Empire Shield: Soldiers stand watch to prevent another 9/11

By C. Todd Lopez

NEW YORK CITY (Sept. 09, 2016) -- 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.

Spc. Andres Medina Jr., with Joint Task Force Empire Shield, stands guard in Penn Station, in New York City, Aug. 17, 2016. His mission is to detect and deter terrorism.

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."

Two Soldiers with Joint Task Force Empire Shield stand guard in Grand Central Station, in New York City, Aug. 17, 2016. Their mission is to detect and deter terrorism.

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.

ELITE UNIT

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."

SGM: SECURITY EXPERIENCE

Born in the Philippines, Reyes came to the United States when he was young, and has spent most of his life in New York -- though not in NYC. Today, his civilian job is as a police officer in Suffolk County, Long Island -- about 60 miles east of NYC. He takes military leave from his job as a police officer to be part of the task force.

When 9/11 happened 15 years ago, Reyes was a sergeant first class on recruiting duty on Long Island.

"As soon as it happened, just like everybody, I had the sense to go to the armory," he said. "I packed up and went to the armory, and that following night we were pretty much mustered and headed into the city. I was with the 'Fighting 69th' at that time. We all showed up at the armory and just waited for orders to see what we were going to do. The following morning we marched into Ground Zero."

Sgt. Tiffany Roman, and Spc. Omar M. Alkasimi, both part of Joint Task Force Empire Shield, stand in formation, Aug. 17, 2016, at Fort Hamilton, New York. Afterward, they will spend the day standing guard in one of several transit hubs around New York City, with the goal of detecting and deterring terrorism.

Reyes most recently came from a job as the battalion command sergeant major for the 2-108th Infantry Battalion out of Utica. Now, he said, he's proud to work with the Soldiers of JTFES, and to protect a city he said he knows is important to the whole nation.

"These Soldiers pride themselves on professionalism," he said, adding that he hopes their presence in transit hubs makes New Yorkers "feel safe and secure, and that we've got it. And it's not just New Yorkers that we're giving the impression that things are okay. You have international people coming from all over. At JFK they see the Soldiers. When you have people coming here from foreign countries, hopefully they are feeling secure here too."

Soldiers who take part in the JTFES mission don't act as a police force while on duty. Instead, they are a deterrent. Their role isn't to stop petty theft, for instance. When they see such crimes, they alert the NYPD, who they partner with on their mission inside transit hubs. Instead, they are on the lookout for suspicious activities that could be indicators of terrorist activity.

COMPANY COMMANDER ON PATROLS

"If we see a crime being committed, somebody being assaulted, we are allowed to intervene," said Capt. Rafael O. Ramirez, who serves as the Charlie Company commander in the task force. "But if we see somebody shoplifting, that's not our jurisdiction."

Ramirez has a civilian job as a corrections officer in Westchester County, but he's been with JTFES since October 2011. He started as a first lieutenant, as a platoon leader, and worked his way up to executive officer for a company. When he became a captain, he was promoted to commander of Charlie Company, which now has 150 Soldiers in it.

When 9/11 happened, Ramirez said he was in a job interview on 42nd Street in Manhattan.

"It just really hit home," he said. "At the time, I was a reservist in the Marine Corps. As soon as I heard what was happening, I had to right away walk all the way to uptown Manhattan, in shoes and suit and tie, and then packed my stuff and reported to the base up in Newburgh. For about the first two months I was base security up in Newburgh."

Ramirez never deployed as a Marine. But in 2003, he enlisted in the Army National Guard, and deployed in 2004 with his unit, as a logistics clerk. He also earned a degree in economics from Binghamton University, and got a commission in 2007. "I told myself, I'll never come back to a warzone country as an enlisted Soldier," he said.

Next time he deployed, he wore silver bars.

Mostly what the Soldiers in his company do, is provide presence in the areas they work in, and "pretty much keep their head on a swivel, as we say in the military," Ramirez said.

Soldiers are on the lookout for things that look suspicious in their surroundings.

"What looks suspicious? If it's a warm day, and somebody is wearing a baggy overcoat, and they look like they are hiding something, what is that? Or people that look nervous, or are constantly filming us, anything that looks out of the ordinary," Riley said. "Another thing I've been harping on for years is the unattended bags. Bad guys only have to be right once. We can be right 999 times, but that one time we're wrong, a lot of people can die."

PRESENCE AND PRIDE

The mere presence of an armed, uniformed Soldier in the transit hubs is meant to make a would-be terrorist think twice about causing harm to this international city which sits in the center of a metropolitan area that's home to more than 20 million people.

Soldiers and Airmen with Joint Task Force Empire Shield stand in formation, Aug. 17, 2016, at Fort Hamilton, New York. Afterward, they will spend the day standing guard in one of several transit hubs around New York City with the goal of detecting and deterring terrorism.

"If somebody wants to do something here, and he wants to come first and see this place, he will see Soldiers here," said Sgt. Erislav Astanov, who stood guard in the new mall and transit hub, while hundreds of commuters passed by him every minute. "He will think twice: should I do this or not? He sees police and Soldiers, and thinks 'maybe I need to do it not here, not this time -- maybe next time.' But if something happens here, we are going to act."

Astanov has been in the Army for five years now, and serves in the New York National Guard as a wheeled vehicle mechanic. He said as part of JTFES, he knows he's doing something important, because of the thousands of people that pass him by every day, many stop and thank him for what he does.

"A lot of people appreciate us," he said. "They say thank you for your service, thank you for being here. A lot of people tell me that. A lot of people shake our hands. People like us. They like the Army. I'm proud to be here."

EARLY MORNING START

The JTFES headquarters is on Fort Hamilton, in Brooklyn, right underneath the approach to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which connects Brooklyn to Staten Island.

Every morning, Soldiers who are on tap to provide presence at transit hubs around the city gather there early to start their day.

"We come in early ... getting here at about 5:30 in the morning," said Riley. "We do pre-combat checks and inspections. You get your weapons, you put your body armor on and have formation and then go out to a mission site which is all the transportation hubs in NYC."

Sgt. Tiffany E. Roman, with Bravo Company, is a carpentry and masonry specialist with the New York National Guard and has been part of JTFES for the last three years now. She's got a routine now for the demanding mission.

"I meal prep everything the day before," said Roman. "They make fun of it, they call it my suitcase. But it saves me a lot of money. I prep all my meals the night before. I take all my clothes out the night before. I get up around 4 a.m. I get ready and come to work in civvies, and I head to Brooklyn, to Fort Hamilton. It takes me about 20 minutes. And then I come in and change and I go draw my weapon and head to formation."

Roman was only 9 years old, in grade school, when 9/11 happened.

"It was early morning. It was just kind of chaotic. We didn't know what was going on," she said. "I knew something bad happened and I didn't know what. And I remember seeing everybody get these phone calls. And everybody's mom and parents were picking them up from school. And I thought my mom is going to pick me up early. But my mom couldn't pick me up. She worked for the city. And she had to come down and clean up the debris and everything. She didn't get home until 11 that night."

As a youth, Roman said she'd always been "intrigued" with the military, but it didn't occur to her that it could be a career choice until she was in her teens. "I saw G.I. Jane, and I was like wait a minute -- she's pretty bad ass." Roman joined the Army at 17.

DIVERSE TASK FORCE

The vast majority of Soldiers who are part of JTFES are from NYC, said Riley, and that gives them an advantage on the job.

"They are very familiar with the terrain," Riley said. "They've been taking public transportation their whole life, so they know their mission sites quite well. They know the culture of the city."

Sgt. Erislav J. Astanov and Spc. Saul Revatta, both part of Joint Task Force Empire Shield, stand guard in a shopping mall and commuter hub, known as "the Oculus," located at the World Trade Center complex in New York City, Aug. 16, 2016. Their mission is to detect and deter terrorism.

Demographically, the task force is as diverse as NYC itself. About 1/3 are African-American, 1/3 Hispanic, 5 percent Asian, and 5 percent from Eastern European countries. And like residents of NYC, there's a good chunk of task force members who are from other countries.

"We have Soldiers from all walks of life, from all over the world," said Ramirez. "Some of the Soldiers recently migrated from some of the African nations; I'd say they came to this country in 2009 and 2010. They got a waiver to learn English, and joined the military. And now they are protecting the country that gave them the opportunity to live the American dream. They are excellent Soldiers."

Riley said the diversity is good for the mission.

"It's good we have so many people that understand different cultures and speak different languages," he said. "Because at the mission sites, a lot of time you may have somebody injured, who doesn't speak English, and we always have plenty of translators available."

Spc. Omar M. Alkasimi is one of those Soldiers on the task force who came from outside the United States. He's from Yemen, and came to the United States in 2004. At the time, his father had already been a resident of NYC for almost 30 years.

Now, Alkasimi said, NYC is his home as well, "I can't ever go anywhere else." He describes the city he defends as being universally diverse.

"It's a multi-culture here, it's a melting pot," he said. "Anybody from anywhere in the world could fit in NYC. No matter what language they speak, somebody in NYC speaks that language too."

When 9/11 happened, Alkasimi was just a boy in Yemen. He said the impact of that event hadn't affected him much from so far away. "We didn't have TVs over there," he said.

Alkasimi said his dad had been visiting in Yemen when 9/11 happened, and his return back to New York was delayed by the shut-down of airports that came as a result.

"That's how I found out," he said. "I was from a third-world country, and they were saying two buildings got destroyed in NYC. We're thinking: 'two buildings?' The tallest building I probably saw in Yemen was like six stories. I couldn't imagine those two huge towers."

Now Alkasimi is a field artilleryman with the New York National Guard, and drills in the Bronx. He's been in the Army for just three years, and joined up with JTFES right after he got out of Advanced Individual Training.

Being part of JTFES, and defending his new home, is something he said he's proud to do. And he said what he learns working at JTFES, he can take back to his Guard unit.

"Every day we learn a lot from each other," he said. "We learn teamwork. You learn from our higher-ups. Everything goes downhill on how to learn new things that you apply to your unit. You learn something and you take it back to your unit and you teach it to somebody else."

Alkasimi said he wants to eventually become a police officer in the city.

PROTECTING THEIR CITY

At the World Trade Center complex in New York City, this fountain and another one just like it mark the footprints of the two towers that fell on Sept. 11, 2001 as a result of the terrorist attack that took place that day.

Many on the task force were affected by the events that created JTFES, and remain proud to wear their uniform while on duty in the city.

Spc. Andres Medina, originally from Harlem, now lives in the Bronx. He's a wheeled vehicle mechanic in the New York National Guard. He joined the Army in 2012, under advice from his barber -- a personal friend. "I thought it was a great thing, something I could do that would change my life and it really pushed my life in a great direction forward," he said.

He did an initial turn with the honor guard, and joined JTFES just two years ago. As a New Yorker, he said, he remembers seeing the JTFES Solders in the transit hubs, well before he himself joined the Army.

"I thought it was awesome. I used to come through and I'd see the Soldiers in the terminal. And I never even knew about the task force until I talked to a sergeant in my unit. He was on the task force, and he told me it's great, it's fun, it's good opportunities, you meet great people, it's great networking, it's great pay, and it's an awesome thing to do while you're in the service."

Medina was just 9 years old when 9/11 happened. He too was in class, in Manhattan, he said, in a school on 103rd Street.

"My mom came to get us," he said. "I remember all the parents -- a lot of kids started to get picked up. They took all the kids to the gym area. And the whole school was in the gymnasium. And my mom came and got me around lunch time.

"When we went home, that's when we found out what happened. My mom put the news on. My brother came home, he was a teenager at the time. He came home from school early. We were watching the TV as they replayed it over and over."

Initially, he said, he thought it was exciting, because he didn't understand the context of what had happened.

"But my mom told me it's not cool. She explained that people died. I remember being a young kid, I was shocked," he said. "I didn't know anything at that time about terrorism. As a young kid you don't think things like that happen."

But now, he said, he's in uniform and he's defending the city he said he's proud to have lived in his whole life, a city where you can get anything you want, any time of day -- where people are up all the time making things happen.

"You can go to the store or supermarket at 12 at night," he said. "You can go on the train at 2 or 3 or 4 -- and people are going to work. I love it," he said.

And guarding his city?

"I think it's a great thing, to be honest. The civilians love us. They walk by us all the time and tell us thank you, that we look so ready, and so vigilant," he said. "That's an automatic great feeling. I think it's a great thing to have military in the city, protecting the people, mingling with the people. It's straight deterrence, and it's a beautiful thing. I feel real proud to do it. It gives you a sense of pride, especially being from New York."

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Sgt. Marius Donadelle was "born and raised in Queens" and went to Adelphi University on Long Island to earn a political science degree, but now lives in Westbury, on Long Island.

Deputy Inspector Michael Telfer, Transit Counterterrorism Coordinator with the City of New York Police Department, on the left, meets with Lt. Col. Peter Riley, commander of Joint Task Force Empire Shield, Aug. 16, 2016, in a tactical communications vehicle parked near the World Trade Center complex in New York City.

He was in college when 9/11 happened, and said he remembers his professor getting a page, alerting him to what had happened. He said students in the class initially were disgusted by the incompetence of a pilot who might let his plane drift into a building -- initially they were, like many, thinking it was an accident.

But in the hallways of his school, he said, he and his fellow students watched the news on television, and saw the second plane crash into the tower. "Then we knew for sure it wasn't an accident, it was deliberate."

Donadelle didn't join the Army right away after 9/11. He said he applied for a few jobs, in particular with the FBI and the U.S. Marshall Service, but found that they were all looking for a resume bullet he didn't yet have.

"They asked me if I had military experience. I said no," he said. "The interview kind of changed."

At the same time, he said, he lost his civilian job, and "everything was steering me, you know ... I might as well join the military."

Donadelle signed up with the JTFES two years ago, where he said he knows he's contributing to the safety of his hometown.

"I think it makes a difference," he said. "It's one thing when you see a cop, a law enforcement officer. You think you see that every day. But it's another thing when you see a man or woman in a military uniform standing there with a weapon. It makes you think twice about doing something stupid. We're showing our face, we're showing that we're a presence, and that if you try something, you're going to have a problem. That's what we're here for."

BRIGHT FUTURE

Roman said she loves being out in the city, her city, and keeping it safe. In the busiest locations they provide presence, such as at Grand Central Station, she said she sees a lot of tourists -- and they want her help.

"A tourist sees us and they want to gravitate towards us," she said. "They want to ask us questions. It's hard to maneuver sometimes. Most of the time they ask for directions. And a lot of times, I have people tell us they are more comfortable talking to us than the cops."

Some parents, she said, even want their kids to get their pictures taken with the Soldiers, she said -- something she's more than happy to do.

"The parents will want pictures of us and their kids. And the kids are scared. But some kids are like 'mommy, wow!' And if they are excited, you're like, yeah, come take a picture," she said.

Roman was young when 9/11 happened, but now, she said the city has recuperated. Resilience, she said, is a defining characteristic of being a New Yorker.

"We're very hard-headed," she said. "We're very tough. You see something happen here, we'll bounce back. All right, you got us. But that's not going to hold us down, we'll keep going. 9/11 is a perfect example. You took down our towers? We're going to build a bigger tower."

The JTFES has been ongoing now for 15 years, and Riley said he's not sure when it will end -- or if it ever will.

"The future of the task force will depend on the threat," he said. "The world seems to be more dangerous than it has been. It seems to be getting more dangerous every year. So I think as long as we can continue to add value and (be an) asset to our partner agencies, and detect and deter terrorism, I think the future for the task force looks bright. We have great individuals, we have great leadership, and we have great NCOs that really make it what it is."