NEW YORK (Army News Service) -- About 20 Soldiers from the New York National Guard attended the opening of a new shopping mall on Aug. 16 at the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan, but they weren't there for the show, and they weren't there to shop, either.
Since 9/11, Soldiers with the New York National Guard have signed on as part of Joint Task Force Empire Shield, which places a military presence throughout New York City at transit hubs like Grand Central Station, Penn Station, LaGuardia Airport, and various bridges and tunnels.
Headquartered at Fort Hamilton, an active-duty Army installation in Brooklyn, New York, the task force 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."
A native New Yorker, Riley 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 had an appointment at the World Trade Center scheduled for the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, but he never made it.
"They got hit at 8:46 a.m. I called my wife and said the plane struck the World Trade Center," he recalled. "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."
When the second plane hit, the building he was in was evacuated.
The attack changed everything for Riley, he said. A young captain in the National Guard at the time, he was called up for duty with the Guard immediately after. He still remembers the support New Yorkers showed for men and women 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 later, that's all changed. About 500 service members of all ranks from within the New York National Guard serve on the task force that Riley leads. Many of them are Soldiers, but Airmen and members of the New York Naval Militia serve as well.
EMBEDDED IN CITY'S CULTURE
Joint Task Force Empire Shield is made up of three companies, Alpha, Bravo and Charlie, that are tasked to cover different locations in the city. Some companies work an early morning shift, and some work a later shift. Soldiers are constantly 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. … But it also keeps the bad guys on their toes."
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 the city safe.
The task force is a small part of a larger counter-terrorism effort within the city involving variety of agencies, from the New York State Police to the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Service members who want to serve on the task force must already be members of New York National Guard. But the task force is a specialized unit and highly selective.
"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," Riley said. "Then we conduct panel interviews."
SGM: SECURITY EXPERIENCE
Born in the Philippines, Command Sgt. Maj. Arnold G. Reyes came to the U.S. when he was a boy. He has spent most of his life in New York State. Today, he works a civilian job as a police officer in Suffolk County, Long Island, about 60 miles east of the New York City. He takes military leave to serve on the task force.
When 9/11 happened, Reyes was a sergeant first class on recruiting duty on Long Island.
"I was with the 'Fighting 69th' at that time," he remembered. "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."
Reyes most recently came from a job as the battalion command sergeant major for the 2-108th Infantry Battalion out of Utica, New York. Now, he said, he's proud to work with the Soldiers of Empire Shield and protect a metropolitan area that is home to more than 20 million people.
"It's not just New Yorkers," he said. "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 on the task force don't serve as a police force. Their role isn't to stop petty theft, for instance. When they see such crimes, they alert the NYPD. Instead, they serve a deterrent while monitoring for indications of terrorist activity.
Service members in the unit train on the use of deadly force, rules of engagement, tactics for clearing a room and dealing with active shooters. They also train for handling the aftermath of an attack.
"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."
COMPANY COMMANDER ON PATROLS
Capt. Rafael O. Ramirez works a civilian job as a corrections officer in Westchester County. He has been with Empire Shield since October 2011. He started as a first lieutenant, as a platoon leader, and worked his way up. When he became a captain, he was promoted to commander of Charlie Company, which now has 150 Soldiers.
"If we see a crime being committed, somebody being assaulted, we are allowed to intervene," said Ramirez. "But if we see somebody shoplifting, that's not our jurisdiction."
On 9/11, Ramirez was at a job interview on 42nd Street in Manhattan. At the time, he was a reservist in the Marine Corps.
"I had to right away walk all the way to uptown Manhattan, in shoes and suit and tie," he remembered. "And then I 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 eventually earned a degree in economics from Binghamton University and got a commission in 2007. Next time he deployed, he wore silver bars.
"I told myself, I'll never come back to a war-zone country as an enlisted Soldier," he said.
As a member of Empire Shield, he said, your job is to keep your head on a swivel. Is someone wearing a coat on a hot day? Is someone secretly filming something?
"Another thing I've been harping on for years is the unattended bags," he said. "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."
EARLY MORNING START
Empire Shield headquarters is on Fort Hamilton, in Brooklyn, right underneath the approach to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which connects Brooklyn to Staten Island. Every morning around 5:30, the Soldiers gather there to start their day.
"We do pre-combat checks and inspections," said Riley. "You get your weapons, you put your body armor on and have formation and then go out to a mission site."
Sgt. Tiffany E. Roman, with Bravo Company, is a carpentry and masonry specialist with the New York National Guard and has served on the task force for the last three years. She has established a routine.
"I meal prep everything the day before," said Roman. "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. 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. She remembers understanding at the time that something bad had happened, but not understanding exactly what it was.
"I remember seeing everybody get these phone calls, and everybody's parents were picking them up from school," she said. "I thought my mom was going to pick me up. But she worked for the city. And she had to clean up the debris and everything. She didn't get home until 11 that night."
As a girl, Roman said she'd always been intrigued by 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," she said. Roman joined the Army at 17.
DIVERSE TASK FORCE
The vast majority of Empire Shield Soldiers are from New York City, Riley said, and that means they are already very familiar with the city.
"They've been taking public transportation their whole life," Riley said. "So they know their mission sites quite well. They know the culture of the city."
Demographically, the task force is about as diverse as the city with about third of African-American, a third Hispanic, and smaller fractions of Soldiers of Asian and Eastern European heritage, and just like the residents of New York City, a good number are from other countries.
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 from Yemen. He came to the U.S. in 2004. At the time, his father had already been a resident of New York City for nearly 30 years. Now, Alkasimi said, it's his home too.
"I can't ever go anywhere else," he said. "It's a multi-culture here. It's a melting pot. Anybody from anywhere in the world could fit in … No matter what language they speak, somebody in New York City speaks that language too."
Alkasimi was just a boy in Yemen at the time of 9/11. His father dad had been visiting in Yemen then, and his return back to New York was delayed by the shutdown of airports. That was how Alkasimi found out.
"I was from a third-world country, and they were saying two buildings got destroyed in New York," he remembered. "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 he drills in the Bronx, having served three years in the U.S. Army. He joined Empire Shield right after he got out of advanced individual training. He said he is learning new skills to take back to his Guard unit.
"We learn teamwork," he said. "You learn from our higher-ups. Everything goes downhill on how to learn new things that you apply to your unit."
Alkasimi would eventually like to become a police officer in the city.
PROTECTING THEIR CITY
Spc. Andres Medina, originally from Harlem, now lives in the Bronx. He is 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," he said.
He served an initial turn with the honor guard and joined the task force just two years ago. A New Yorker, he remembers seeing Empire Shield Solders in the transit hubs long before he himself joined the Army.
"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, '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 9 years old on 9/11. He was in a school on 103rd Street in Manhattan. He and the other students were gathered in a gym to wait for their parents. His mom picked him up around lunch time. At home, they watched the tragedy unfold on TV.
Initially, he thought it was exciting because he didn't fully understand what had happened.
"But my mom explained that people died," he remembered. "I remember being a young kid, I was shocked. I didn't know anything at that time about terrorism."
Now that he is in uniform defending the city he has lived in his whole life, he feels a great sense of pride.
"The civilians love us," he said. "They walk by us all the time and tell us thank you, that we look so ready and so vigilant."
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Sgt. Marius Donadelle was born and raised in Queens and earned a political science degree at Adelphi University on Long Island.
He remembers being in class on 9/11 when his professor received a page alerting him. Like many others at the time, they initially believed it was an accident. Students were disgusted by the incompetence of a pilot who would crash his plane into a building.
But in the hallways of his school, while he and his fellow students watched the news on television, they saw the second plane crash into the tower.
"Then we knew for sure it wasn't an accident, it was deliberate," he remembered.
Donadelle didn't join the Army right away. 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."
When he lost his civilian job, he decided to finally join the military. He joined the task force two years ago.
"It's one thing when you see a cop, a law enforcement officer," he said. "It's another thing when you see a man or woman in a military uniform standing there with a weapon. 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."
Roman loves being out in the city, her city, and keeping it safe. In the busiest locations like Grand Central Station, it's not uncommon for a tourist to ask her for directions or for parents of small children to ask to take a picture.
"The parents will want pictures of us and their kids," she said. "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."
Roman was young at the time of 9/11. She grew up watching the city recover. The Army virtue of resilience, she said, is also a New Yorker characteristic.
"We're very tough," she said. "You see something happen here, we'll bounce back. … 9/11 is a perfect example. You took down our towers? We're going to build a bigger tower."