Friday morning. 

“It was a successful mission and the soldiers and airmen were proud to serve,” said National Guard spokeswoman Denise Varner. “But they are happy to go back to their lives.” 

At 4:30 a.m. Friday, the guardsmen were replaced by local sheriff’s deputies from the Sacramento area. About 34 officers will provide security in two different overtime shifts, at 10 hours apiece. 

Although the soldiers are leaving the airports, officials said there is no plan to remove the 100 soldiers who now patrol four bridges from San Diego to San Francisco. 

The troops were deployed in November after Davis said there was evidence of possible terrorist threats on the bridges. 

“The threat is still there,” said National Guard Col. Terry Knight. “Has anyone done anything yet? No.” 

Troops began pulling out of Los Angeles International Airport and other Southern California commercial airports on April 30. By Friday, not a soldier was in sight at the Los Angeles airport, where passenger Robert Wilson said he didn’t believe the troops had a big impact on security. 

“They served as a visual deterrent for would-be troublemakers, but they didn’t make me feel any safer about flying,” he said. 

Guardswoman Alexsandra Serda, 19, said travelers weren’t always pleased with the presence of armed guards standing watch with guns. She said on her first day on the job at the San Francisco airport, an elderly woman shoved a soldier after airport staff took away her two butter knives. 

“A lot of the old ladies tend to get rowdy,” she said. 

Guards said the job was sometimes boring as they stood watching and waiting with their M-16s in hand. Defusing tempers of frustrated passengers was the most common action they saw. But some San Francisco passengers said Friday they will miss the guards. 

“I hate to see them leave,” said Hugh McCullough of Cincinnati, returning from a cruise with his wife, Donna. “I feel more comfortable with them than with the rent-a-cops they will be getting.”