By Mike M. Ahlers
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Two weeks after a severely disabled Marine reportedly was “humiliated” by his treatment at a Phoenix airport security checkpoint, the details remain in dispute, but the government took steps Wednesday to prevent a similar encounter from happening.
The Transportation Security Administration said it is greatly expanding a program that expedites screening for active-duty and inactive “wounded warriors,” giving them the same expedited screening now available to active-duty, uniformed military personnel.
Wounded warriors who call or e-mail the TSA in advance of their trips will get benefits similar to those in the TSA’s PreCheck program. They will be allowed to use dedicated screening lanes where available, leave on light outerwear, belts, shoes and hats, and keep laptop computers and 3-1-1 compliant liquids in carry-on bags.
The TSA said it wants to provide “curb to gate service” for the wounded troops.
“In recognition of the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, we have revised our screening requirements to allow expedited screening for this trusted group of citizens,” John Halinski, TSA’s deputy administrator and a 25-year U.S. Marine Corps veteran, said in a statement.
The move comes after a March 13 encounter between a small group of Marines and TSA screeners at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport sparked a spat between members of Congress and the TSA.
In a letter to TSA Administrator John Pistole, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, said the incident involved an active-duty Marine who had lost both of legs to an improvised explosive device, and was in a wheelchair, with limited or no mobility. A TSA officer asked the Marine to stand or walk, Hunter wrote, “despite the fact that he physically could not stand or walk on his own.”
The TSA screener then made the Marine remove his prosthetic legs, only to have them put back on so he could move to another area, where he was again asked to stand so that his wheelchair could be examined, Hunter wrote.
Hunter — basing his account on a person who had escorted the Marines — described the Marine as “humiliated” by the encounter.
The TSA disputes the account, saying that surveillance camera video and interviews with its officers showed that the man never removed his legs. The agency also said the two screeners involved both had extensive military careers — one of them with the Marine Corps. Both screeners acted appropriately, the TSA said.
The TSA said it hopes to assist wounded warriors in the future though its Wounded Warrior/Military Severely Injured Joint Support Operations Center Program.
It gave this account of the process:
— Once flight arrangements are made with the airline, the severely injured service member, or family member, or other representative can contact its operations center with travel details. The TSA prefers an e-mail to MSIJSOC@dhs.gov to protect accuracy of the information, but will also accept calls to its toll-free number, (888) 262-2396. The operations center will acknowledge the request by reply e-mail, or over the telephone
— The operations center will then notify appropriate TSA officials at the involved airports. Those officials are responsible for ensuring that necessary security screening is conducted “with empathy and respect, to make the overall experience for the Wounded Warrior as simple and trouble-free as possible,” the TSA said.
TSA spokesman David Castelveter said the program “changes greatly” the process in which wounded warriors are screened, without creating a security vulnerability. As with all travelers, the veterans will be vetted against government watch lists of suspected terrorists, he said.
A congresswoman who had introduced a bill requiring the TSA to give PreCheck privileges to wounded warriors applauded the TSA announcement Wednesday, but said she would press forward with her bill. “I’m pleased to see this action being taken by the TSA,” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, said in a statement, adding that passage of her bill will “ensure that these changes are permanent.”
Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, D-Louisiana, also issued a statement applauding the move.
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