Staff Sgt. Patrick Harris admits that even after his third tour of duty in Iraq, he still experiences the “pucker effect,” the heightened sense of vigilance military personnel feel when they return home from deployment. Though he is now safely back at the Joint Base Andrews Naval Air Facility Washington, where he helps to protect the base as a member of the U.S. Air Force’s 11th Security Forces Group (SFG), he says, “I still find myself walking around my development constantly looking up, looking at windows, looking at rooftops.”
Andrews consists of a nearly 11-square-mile expanse, which is filled with office buildings, apartments, housing neighborhoods, three golf courses (frequented by the President of the United States and other VIPs), runways, and hangars, including the Air Force One Complex. On an average day, 10,000 military personnel, civilian employees, contractors, and visitors come onto the base. It’s Rector’s and his group’s responsibility to make sure this garrison stays safe and secure.
On base, security forces are responsible for everything from protecting distinguished visitors (DVs)—including the President and the Vice President—and Air Force One, to overseeing access control at the gates, managing the base armory, and providing weapons training to their comrades in arms. They even conduct traffic speed checks and write tickets as part of their law enforcement mission. It’s a bizarre sight to see young camouflaged men using a radar gun to make sure you’re doing the speed limit.
As a part of their duties, security forces assigned to the armory keep a list of every airman on base who owns a weapon, as all military personnel who live on base must register their personal weapons stored in their residence. This information can then be accessed by security forces on patrol if there is an incident and they need to approach a dwelling. That way they will be forearmed with information about what might await them inside. “As a patrolman…when we approach that house...we know they have that firearm,” Staff Sgt. Paul Benedict explains, and that’s especially important in light of the Fort Hood Massacre last year.
The squadron’s most important duty is protecting the Air Force One complex, which holds the President’s plane. “Whether or not Air Force One is in town,” Rector says, “we still make sure the complex is secure.” This takes the largest chunk of the 11th SFG’s resources, because the mission entails year-round 24-hour security. (Air Force One was in use by the President on the day that Security Management visited.)
Entering the Facility
Andrews is encompassed by fencing and all gates are staffed around the clock. But prior to 9-11, Rector says, any vehicle with a Department of Defense (DoD) sticker on its windshield would be waved through, no questions asked. The terrorist attack changed all that. Now, vehicles must stop as they go through the tollbooth-like lanes, and every person inside must submit an ID, which is scanned and cleared through a database in real time to make sure none produce a “hit” of a name on a watchlist.
Currently, the gates are staffed by private contract security provided by Pinkerton Government Services. That will change at the end of 2012 when the Pinkerton contract expires and the government stops outsourcing that function.
Guards conduct random antiterrorism searches of entering vehicles. Anyone can be selected, regardless of whether the person is a handyman or has stars on his shoulder. “Occasionally, I get the disgruntled colonel that calls because he got stopped and searched,” Rector attests.
Security Management was given a demonstration of how the search is carried out. There are two officers involved; one of the security guards asks the driver to cut the ignition and to step out and away from the car, while the other guard shadows the driver just in case he or she is a genuine threat. The first guard then proceeds to inspect the interior and exterior of the vehicle, including using a search mirror for the undercarriage.
Pinkerton Shift Manager Sgt. Lester Smith explains that his guards are trained to search for all contraband items like explosives, guns, knives, and drugs. Their searches usually don’t uncover anything more than drugs, however.
“Usually it’s civilian contractors coming to work on the base, occasionally retirees,” says Rector. “Very rarely will it be a military person.”
When SFG personnel are deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, they may do similar, albeit much more intensive, searches at installations there. But in that case, the main focus is on preventing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and hostiles from making it onto the base.
When the Pinkerton positions are brought in-house, they won’t be filled by the SFG or other active-duty military. “We’re going to civilianize,” says Rector, which means they will be nonmilitary positions within the DoD.
Rector says that there has been a continuing push to reduce the number of contractors employed in the DoD as Congress receives more and more contracting bills from the war on terrorism. But military units are stretched thin, so “We use civilians in those areas where it makes good sense and where it can free up a military member to go take the fight to the enemy,” Rector explains.
An important responsibility of the security forces is to protect the flight line—or the portions of Andrews’ air field, including its two runways, where aircraft are parked and serviced and land and takeoff. To help protect this area from intruders and adversaries, the SFG has woven together a web of security technologies—some acknowledged and some not revealed—that Rector says is part of why the 11th SFG is “a model for a lot of other installations.”
The first line of defense for the flight line is a perimeter fence. Military personnel who are authorized to access the flight line get issued a proximity access card that they must use to open the entrance gate. The entrance also has video and audio technology so that if there’s a problem, it’s possible to see and communicate with whoever is trying to gain entry. The flight line is further protected by motion detection video cameras and ground-based radar that are monitored at a command center.
The final layer of protection is presented by the security force members patrolling the flight line. They work in pairs that are designated as either internal or external response teams, with the external teams having the authority to pursue a threat beyond the fence.
Each two-person security team is charged with tactically responding to any potential threat in their geographic area of responsibility. Their primary mission is to prevent an intruder from “breaking red,” or entering the restricted area. The phrase arises from the fact that there is a red border line painted around the aircraft parking area. If someone without authorization steps over that line outside of a designated entry area, airmen challenge them.
I talked with one team—Staff Sgt. Nahteas Murphy and Senior Airman Alonzo Allen—as they stood on the line dressed in full “battle rattle,” which includes a bulky armor-plated vest, helmet, and their weaponry. To fullfill their mission, Murphy and Allen aren’t alone on the flight line. “We have help to see what we can’t see out here,” says Murphy, referencing the various security technology tools monitored by the base’s command center.
When alarms get tripped, a command center controller will radio the security team to respond after obtaining a visual assessment. If an intruder has entered a restricted area, the controller will track his movements and guide the security team to his location. We saw how the system worked when our own presence drew some attention from the control center, which caused them to make sure that we had the proper authorization to be there.
Usually intruders present no threat and are detained and transported to the base’s Defense Operations Center. However, if an intruder turns hostile and poses a direct threat to the aircraft or other resources, security response teams are authorized to use deadly force, Rector says.
Security with Teeth
While Rector puts the size of the squadron at 750, that total is off by 23. That’s the number of military working dogs on base. SFG members both train the dogs and work with them for drugs and explosives detection, executive protection, and general patrol duty.
Detection dogs are used to search aircraft, luggage, and facilities at Andrews and sometimes at other locations worldwide, explains Sgt. Manual Garcia as his team gives us a demonstration of the dogs’ skills through various exercises, including one in which a dog jumps from a patrol car to attack an intruder on command and another where the dog identifies the suspect luggage in a line of bags.
Dogs are trained to identify the scent of both drugs and explosives. When a dog recognizes either odor, it exhibits a passive response, which means the dog sits in front of the object from which the odor is emanating.
Dogs with a strong prey drive, or the instinct to chase and attack prey, are trained for patrol. “In cases where we have an intruder that isn’t following our directions, this is where our patrol dog comes into play,” says Garcia.
Patrol dogs are trained to obey three basic commands. The first command is “bite,” which is given when a dog’s handler releases the dog for attack. A typical military working dog weighs between 60 and 90 pounds, can run at speeds of up to 33 mph, and finishes up its pursuit with a bite that exerts around 400 to 600 pounds of pressure per square inch, according to Garcia. As I witnessed firsthand, a German Shepherd can cover a considerable distance in a few seconds before burying its teeth into its target—in this case, a trainer assistant’s protective sleeve.
But dogs don’t always need to attack. During a pat down, the dog’s handler will search a suspect as the dog watches. If the suspect makes any sudden movements, the dog is trained to attack with or without command.
The third and final command a patrol dog learns is “guard.” On this command, a dog that has chased down a suspect guards him or her until the handler can engage the person. If the individual decides to make any sudden movements, the dog will attack.
The safety of its handler is always the dog’s priority.
Tech Sgt. Larry Logan stands tall in his green flight suit, exuding a confidence that creates a presence that commands respect. He is one of the Phoenix Ravens, an elite team of airmen who perform fly-away security missions to protect aircraft traveling into unsecured, often dangerous locations around the world. “Basically we’re the air marshals of the military,” Logan says.
Though it’s likely you’ve never heard of a Raven, chances are you’ve seen them on the news. “The two military members at the foot of the stairs when presidents get off, those are two security forces Ravens,” says Rector. The most elite members, who are assigned to the Presidential Airlift Group, have the privilege of protecting Air Force One. Rector’s Raven unit protects the Vice President and other federal department heads, like the Secretary of State and the first lady.
The program owes its existence to the U.S. military’s humanitarian bent between the end of the Cold War and the events of September 11, explains Rector. During the mid 1990s, the U.S. Air Force strategic lifters would fly humanitarian missions into unstable locations in Africa and South America. The plane would touch down on unsecured air fields and people would mob it desperate for food and aid. In one instance in Senegal, a plane was damaged. There was clearly a need for security.
Around the same time, according to Logan, an incident occurred where two children climbed into the wheel well of a C141 cargo plane while it was grounded at an unsecured air field in Mongolia. The two young stowaways froze to death during the flight. That further highlighted the need for some type of security contingent to accompany such flights.
To solve the problem, the Phoenix Raven program was created in 1997. Ravens are chosen because of their physical fitness and equanimity. Only 1,900 airmen have made Raven since the program’s inception, states Logan.
Once selected for the Raven program, prospective candidates travel to Fort Dix, New Jersey, for an 18-day specialized training course. There they undergo advanced baton training and learn a style of mixed martial arts known as Krav Maga, developed in Israel and originally used by the Israeli Defense Forces. But the strangest training Ravens receive is a conflict-resolution process known as verbal judo, or unofficially “our Jedi mind trick,” according to Logan. It’s a nonviolent, delicate art of suggestion that Ravens use when confronted with a situation that doesn’t warrant force.
“Say we’re in Africa, and we have a bunch of kids who don’t have food and we have food on the jet,” explains Logan. “You don’t necessary want to give them our resources, so we have to use our verbal judo to try to change their thought processes to not want our food.”
The life of a Raven is rough but rewarding. Most Ravens sign on for a two-year commitment, which results in a dizzying number of trips. Logan says that over a six-month period, he may be home as little as a week and at most, up to four weeks. Sometimes it’s an immediate turnaround. “You go home, grab a bite to eat, and you’re back out the door,” he says. While it’s not ideal for airmen with families, the single Logan loves his job.
“Sometimes it can be very hectic. Sometimes it can be relaxed or even fun,” he says. “We see a lot of the world.”
It’s early evening, and the heat of this 90 degree summer day is still oppressive. Yet you wouldn’t know it to look at the armed-up and black-clad Emergency Services Team (EST), whose members barely break a sweat as they force their way into an abandoned house on base and conduct a building clearing to find where a suspect has barricaded himself in a room. Lined up in a row, with one hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them, the team breaks through the door and methodically fills the house, finds the threat, and neutralizes it.
Fortunately, in this case, no lives were at risk, because it was just a demonstration of the capabilities of what the EST gets called on to do. The EST team is Andrews’ own SWAT team. “Pretty much what we do is provide the [base] commander with more capabilities as far as hostage rescue, crowd control, bus assaults, vehicle assaults, and aircraft assaults,” says Tech Sgt. Eric Smith, the noncommissioned officer in charge.
This special weapons and tactics demonstration came at the end of the day because throughout the rest of the day the team had been engaged in an anti-hijacking exercise with multiple agencies, including the FBI and CIA, as part of the ongoing effort to be ready to handle any threat against Air Force One. (The exercise was considered too sensitive to observe.)
With his hair matted against his forehead, Smith explains what it takes to be part of an EST Team. Training occurs twice a month, so every member can familiarize himself or herself with each other’s responsibilities, an operational necessity. “If something were to happen to me, I know any one of these people can stay up, take over, and take care of business,” he says.
The team is on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It’s a tight-knit group, aided by the knowledge that every member volunteered for it. “We know we have people who want to be here, so there’s dedication and commitment to the team,” explains Smith.
While not all bases have EST teams, it makes sense for Andrews’ security forces considering Air Force One’s presence, their DV mission, and their size. “Some bases only have 150 security forces members, they may not have the capability to have a robust team,” Rector says. “With the numbers we have, it’s a lot easier for us to do.”
To expand their interoperability with other law enforcement agencies, the team takes advantage of the unique resources they have in the federal government’s backyard. In addition to the FBI and CIA, Andrew’s EST team has trained jointly with the Secret Service, the Maryland State Police, and local police departments, according to Smith.
Although Andrews EST team has never had to suit up for real, the base’s importance to U.S. national security combined with the heightened awareness of the active shooter threat makes the team a critical safeguard if something does go wrong, which does not seem as remote a risk in the wake of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s rampage at Fort Hood. Long trained in active- shooter response, the EST team would be a critical part of the response if a gunman went on a similar shooting spree anywhere on base.
As noted earlier, part of the SFG’s mission is to assist in security at bases in Afghan-istan and Iraq. At any given time, Rector says, an average of 10 to 15 percent of the squadron is deployed. This, of course, can make it difficult for the remaining squadron members to fulfill their domestic mission. That is why Andrews has outsourced and civilianized some duty; it is in an effort to take pressure off military personnel.
When stationed overseas, security forces perform many of the same tasks they do on bases inside the United States. They staff the gates, search vehicles for IEDs, patrol the base, and protect the flight line. They even run radar for speeders, says Rector, because “things normalize if they do that.” But unlike in the United States, they also “break wire,” or go outside the installation to hunt down possible threats to the base. (Inside the United States, the Posse Comitatus Act forbids military personnel from acting as police forces unless Congress or the President declares a national emergency.)
The rationale behind going “outside the wire,” says Rector, is simple: “Who better to push out and protect the air base than the folks that have responsibility for it?”
At military posts overseas there are two basic areas that must be protected: the base itself and the 10 to 20 kilometers around it. This is what the Air Force calls the “base security zone.”
When security forces break wire, they go into the areas surrounding the base to eliminate threats such as mortar attacks, a favorite tactic of insurgents.
It’s during these tense forays into the civilian population surrounding the base that security force members use the community policing skills they learned at home, says Harris. When home at Andrews, he deals with a multiplicity of characters to do his job effectively, such as local police, civilians, retirees, and high-ranking military officers. “You take that…and it gives you a base skill set when you get out there,” he says.
Harris estimates that the 65,000-strong population of Balad is split between support and hostility toward U.S. forces. Given that anyone encountered may be friend or foe, the patrols must think before they pull the trigger on civilians.
“It’s no more black and white, it’s very gray,” Harris explains. “You have to learn to live in the gray, and you have to learn to make judgment calls based on what’s happening at that current situation.”
Already a veteran of three tours of duty during five years of service, Harris can’t say whether or not he’ll deploy again. But he’s resolute. “Quite possibly,” he says. “If they need me to go, then I go.”
While acknowledging the stress it puts on his family, Harris says that he made the right decision in becoming part of the 11th SFG. “I love being a cop,” he says. “There’s nothing else in the Air Force I’d rather do.”
Across Andrews and Air Force installations overseas, there are many more airmen and women like him who fulfill a role many Americans probably don’t know exists. Handling everything from the mundane to the nerve-shaking, the members of the 11th SFG do their duty proudly so their comrades-in-arms can do theirs. Unsung, they sacrifice their lives to protect not only their Air Force brothers and sisters but the executive branch of the United States of America when it’s on the move and vulnerable.