NEW YORK CITY (Army News Service) — Musician John Legend performed Aug. 16 at the opening of a new shopping mall inside an 800,000-square-foot facility which serves also as a commuter hub at the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan. It’s expected some quarter million commuters will move daily though the facility.
About 20 Soldiers from the New York National Guard were there at that event as well, though they weren’t invited guests and they weren’t there to shop or travel, either. They were working as part of a unique kind of security detail not seen elsewhere in the United States.
Since 9/11, Soldiers with the New York National Guard have signed on as part of Joint Task Force Empire Shield, or JTFES, which puts a military presence on the ground around New York City at transit hubs such as at the new shopping mall, Grand Central Station, Penn Station, LaGuardia Airport, JFK airport, the Port Authority Bus terminal, and various bridges and tunnels in the city: all places where there are a lot of people who are in the process of moving into or out of the city.
Headquartered at Fort Hamilton, an active-duty 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 task force commander, Lt. Col. Peter P. Riley. “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. We’re also able to do any type of civil support operations like we did in Hurricane Sandy … we were actually first responders for Hurricane Sandy.
“It’s one of the best jobs in the National Guard,” Riley 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 is himself a native New Yorker, and was working at a financial institution across the Hudson River in New Jersey, just a short ride to the World Trade Center towers, when 9/11 happened. He said his employer was actually the largest tenant in the twin towers there, and employees would go into NYC for training there.
“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 for Riley, he said, for New Yorkers as well, for Americans, and for the National Guard too.
“9/11 really changed the country,” Riley said. “But it really changed NYC in particular. Prior to 9/11, you didn’t have National Guard troops on duty in NYC at all.”
When the attack happened, he said, he was just a young captain in the National Guard. He said he got 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. Most of those are Soldiers, but there are also Airmen and members of the New York Naval Militia as well.
EMBEDDED IN CITY’S CULTURE
The JTFES is made up of three companies, Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. And daily, it’s different companies that are tasked to cover different locations within the city. Some come on in an early morning shift, and some come on later in a noon shift. Soldiers 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.”
New Yorkers see those service members at mass transit hubs around the city: armed American service members, typically in pairs, in uniform, wearing body armor, and working in partnership with other agencies to keep NYC safe.
“Now we are part of the culture in NYC, we are embedded with all the different law enforcement agencies,” Riley said. “It’s actually 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 Port Authority of New York and New Jersey police, the Amtrak Police, the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Coast Guard.
Service members who want to be a part of the JTFES mission must already be part of the New York National Guard. And JTFES is full-time work in lieu of civilian employment, so those who want to be on the task force must make arrangements with their civilian employer to participate.
And the task force doesn’t take everybody. Service members must apply and be accepted into the highly-selective positons.
“You have to be in the National Guard, you have to be in good standing, and you still drill with your unit,” Riley said. “You still do your weekend a month, two weeks in the summer. You have to get a letter of good standing from your unit, pass a physical training test, do weapons qualification, and have a clean record. Then we conduct panel interviews.”
Task force members who aren’t on post guarding different parts of the city will find themselves training for when they do go on duty.
“It’s a specialized unit, and I think we’re very unique inside the United States,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Arnold G. Reyes. “There’s no other unit that quite does this. We’re actively improving everything we do now, especially with the training. 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 use of deadly force, rules of engagement, tactics for how to clear a room, for dealing with active shooters, and for dealing with what happens after an attack, Reyes said.
“So you’re looking at almost tactical combat casualty care,” 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. Our job is not only to deter, but to help after the fact.”