Staff Sgt. Patrick Harris admits that even after his third tour of duty in Iraq, he still experiences the “pucker effect,” the heightened sense of vigilance military personnel feel when they return home from deployment. Though he is now safely back at the Joint Base Andrews Naval Air Facility Washington, where he helps to protect the base as a member of the U.S. Air Force’s 11th Security Forces Group (SFG), he says, “I still find myself walking around my development constantly looking up, looking at windows, looking at rooftops.”
When I met him at Andrews during a day Security Management spent learning about the various security responsibilities of the 11th SFG, Harris had only been back four days. In Iraq he was posted to Joint Base Balad, inside the Sunni Triangle, which had been the historic power center of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein. Harris and his unit at Balad routinely went “outside the wire” to interact with the surrounding population and patrol for hostiles that could threaten the base, nicknamed “Mortaritaville” for the frequency of mortar attacks it received in the early days of the occupation. Part infantryman, part policeman, and part security guard, Harris says his mission during his tour there could be summarized simply: do everything in his power to defend his installation from attack. Though he was ultimately tested half a world away, it was here at Andrews that Harris says he learned the necessary skills to succeed and survive “in theater.”
Security Management was invited by ASIS International member Joseph Rector, CPP, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and deputy chief of the 11th SFG, to learn about the unit, the largest security force in the Air Force. But it is not for size alone that the 750-person SFG is renowned. The unit is considered a leader within its branch of the military, according to Rector, because of how it trains and how the group implements security at the base.
Andrews consists of a nearly 11-square-mile expanse, which is filled with office buildings, apartments, housing neighborhoods, three golf courses (frequented by the President of the United States and other VIPs), runways, and hangars, including the Air Force One Complex. On an average day, 10,000 military personnel, civilian employees, contractors, and visitors come onto the base. It’s Rector’s and his group’s responsibility to make sure this garrison stays safe and secure.
On base, security forces are responsible for everything from protecting distinguished visitors (DVs)—including the President and the Vice President—and Air Force One, to overseeing access control at the gates, managing the base armory, and providing weapons training to their comrades in arms. They even conduct traffic speed checks and write tickets as part of their law enforcement mission. It’s a bizarre sight to see young camouflaged men using a radar gun to make sure you’re doing the speed limit.
As a part of their duties, security forces assigned to the armory keep a list of every airman on base who owns a weapon, as all military personnel who live on base must register their personal weapons stored in their residence. This information can then be accessed by security forces on patrol if there is an incident and they need to approach a dwelling. That way they will be forearmed with information about what might await them inside. “As a patrolman…when we approach that house...we know they have that firearm,” Staff Sgt. Paul Benedict explains, and that’s especially important in light of the Fort Hood Massacre last year.
The squadron’s most important duty is protecting the Air Force One complex, which holds the President’s plane. “Whether or not Air Force One is in town,” Rector says, “we still make sure the complex is secure.” This takes the largest chunk of the 11th SFG’s resources, because the mission entails year-round 24-hour security. (Air Force One was in use by the President on the day that Security Management visited.)
Rector didn’t just describe what security forces do, he showed Security Management through various demonstrations of their tasks and capabilities—with a focus on the entry gates, the flight line, the military K-9s, and the emergency services team—and in the process, he introduced us to the security force members who make it all possible.