- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2008

Military personnel returning home from war zones can expect friendlier greetings by airport officials under a new agreement designed to prevent the reoccurrence of an incident last fall that stranded troops on a tarmac for hours at Oakland International Airport in California.

The soldiers and Marines returning from Iraq on Sept. 27 were barred from entering the terminal, and instead their chartered military flight was forced to park 400 yards away without access to food and bathroom facilities. The charter flight was on a layover, destined for Hawaii.

The agreement reached by the Defense Department, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Federal Aviation Administration was in response to pressure from Republican Reps. John L. Mica of Florida, ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Tom Petri of Wisconsin, ranking member of the subcommittee on aviation.

“Out of chaos, I think we have a little bit of order, and out of insulting troops, hopefully, we will have respectful treatment,” Mr. Mica said. “This agreement will allow returning military personnel to receive their due respect without compromising airport security.”

The new protocols require Defense Department officials to screen personnel departing from military terminals on charter flights before entering the secureareas of commercial airports, and to provide 24-hour notice to airport operators and federal security directors of their arrival.

The military will be required to post guards on the charter aircraft while on the ground to ensure that no one enters or tampers with the aircraft or unloaded weapons.

A Transportation Department inspector general review in late January showed there was no uniform process in place for members of the armed forces to be screened for chartered flights laying over at U.S. airports.

“Because of the lack of standardized procedures, returning military personnel were being subjected to the different local interpretations of security and screening procedures,” Mr. Mica said. “I hauled in everyone from all the different agencies in April, and we had a come-to-terms meeting.”

Asked why it took until July for a formal memo of understanding to be completed among the agencies, Mr. Mica said, “Nothing in government is done on an expedited basis, especially with transportation and homeland security.”

“It’s a miracle we’ve gotten anything,” he said.

“It’s a small victory for common sense, but nothing comes easy in Washington,” he added.

As part of the agreement, TSA will teach military officials how to conduct screenings similar to how civilians are screened prior to commercial flights in the U.S. and abroad - a process with which Mr. Mica takes issue on commercial flights.

Troops returning from war zones wearing battle fatigues are forced to unlace their boots to walk barefoot through metal detectors at TSA screening stations.

“That just irritates me. I’m trying to get some protocols for rescreening troops,” Mr. Mica said. “Law-enforcement officers can go through with just a note from the sheriff, and here we have military guys who just got back from serving their country in Iraq. It stunned me they are having to take off their lace-up boots. It’s ludicrous.”

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