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Troops to End Airport Mission

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When uniformed troops from the California National Guard end their seven-month deployment at Los Angeles International Airport next week, they will do so knowing that they helped make the airport a safer place, the guard’s top officer said Sunday.

“The physical presence of our military here, I think, has had a great impact,” said Maj. Gen. Paul D. Monroe Jr., head of the California National Guard. “LAX is as safe as it’s ever been.”

For the record:

12:00 AM, Apr. 25, 2002 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 25, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
National Guard--A story in Monday’s California section incorrectly said that National Guard troops posted at the state’s airports do not carry loaded weapons. For a short period in October, those Guard members did not keep their ammunition in weapons; they now do, said a California National Guard spokeswoman.

The Guard announced last week that it would leave the 28 California airports at which its troops are stationed by May 10. The demobilization could take an additional three weeks.

LAX will be the first of those airports to lose its National Guard presence, at midnight April 30. The departure plans for other area airports are still being finalized.

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In preparation for their departure, Guard officials Sunday began a six-day tour of the state, during which they will thank troops and work out transition plans with airport personnel. Their first stops included LAX, John Wayne Airport in Orange County and San Diego International Airport.

More than 800 members of the California National Guard have been providing anti-terrorist security at commercial airports since Oct. 5 following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Nationwide, more than 8,000 National Guard personnel have been positioned at 435 commercial airports.

The most visible sign of the Guard’s mobilization has been the presence of troops wearing green camouflage uniforms and carrying M-16 assault rifles.

“The fatigues and the M-16s kind of make a statement,” said Jim Messerschmitt, 43, of Long Beach, who was traveling from LAX to Las Vegas with his wife, Cheryl. “I think it’s a deterrent.”

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The total cost of deploying troops at the state’s airports is expected to reach $43 million by the May end date, California National Guard officials said, but the federal government has pledged to pick up the tab.

Soldiers and airmen have helped remove intoxicated and belligerent passengers from airplanes and evacuate terminals during recent bomb scares, officials said.

In one instance, a guardsman dove head first to catch a baby who had fallen out of a cradle while its parents were being searched by security personnel.

“Your National Guard has served with pride and distinction during this entire period,” said Col. William H. Wade II, commander of Joint Task Force AEROSAFE. “They have helped restore faith” in air travel.

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Guard officials say their mission initially was scheduled to end March 31, but it was extended to give the new Transportation Security Administration time to prepare a safety plan.

When their deployment is over, Guard members will return to their families for a leave before returning to their jobs.

“I’m ready to go back,” said Airman Chris Cardoza, 24, who left college and a job at a moving company in San Diego when he was called up for Guard duty at LAX. “At the same time, if something breaks out, I’ll be ready to go active duty again if the military needs me,” he said.

Senior Master Sgt. Michael Steadman, squad commander at John Wayne Airport, said he and his 25 troops feel they have made a difference.

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“We hate to be here for the reason we were here,” he said. “But we got no complaints from the public, even the folks we see standing in those long lines. And a lot of folks told us they wouldn’t have flown if they didn’t see the National Guard at the airports.”

Steadman, a high school teacher who lives in Phelan, said he and his squad, many of whom have been staying at a Costa Mesa hotel, are looking forward to returning to their families and their jobs.

“I miss the kids,” he said of his students at Eagle Summit Community Day School.

Times staff writer Christine Hanley contributed to this report.

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