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Marine's security run-in shows challenges for injured vets

Jul. 5, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Retired Marine Cpl. Nathan Kemnitz was subject to extra TSA screening because he was wearing 'too much metal.'
Retired Marine Cpl. Nathan Kemnitz was subject to extra TSA screening because he was wearing 'too much metal.' (Courtesy Patricia Martin)
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Wearing the uniform of the Few and Proud doesn’t rate preferential treatment from the Transportation Security Administration or California capitol security officers, retired Marine Cpl. Nathan Kemnitz recently learned.

Kemnitz, severely injured in 2004 in a roadside bomb attack in Fallujah, Iraq, has limited use of his right arm and cannot lift it above his head. So when security guards at the state capitol in Sacramento, Calif., asked him to remove his dress blue blouse “because he was wearing too much metal,” and TSA wanted him to raise his arms above his head for the full-body scanner at Sacramento International Airport, he could not comply.

“My right arm doesn’t work,” Kemnitz said.

At the state capitol, the Marine’s refusal to remove his uniform top grew into what was described by friend Patricia Martin as a heated exchange with security officers.

And at the airport, supervisors looked on as a TSA security screener looked under Kemnitz’s medals, ran his hands under the Marine’s waistband and swabbed his shoes for explosives, she said.

“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?” Martin later wrote in a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. “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.”

Kemnitz said after the incidents that he was not as annoyed with TSA as he was with a security screener at the California state capitol, whom he described as rude and unapologetic.

Kemnitz was visiting the building to be honored as his legislative district’s veteran of the year.

“At some places I’m treated like royalty and at some like a terrorist. There’s got to be something in the middle,” he said.

In the media firestorm that followed publication of the story online on militarytimes.com, a spokesman for the California State Senate Sergeant-at-Arms office, which oversees security for the building, said the incident was under investigation, to include reviewing the security video and interviewing screeners.

Mark Hedlund, communications director for the state’s Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, said roughly 1 million people visit the capitol each year, and all, including employees, are screened. But, he added, “there’s never any call for disrespect.”

“We’re looking at the situation to make sure all the procedures were followed,” Hedlund said.

TSA deputy director John Halinski, a retired Marine colonel, said his agency also was reviewing the matter, taking it “very seriously.”

“Twenty-five percent of our work force are veterans. Forty percent of our air marshals are veterans. We take this very, very seriously,” Halinski said.

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

The agency 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.

Wounded troops also are not required to remove shoes, jackets or hats during the security process if they have called the agency’s Military Severely Injured Joint Service Operations Center, at 1-855-787-2227, before traveling.

But if an injured service member or veteran does not call ahead and enters a standard security line, he or she must be treated like everyone else, Halinski added.

“We look at 1.8 million people a day. We’re only about 45,000 screeners and we have to, in a very short period of time, make a determination,” Halinski said.

This year, TSA agents have found nearly 800 guns on passengers and in carry-on luggage.

In the last four years, there have been three attempts to blow up aircraft with non-metallic explosive devices similar to the one used by underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in December 2009.

And in 2011, Army Pfc. Christopher Eric Wey was arrested and charged in carrying a half-ounce of C4 in his carry-on luggage. Wey, who was traveling from Yuma, Ariz., to his home in Fort Carson, Colo., said he found the explosive on the ground during training and intended to take it home to show his family. He was not carrying a detonating device. It was determined the amount could have harmed nearby passengers if it had exploded, but it would not have seriously damaged the plane.

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