Md. National Guard sends armed troops to aid BWI security

Soldiers carrying M-16 rifles are intended to ease passenger fears

October 05, 2001|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Eighty infantry soldiers carrying M-16 rifles fanned out across Baltimore-Washington International Airport yesterday, the first time the Maryland National Guard has been called to defend the airport.

Evoking images of European airports, the soldiers, part of the 3rd Brigade of the Guard's 29th Division, were assigned to passenger security checkpoints, joining a national mission to step up airport security and comfort an anxious flying public.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening mobilized the troops last week at the request of President Bush, who said he hoped the move would reassure passengers.

The mission marks the first time since World War II that so many soldiers from the 29th have been called up for one mission, said Lt. Barbara Maher, the unit's spokeswoman.

"We spend all our time training for this, training to do something," Maher said yesterday of the unit's soldiers. "This is the something that we can do."

The troops, in green camouflage and black berets with their rifles slung over their shoulders, walked through the terminal past ticket lines of stunned passengers. Most took up posts next to the checkpoints, where they stood guard as airport employees questioned passengers. Some passengers approached them to ask what was going on.

The fact that yesterday brought whirling salsa dancers and Mariachi bands to the airport - part of BWI's Hispanic Heritage Day - only added to passengers' confusion.

"At first they're surprised to see us. They ask, `What are you doing here?'" said Staff Sgt. Stephan Ridenour. "Then they're reassured. They're glad there is extra security."

All civilians who had to leave their regular jobs, the soldiers will be at the airport for up to six months. They will have the authority to arrest and detain suspects. Other than that, the soldiers will only describe their mission as "security support" at passenger check-in points.

"They've given us a good understanding of how airport security works," said Capt. Michael Duplechain, the unit's commander. "Hopefully, the passengers will feel a bit more secure knowing that the security system has been expanded."

In addition to the BWI assignments, 40 other 29th Division soldiers were sent yesterday to regional airports in Hagerstown and Salisbury.

The troops, whose last mission involved helping emergency crews during a snowstorm last winter, trained for four days with security experts from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Maryland Transportation Authority Police. Staff Sgt. Elwood Leath, 30, who is also an airport police officer, helped the unit with the transition.

For him, he said, National Guard duty "just means putting on a different uniform."

But for Leath and his fellow soldiers, airport duty brings hardships. Leath's only son was born a month ago, and because his new post includes supervisory responsibilities, he expects he'll be spending less time at home.

Ridenour will spend even fewer nights at home. He lives in Germantown in Montgomery County - at least an hour's commute from BWI. When his work schedule doesn't allow him to drive home, he will sleep at local armories.

The timing of the deployment is difficult: his wife is pregnant and is due to have the baby Dec. 20.

"It's a little bit more of a hardship on her than on me," Ridenour said. "There will be sacrifice. There will be days that I won't be able to go home. But it would be worse if we were deployed overseas."

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