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Airport GIs in Holding Pattern

Defense: National Guardsmen at Oxnard facility get ready for a long haul, as a result of the aviation security bill.


Homeland defense at Oxnard Airport includes a Humvee bouncing along a dirt road next to the runway, from which California Army National Guard 1st Lt. Cregg Hill and Sgt. Luis Lopez, clad in battle fatigues, watch for terrorists.

As part of the military presence at one of Southern California's smaller airports, Hill, 39, and Lopez, 29, were still settling into a recently expanded role in protecting air travelers last week when they learned that they likely will be hunkered down for a long tour of duty.

While most Americans were cheering news of dramatic allied military gains in Afghanistan, Hill was thinking about the aviation security bill signed Monday by President Bush, which authorizes the hiring and training of 28,000 federal employees to take over airport security.

"I hear it might be a year before they get all the people hired and trained," Hill said.

The National Guardsmen were originally deployed in mid-October to assist in passenger and baggage screening, in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

That mission was expanded this month when Gov. Gray Davis ordered them to assist in patrolling the terminals and parking areas as well as the acreage surrounding runways at California airports.

In Oxnard, the mandate has resulted in regular patrols along the 3 1/2 miles of fence surrounding the 216-acre airport, where guardsmen perform a variety of tasks, including helping to round up stray dogs on the runway.

Oxnard Airport serves about 200 passengers a day, compared with about 175,000 who passed through Los Angeles International Airport on Sunday, one of the busiest days of the year.

Hill, commanding officer of the Oxnard Airport patrol detail from National Guard Battery D 144th Field Artillery, scanned the fences separating the 5,950-foot runway from a row of tract houses, one of which has a giant American flag stretched across its roof.

He acknowledged that his rifle-carrying soldiers had so far seized nothing more menacing than nail clippers at the baggage screening checkpoint. But, he said, "You never know where terrorists will strike again."

Which means that soldiers like Cpl. Refugio Pitones, 29, one of about 500 National Guard members patrolling 15 airports in the southern half of the state, can look forward to plenty of vital--albeit dull--work.

Pitones, 29, stood in camouflage fatigues in front of the cozy terminal before heading off to walk patrol in the airport parking lot. A howitzer mechanic with Battery D, he said he often drew sentry duty when he was in the U.S. Army in 1996 during U.S. peacekeeping operations and was stationed for five months at a camp in Bosnia.

"It is different here, but also the same," Pitones said, referring to the tedious duty. He was armed with an M-16 rifle and the same .223-caliber ammunition commonly used by civilian hunters to bag 300-pound deer.

The guardsmen report before sunrise and remain on duty until after the last passenger service of the day--United Express Flight 5144--takes off at 10:48 p.m. for LAX.

Long Shifts but Short Work Weeks

While the soldiers work 17-hour shifts, "nobody works more than 40 hours a week," Hill said. "We don't like them working any more than that when they're carrying live ammunition. They need to keep their mental focus."

The National Guard headquarters is just east of the runway, in an office trailer parked next to a 155-millimeter cannon mounted on a tank-like vehicle on the grounds of the Oxnard Armory.

While at headquarters to check the task force duty schedule, Hill offered to give two visitors a closer look at the big gun.

"This gun has a range of 30 kilometers," Hill said, going off to look for the keys. "We can drop a shell on the Channel Islands from here."

When he returned a few minutes later, he unlocked the access hatch and found the cab packed with boxes.

"We also use this as storage," he said, calling off the tour with an apology.

Inside the trailer, he studied the airport duty roster.

"I have more requests to work this detail than I have positions to fill," he said of the shifts, which pay a minimum of $35 a day for recruits fresh out of basic training.

While some California Army National Guard units have been mobilized for duty abroad, Battery D's most hazardous chore is driving the Humvee across the runway, Lopez said.

Airport operators are glad to have the guardsmen on duty, Lt. Col. Jeffery Cushing said. He said executives of smaller airports have been imploring guardsmen to take on additional security duties.

At Inyokern Airport near Ridgecrest in Kern County, for example, General Manager Nancy Bass said there are only three flights a day, used by about 170 passengers. That resulted in a lot of idle time for soldiers. Since Gov. Davis widened the guardsmen's responsibilities, though, they have been much more active in keeping the airport secure.

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