NEW YORK CITY - Musician John Legend recently performed at the opening of a new shopping mall inside an 800,000-square-foot facility which also serves as a commuter hub at the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan.
About 20 Service members from the New York National Guard were there at that event as well, though they weren't there for the performance or to shop or travel. They were working as part of a unique security detail seen if few places elsewhere in the United States.
Since 9/11, Soldiers and Airmen with the New York National Guard have served as part of Joint Task Force Empire Shield, or JTFES. The task force puts a military presence on the ground around New York City transit centers such as at the World Trade Center hub, Grand Central Station, LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports, the Port Authority Bus terminal, and various bridges and tunnels in the city: all places with a lot of people moving into or out of the city.
Headquartered at Fort Hamilton, an Army installation in Brooklyn, New York, JTFES is a response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
"Our mission is to deter and detect terrorism," said Lt. Col. Peter P. Riley, the task force commander. "We're not law enforcement. We're there to support law enforcement. We're not there to arrest people for minor crimes. We're there to deter terrorism and notice any type of inappropriate activity or suspicious activity that could be terrorist-related.”
The task force also has a secondary mission as well.
“We're also able to do any type of civil support operations like we did in Hurricane Sandy,” said Riley. “We were actually first responders for Hurricane Sandy.”
For Riley, the mission is gratifying.
"It's one of the best jobs in the National Guard," he said. "You're keeping your country safe and your city safe. There's a lot of stress, but it's very rewarding at the same time."
DAY THAT ‘CHANGED IT ALL’
Riley, a native New Yorker, was working at a financial institution across the Hudson River in New Jersey, when 9/11 happened. He said his employer was one of the largest tenants in the twin towers and employees would often go there for training.
"I actually had an appointment there on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001," he said. "But I never went. They got hit at 8:46 a.m. I called my wife and said the plane struck the World Trade Center. We didn't know about the second one, so we didn't think it was a terrorist attack at first. I could actually see it from our offices. You could see how bad it was. Then of course when the second plane hit, we were evacuated as well."
That attack changed everything, Riley said. Not only for himself, but for New Yorkers, for Americans and for the National Guard too.
"9/11 really changed the country," Riley said. "But it really changed New York City in particular. Prior to 9/11, you didn't have National Guard troops on duty in New York City at all."
Riley, then a captain, was called up for duty with the Guard immediately after the attack. He said he remembers the support New Yorkers gave then to those in uniform.
"People clapping for the military, people cheering for the military, right after Sept. 11 happened -- that was unique in NYC," he said. "Prior to that, you didn't really have much appreciation or knowledge about what the military does here in the city."
Now 15 years after the attack, that's all changed. About 500 service members of all ranks from within the New York National Guard are part of the JTFES mission that Riley leads.
EMBEDDED IN CITY’S CULTURE
The three companies that make up the task force are assigned to cover different locations within the city. Some elements come on duty in the early morning, while others come on later. Soldiers and Airmen are always rotated around the city.
"It keeps it new, it keeps it exciting," Riley said. "Nobody is going to get bored if they are at a different location each week, at a different spot. It keeps it interesting, and it keeps everybody on their toes, but it also keeps the bad guys on their toes."
For the past 15 years New Yorkers have seen those service members at transit hubs around the city: in uniform and working in partnership with other agencies to keep NYC safe.
"Now we are part of the culture in NYC,” said Riley. “We are embedded with all the different law enforcement agencies.”
For Riley, that’s a good thing.
”You have that unified effort where you have all the different agencies working together to defeat terrorism in the No. 1 terrorist target in the world: NYC."
The JTFES mission is a small part of a larger counter-terrorism effort within NYC, which involves a wide variety of partner agencies, including the New York State Police, the City of New York Police Department the Coast Guard and other agencies.
The task force doesn't take everybody. First, Service members must be members of the New York National Guard . Then they must apply and be accepted into the highly-selective positons.
"You have to be in good standing and you still drill with your [parent] unit,” Riley said. "You still do your [one] weekend a month, two weeks in the summer.”
A letter of good standing from a Soldier or Airmen’s chain of command is needed as well as current physical fitness test and weapons qualification.
“Then we conduct panel interviews,” said Riley, adding that they’re looking for the best.
"It's a specialized unit,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Arnold G. Reyes. “I think we're very unique inside the United States. There’s no other unit that quite does this.”
When task force members aren’t on duty in the city, they’re usually training.
“We're actively improving everything we do now, especially with the training,” said Reyes. “So we are making sure that they're ready. We just don't do it for the country, we do it for Soldiers. If something does happen, they can rely on their training to react."
Service members in the unit train on a variety items ranging from various tactical scenarios to what to do after an attack, Reyes said.
"They are doing all that not only to safeguard the citizens, but because it's the aftermath they also have to deal with,” he said. “Our job is not only to deter, but to help after the fact."
PRESENCE AND PRIDE
The presence of Service members in the transit hubs is meant to deter potential terrorist threats.
"If somebody wants to do something here, and he wants to come first and see this place, he will see Soldiers here," said Sgt. Erislav Astanov. "He will think twice: should I do this or not? He sees police and Soldiers, and thinks 'maybe I need to do it not here, not this time -- maybe next time.' But if something happens here, we are going to act."
Astanov said that by being part of JTFES, he knows he's doing something important. Many who pass by him will stop and thank him for what he does.
"A lot of people appreciate us," he said. "They say thank you for your service, thank you for being here. A lot of people tell me that. A lot of people shake our hands. People like us. They like the Army. I'm proud to be here."
EARLY MORNING START
Every morning, the Soldiers and Airmen on duty start their day early.
"We do pre-combat checks and inspections,” said Riley. “You get your weapons, you put your body armor on and have formation and then go out to a mission site which is all the transportation hubs in NYC."
For Army Sgt. Tiffany E. Roman, with the task force’s B Company, making sure things go smoothly means having a routine for when she’s on duty.
"I meal prep everything the day before," said Roman. "They make fun of it, they call it my suitcase. But it saves me a lot of money. I prep all my meals the night before. I take all my clothes out the night before.”
As they head out to their appointed posts, no matter where they are in the city, the territory is often exceedingly familiar as the majority of Soldiers and Airmen of JTFES are from NYC.
"They are very familiar with the terrain," Riley said. "They've been taking public transportation their whole life, so they know their mission sites quite well. They know the culture of the city."
That also means many, like Riley, were in the city on 9/11. Roman was there too. As a 9-year-old, she was in school that morning.
"It was just kind of chaotic,” she said. “We didn't know what was going on. I knew something bad happened and I didn't know what.”
She said school ended early that day.
“Everybody's mom and parents were picking them up from school,” she said. “I thought my mom [was] going to pick me up early. But my mom couldn't pick me up. She worked for the city. And she had to come down and clean up the debris and everything. She didn't get home until 11 that night."
DIVERSE TASK FORCE
With many on the task force coming from NYC, that also means the task force is as diverse as the city itself.
"We have Soldiers from all walks of life, from all over the world," said Army Capt. Rafael Ramirez, commander of the task force’s C Company.
Riley said the diversity is good for the mission.
"It's good we have so many people that understand different cultures and speak different languages," he said. "Because at the mission sites, a lot of time you may have somebody injured, who doesn't speak English, and we always have plenty of translators available."
Spc. Omar M. Alkasimi is one of those Soldiers on the task force who came from outside the United States. He's from Yemen, and came to the United States in 2004. At the time, his father had already been a resident of the city for almost 30 years.
Now, Alkasimi said, it’s his home as well.
"I can't ever go anywhere else,” he said. "It's a multi-culture here. it’s a melting pot. Anybody from anywhere in the world could fit in New York City. No matter what language they speak, somebody in New York City speaks that language too.”
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Sgt. Marius Donadelle was "born and raised in Queens" and went to college on Long Island to earn a political science degree.
Donadelle signed up with the Jtask force two years ago, where he said he knows he's contributing to the safety of his hometown.
"I think it makes a difference," he said. "It's one thing when you see a cop, a law enforcement officer. You think you see that every day. But it's another thing when you see a man or woman in a military uniform standing there with a weapon.”
Roman said she loves being out in the city and working to keep it safe. In the busiest locations they work, such as at Grand Central Station, she said she sees a lot of tourists -- and they often ask for her help.
"A tourist sees us and they want to gravitate towards us," she said. "They want to ask us questions. It's hard to maneuver sometimes. Most of the time they ask for directions. And a lot of times, I have people tell us they are more comfortable talking to us than the cops."
Some parents, she said, even want their kids to get their pictures taken with the Soldiers, she said -- something she's more than happy to do.
"The parents will want pictures of us and their kids,” she said. “Some kids are like 'Mommy, wow!' And if they are excited, you're like, yeah, come take a picture.”
Roman said the city has recuperated since 9/11. Resilience, she said, is a defining characteristic of being a New Yorker.
"We're very hard-headed," she said. "We're very tough. You see something happen here, we'll bounce back. All right, you got us. But that's not going to hold us down, we'll keep going. 9/11 is a perfect example. You took down our towers? We're going to build a bigger tower."
The JTFES has been ongoing now for 15 years, and Riley said he's not sure when, or if, it will end.
“I think as long as we can continue to add value and [be an] asset to our partner agencies, and detect and deter terrorism, I think the future for the task force looks bright,” he said. “We have great individuals, we have great leadership and we have great NCOs that really make it what it is."