TSA discusses wounded-vet screening
San Antonio Express-News
Sgt. 1st Class David Lau, a national guardsman and federal air marshal, still has about a dozen ball bearings in his body from a suicide bomb attack last year in Afghanistan that killed 10 people, including three Americans.
Lau, still in recovery and waiting to return to work with the Department of Homeland Security, said he's come to understand the concerns of other wounded veterans who don't like having to wait to get through security checkpoints at airports in the post-9/11 era of heightened security.
“It's mostly a dignity issue,” said Lau, who has impaired hearing and limited movement in his hand, leg, and much of his entire right side.
Less than a month before air travelers flood air terminals this Thanksgiving, Transportation Security Administration officials gathered at San Antonio International Airport on Wednesday to reaffirm the agency's commitment to treating wounded veterans, and all travelers, with respect.
Deputy Administrator John Halinski, a 25-year Marine who served four combat tours, said the agency is encouraging injured vets to use an expedited “pre-check” process if they have concerns about getting through airport security.
Halinski said the agency has refined its procedures for veterans over the past two years, while balancing the need to ensure the safety of the traveling public. He acknowledged that the topic of personal privacy at TSA checkpoints is an “emotional issue,” but he denied that veterans with amputated limbs have been told to remove prosthetic devices.
In one instance in March, a Marine who had both legs amputated reportedly was told at an airport in Phoenix to remove his prosthetic limbs so agents could inspect his wheelchair for possible explosives. The TSA refuted the allegations.
“We try to make sure we are doing it the proper way, with as much dignity as possible,” Halinski said. Many of the TSA employees are veterans, “so they know what's going on,” he said.
Halinski spoke of one wounded service member he met during a visit Wednesday at Brooke Army Medical Center who said his last airport security experience “wasn't so good.”
“When he comes to the airport next time, we want it to be a better experience for him,” Halinski said.
A 2-year-old “TSA Cares” program for the wounded vets and other with disabilities, a result of internal agency reforms and recent passage by Congress of the Helping Heroes Fly Act, allows veterans to call in advance to the agency, which verifies the veteran's status through the military. All veterans also can get an access card for an expedited screening process that usually does involve removal of shoes.
Air Force Master Sgt. Jeremy Maddamma, who was shot in the left leg last year in Afghanistan, uses metal crutches and has a metal external fixator on his lower leg. He said he supports the streamlined procedure.
“I think the TSA recognizes that service members have sacrificed so much for their country. Why should they stand in line?” said Maddamma, 32. “They are likely to be the first person on the plane to protect you from a threat.”