TSA detains Marine escorts
Trio escorting body of fallen comrade are stripped of dress blue coats, searched at airport
By Gidget Fuentes
Times staff writer
It wasn’t the city of “brotherly love” for a trio of Marine noncommissioned officers escorting the body of a fallen Marine through the Philadelphia airport.
Each decked in their blue dress uniforms, the three enlisted Marines made their way through a security checkpoint at the Philadelphia International Airport about noon on May 3 when they were pulled aside by security workers with the federal Transportation Safety Administration.
The Marines — a sergeant and two corporals — were escorting the body of Sgt. Lea R. Mills from Dover Air Force Base, Del., to his family in Gulfport, Miss. Mills, who was married and lived in Oceanside with his wife, was killed in Iraq on April 28 by a roadside bomb. He was one of three leathernecks killed that day in Iraq’s Anbar province.
They were brothers-in-arms. Like Mills, the Marine escorts are members of the Camp Pendleton-based 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion.
The trio had to go through the terminal’s security in order to reach their flight that would take them to Houston and make sure that Mills’ body was properly placed on the airplane. While their uniforms likely would trigger the metal detector, they had figured they would be able to zip through the screening process and get on with their business.
“Wearing the blues, the metal detector is going to go off,” said Sgt. John Stock, a mechanic, who was accompanied by Cpls. Aaron Bigalk and Jason Schadeburg.
But as the Marines went through the initial screener in their dress blues, they were stopped by several TSA agents. Each was told to remove their dress uniform blouse, belt and black dress shoes, which were scanned by the detector, as the agents scanned them with hand-held detecting wands.
“They had me take off my shoes and ran them through the screening,” Stock said, speaking by phone May 5 from Gulfport, where the men are helping with Mills’ family and funeral support. “We all got searched.”
Then they were taken to a nearby room, where TSA workers patted them down.
At one point, Stock’s shoes disappeared, leaving him to frantically search for them and retrieve them from a TSA agent. Separated from their belongings, which included the flag that they bore that would drape Mills’ casket for the rest of the journey home, they worried about getting to the gate in time to ensure his safe placement in the airplane.
Time, it seemed like a half-hour, clicked by. “I was like, hey, we need to be on the tarmac,” Stock recalled. “It just took longer than it should have had to take.”
The agents said nothing to explain why all three were singled out for additional search and the Marines didn’t protest. “We were just trying to get there as quick as we could,” he added.
In all, it was a humiliating experience that left them angry.
“They could probably tell that I was pissed off,” said Stock, who noted that he’s never encountered that kind of search when going through airport security in uniform.
“I understand if I was in civilian clothes. But with what we were wearing and what we were doing … ,” he said, noting that “we had the flag with us.”
A call into TSA’s public affairs office in the D.C. area was not returned as of press time.
“The Marine Corps is currently cooperating with (TSA) to resolve this matter,” the command said in statement issued May 5 and provided by 2nd Lt. Lawton King, a 1st Marine Division spokesman at Camp Pendleton.