To pass through security at U.S. airports, amputees with artificial limbs are required to pass through a full-body scanner, receive a pat-down and be swabbed — usually on an arm or hand — for explosives. (David Goldman / AP)
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The next time you're randomly selected for extra security screening at an airport, remember: Troops and veterans with prosthetics endure it every time they fly.
To pass through security at U.S. airports, amputees with artificial limbs are required to pass through a full-body scanner, receive a pat-down and be swabbed — usually on an arm or hand — for explosives. If the airport lacks the right scanner, prosthetic limbs are X-rayed with a portable machine.
Wounded troops aren't required to remove their prosthetics, but some do.
"I have an old friend who is a below-the-elbow amputee and he just pops his hand off, throws it in the tub and walks on through. Meanwhile, us leg amputees wait to get our screening tests done," said retired Marine Master Sgt. William "Spanky" Gibson, who lost his left leg in Iraq in 2006.
While the amputees don't seem fazed by the extra attention they draw to get on a flight, civilians who see the process often get incensed, say veterans and frequent travelers.
"People always ask me if I'm a veteran, and they nearly always tell me they are sorry I have to go through it," Gibson said.
NBC reporter Luke Russert tweeted about the procedure Jan. 9 while waiting in line at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C.
"Making Wounded Warriors with prosthetic legs go through extra explosives screening. #fail," Russert wrote.
The Transportation Security Administration says the extra measures are needed to ensure "all individuals are screened appropriately."
Objects have been found inside prosthetics before, including knives and even swords. "We have an obligation to check," said TSA spokesman Nico Melendez.
TSA makes accommodations for severely wounded and injured troops who fly through its Wounded Warrior/Military Severely Injured Operations Center, which alerts security directors at airports of troops' needs if TSA gets advance notice.
The TSA Cares line, 888-787-2227, also answers questions about requirements for those with medical needs or disabilities and refers callers to TSA disability experts.
"Our current policies and procedures focus on ensuring that all passengers, regardless of their personal situations and needs, are treated equally and with the dignity, respect and courtesy they deserve," a TSA statement says.
Retired Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Dale Beatty, a former infantryman and double-leg amputee who founded the nonprofit Purple Heart Homes, which modifies houses for disabled vets, said he understands the importance of security.
"Just because we're veterans doesn't mean we get a blank check to do anything we want," Beatty said.
Gibson said he supports the measures but wishes airports would be more consistent with procedures.
"The worst time is when it's real busy at the big airports or in the smallest airports, where they only have one or two people who are trained to do the checks or have never actually swabbed an amputee before," Gibson said.
Between 2001 and 2011, 2,037 troops lost a major limb while serving; 1,347 of the injuries occurred in combat. The Veterans Health Administration also performs 5,000 amputations a year related to diabetes and vascular disease.
Troops and veterans generally say they don't want to be treated differently and would rather wait in line, even if it means a slight delay.
"If you know what to expect, it's no big deal," Beatty said. "I don't want special treatment. I don't consider myself disabled."