SAN DIEGO - Staff Sgt. Chris Salgado, a California Army National Guard member based here, remembers his wife calling him to the television set Aug. 10 to see news reports about a terrorist ring unearthed in London that was planning attacks on U.S.-bound airliners.
Within the hour, Salgado's phone was ringing, and by nightfall, he was in uniform, responding to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's call for the National Guard to augment airport security.
"We got the call Thursday afternoon, Thursday evening we were at the armory and by Friday morning, we were standing tall at the airport," the squad leader for B Company, 40th Special Troop Brigade said of his assignment to San Diego International Airport.
Today, Salgado and 317 of his fellow California Guardsmen are on duty at seven major airports throughout the state, supporting Transportation Safety Administration workers as they enforce new security precautions.
Massachusetts and New York took similar actions following the announcement of the foiled terror plot. The Massachusetts National Guard has assigned 129 soldiers and 14 airmen to the mission at Boston Logan International Airport, according to National Guard Bureau officials. In New York, 103 Army National Guard soldiers are on duty at John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia International Airports.
In San Diego, about 90 Guardsmen are working side-by-side with TSA officials, helping ensure airline passengers don't carry liquids, gels, lotions or other forbidden substances in their carry-on bags.
They stand at the boarding gates wearing blue latex gloves, randomly screening passengers and checking their bags for items not detected during the initial security screening. When they discover a banned item, they explain to the passenger that they must confiscate it, then place it in a gray plastic tray for disposal.
"We pick them at random, not because of their race or any other special factor," said Spc. Linda Kim, a Guardsman based in Van Nuys, Calif., who volunteered for the duty.
"People are generally pretty accepting," said Pfc. Matthew Sharrar, a member of E Co., 1st Battalion, 185th Engineer in National City, Calif., who like Salgado, got called to duty Aug. 10.
Typically, the Guardsmen end up confiscating small-ticket items: bottles of water, lip gloss and other incidental items passengers forgot they had stashed in their bags. But Sharrar recalled the day he had to take a $150 bottle of lotion from a passenger before she boarded her plane. "She cooperated," he said. "She was understanding."
Overall, passengers said they're glad to see the National Guard helping keep airports safe. "It's outstanding. They're serving us and serving their country," said Ted Judson, a passenger bound for Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport aboard American Airlines Flight 608. "The more you can have, the better."
"Most people are really friendly," said Sharrar. "They see the uniform and respect it. They have a lot of respect for their military, and that's kind of nice."
The Guardsmen said they've gotten great feedback from the TSA officials they're supporting. "They're glad we're here," said Spc. John Rivera from 40th Special Troop Brigade in San Diego. "They know that we're just here to help."
Most of the Guard members involved already have served deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan, and many reported being called up for state missions involving everything from wildfire fighting support to riot or earthquake response.
Most view the airport security mission as another way to help their fellow citizens. "It's important work that has to be done to make sure everybody is safe," said Spc. Gabriel Gambone from the 670th Military Police Company based in National City. "It's a commitment, something I signed on for and have to do."
Kim, an accountant in her civilian job, said she had no qualms about volunteering for the duty. "I'm in the National Guard, so it's meant for me to come and help," she said. "That's what I'm here for."