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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, April 13, 2002

Civilians take over airport watch

By Karen Blakeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

Seven months after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., brought airport security into sharp focus, Army National Guard troops will turn Honolulu airport over to a civilian security force on Monday.

A short change-of-watch ceremony will be held at 8 a.m. as the national Transportation Security Administration takes full control of airport security. Guardsmen at Neighbor Island airports will continue to serve for three more weeks before returning to their civilian jobs.

Al Agor, federal security manager for Transportation Security in Honolulu, said the new security force — mostly retired police and military police officers hired through Akal Security, a state Department of Transportation contractor — will look a lot like the guardsmen they replace.

"They'll be in tactical dress," he said. "Paramilitary uniforms. And they'll carry similar weapons. We'll have police officers at every checkpoint to ensure maximum security and provide a nice visual deterrent.

"It's an honor to step up to this unit," Agor said.

All national airports were first scheduled to switch to the new police security system in mid-May, he said, but the national office stepped up the schedule for the country's larger international airports, freeing guardsmen to return to their units and civilian jobs.

"The guard needs to get back to regular duty," Agor said.

And the guard is ready, said 2nd Lt. David Hatcher of the Army Guard's 1st Battalion, 487th Field Artillery, which has been supplying guardsmen for airport duty on O'ahu. The 2nd Battalion, 299th Infantry, headquartered in Hilo with units on the other Neighbor Islands, took the lead in providing security forces for the outer-island airports.

Hawai'i was the first state to put uniformed, automatic rifle-toting guardsmen into the airports to deter terrorism. Gov. Ben Cayetano called them up on Sept. 11, hours after the attacks.

On Oct. 7, President Bush called guardsmen to security duty in airports throughout the nation. That's when Hatcher and nearly 200 other Hawai'i guardsmen were put on active duty to take over from an emergency force that had served airport duty under Cayetano's call.

About 150 of them have remained on airport duty since that time.

"Everyone was really kind of gung ho to come here and do this," Hatcher said. "The nation was in shock and 9/11 was fresh in everyone's mind. Everyone was wondering, would there be more attacks? Would they be here?

"Everyone took the job seriously," he said. "As time went on, we might have gotten a little bored, but we stayed watchful and maintained our professionalism."

Guard leadership had done its best to select soldiers who were unemployed or otherwise in a situation to put their civilian careers on hold. Hatcher said the timing was perfect for him; he was between jobs as a restaurant and bar manager. As the economy improved and security duty continued, he and other soldiers without civilian jobs began getting calls from potential employers.

As the months wore on and security duty continued, the soldiers started looking forward to a break. Airport duty involved 10- to 12-hour days, with few breaks and little time off work.

"Everyone gutted it out," Hatcher said. "But now everyone is happy."

Reach Karen Blakeman at kblakeman@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2430.