NEW YORK CITY, Sept. 11, 2009 - Army Staff Sgt. Michael Wilson stands watch outside Penn Station, part of a New York National Guard task force that has continuously served since the terrorist attacks eight years ago today.
Wilson enlisted in the National Guard because of the attacks that he first learned about as he labored as a 19-year-old landscaper in Albany, N.Y. Just as the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, triggered the transformation of the National Guard from a strategic reserve to an operational force, so have they prompted Wilson to morph from teenager to soldier.
Now 26, he's been on duty more or less continuously ever since, including a stint in Iraq - a story shared by many of the 280 remaining members of Joint Task Force Empire Shield, which has swelled to as many as 2,500 during surges.
"We are a full-time, state active-duty force of 280, New York City-centric," said Army Lt. Col. Greg Dreisbach, commander. "It was formed on 9/11 and has been here since. We have some guys that have been here since almost Day 1."
Members of Empire Shield were among first responders to the attacks. Some lost friends. Some served in Empire Shield, then fell serving overseas.
"What we are doing is very important," Army Spc. Armando Chadilliquen said during a recent visit to the World Trade Center site. "It is very important that we are prepared in case anything happens."
The mission of JTF Empire Shield is to provide homeland security and defense support to civilian authorities, as needed, Dreisbach said. The task force works with 53 local, state and federal partners.
Headquartered in Brooklyn at Fort Hamilton - in the shadow of the soaring Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the last bridge across the Hudson before the Atlantic Ocean - the task force has a fully operational staff and command and control structure. It is designed to absorb a surge of troops in the event of a disaster - natural or man-made.
"[On] 9/11, we had a cold start," Dreisbach said. "If anything ever happens again, we have a warm start. We can accept up to a thousand soldiers and be able to support them for the first 72 hours."
In the meantime, members of JTF Empire Shield train. They perform missions, such as patrolling John F. Kennedy International Airport, La Guardia Airport, Penn Station and other mass transit hubs. They join New York State Naval Militia and Coast Guard reserve colleagues on boats bought with homeland security money released after 9/11. They also conduct foot patrols in and around airports and nuclear power facilities.
Sometimes the task force joins multi-agency super surges, pouring assets into transit hubs or certain areas of the city in response to indications of a threat, or for an exercise. Sometimes task force members perform random antiterrorism measures at critical infrastructure, such as the Entergy's Indian Point Energy Center, north of the city.
"There's not any given set time or day," Dreisbach explained during one such recent patrol on the Hudson River. "It's very random. It keeps the enemy off guard. They don't know when you're going to be there, when you're not going to be there. It allows the force to be more flexible."
Each member of the task force still belongs to an Army or Air unit of the New York National Guard and attends weekend drills and annual training to prepare for federal missions. Their state active-duty status is an additional mission.
They've also found time to gather 80 tons of relief supplies for Haiti, palletize it for transport and send it as humanitarian relief to the island nation.
"It's a very diverse mission set," Dreisbach said. "The main thing is that we're trained and are ready to carry out the [adjutant general's] intent, whatever that may be."
Wilson said his infantry service in Iraq is an asset in his task force duties. It gave him teamwork, accountability, situational awareness and knowledge of potential threats.
"Combat experience ... gives us a better opportunity to provide support over here," he said. "It gives us a different point of view. ... Whatever goes on in combat, you can apply right here to this mission."
Dreisbach said every visit to Ground Zero is a reminder of why he and his troops serve today. "This is where it all started," he said. "It never loses its [impact]."
Wilson recalled his reaction. "Initially, it was shock, just like everybody else in America. Who would have even thought that the World Trade Center was going to come crashing down' After the initial shock wore off, a little bit of anger, a little bit of determination to go out there and change circumstances.
"It opened up a whole lot of opportunities that National Guard members didn't have. It's heightened our readiness. It's heightened our effectiveness. We're no longer 'weekend warriors.' ... We're out training. ... We're on overseas deployments."
Army Sgt. Willis Wynne has a year with the task force and an Iraq deployment. "It's not just overseas where we need to be," he said. "We need to offer a presence back home."
In a city where 9/11 remains fresher and more vivid than in most parts of the country, task force members say they get a lot of gratitude from the public.
"People come up to us and thank us countless times during the day," said Army Sgt. Jessica Clark.
"When I joined the National Guard, that's what it was for, to help the community," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Odessa Covington. "We are doing what a lot of soldiers raised their right hand to do, to help the community."
Air Force Staff Sgt. Marcus Calliste, a first-generation American from Trinidad who has spent six of his last eight years in the National Guard on orders, said, "This is an opportunity to participate in helping out the city, state and country, which I love so much. I have family and friends who live in New York, and the opportunity to be a deterrent is definitely a privilege."
"I was angry, and I wanted to be part of the [solution]," Chadilliquen added.
In his native Peru, before he came to the United States at 26, he said, he helped pick up pieces of people he knew after terrorist bombings there. "I'm in the right place," he said. "I'm doing the right job."
Air and Army National Guard members work alongside members of the volunteer New York Guard, the New York State Naval Militia and the Coast Guard in the task force, in addition to the dozens of agency partners.
"We're here every day," Dreisbach said. "We're working with our agency partners. They know us. We know them. If there ever is an incident in the city, we already have a lot of things worked out."
(Army Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill serves with the National Guard Bureau public affairs office).