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Congress approves expedited airport screening for wounded warriors

Aug. 2, 2013 - 04:31PM   |  
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A bill that requires the Transportation Security Administration to provide expedited security screening for injured or disabled troops and veterans is heading to President Obama’s desk for his signature.

The House on Friday approved HR 1344, the Helping Heroes Fly Act, requiring the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments to work with TSA to develop a process that will ease travel for wounded or disabled active and former service members.

The measure requires TSA to design a process that would offer “private screening to the maximum extent possible.”

This was the first legislation sponsored by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Hawaii Democrat who took office in January. The Senate approved companion legislation, sponsored by Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., earlier this week.

“This has been a strong bipartisan effort, where Republicans and Democrats ... came together with unwavering and unanimous support for our wounded warriors,” Gabbard said.

“There is nothing more frustrating than to see these heroes returning home after defending our nation only to have to go through secondary screening in our airports. It’s offensive and insulting,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas. “The Helping Heroes Fly Act will put an end to this and treat our wounded warriors with the dignity they deserve.”

Some of the bill’s provisions, including a TSA-maintained operations center that provides support for traveling personnel and expedited screening mechanisms, already are in place.

But the legislation orders TSA to implement a training plan for security screeners and submit a report to Congress within a year detailing training and operations center usage.

TSA occasionally has come under fire for its security processes involving troops, particularly those in uniform or wearing prosthetics.

Under TSA regulations, 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.

Troops carrying a common access card can use TSA’s PreCheck program at 10 airports nationwide. Elsewhere, however, they go through the same screening as other passengers, a sight that often incenses onlookers.

When photos of retired Marine Cpl. Nathan Kemnitz receiving a TSA pat-down at Sacramento International Airport in his dress blues were published by militarytimes.com in July, they drew the attention of media outlets near and far, from Fox News in New York to London’s Daily Mail.

“What does a uniform and heroism represent if our own citizens — in this case employees of the TSA and security personnel — have no regard for them?” wrote Patricia Martin, Kemnitz’s escort on the trip through Sacramento, who took the photos.

“I feel so strongly that you need to know just how shamefully even a Purple Heart recipient/disabled veteran can be treated by some TSA and security employees,” she said in a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

In the past year, TSA has modified its rules to offer broader accommodations for active-duty troops and injured or ill veterans.

TSA urges wounded troops and caregivers to contact the the agency’s Military Severely Injured Joint Service Operations Center, at 1-855-787-2227, before traveling.

Wounded troops also are not required to remove shoes, jackets or hats during the security process if they have called ahead.

The agency also offers its PreCheck program to service members with a common access card at 10 airports and provides curb-to-gate escorts, including expedited security screening for injured or ill personnel who request it.

On Friday, the American Federation of Government Employees praised Helping Heroes Fly, for addressing “the needs of America’s veterans ... and the training opportunities it provides for transportation security officers.” AFGE representative 45,000 TSA screeners.

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