Apr 06 2013

My TSA experience while flying off to war in 2003

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, all of it told in chronological order
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As we approach the tenth anniversary of my Iraq invasion, I decided to relate two cute little anecdotes about my TSA experience as I departed our glorious motherland in 2003.

An office STU-III secure telephone rings 17 hours after the war kicked off. I answer it by confirming the estab­lished classi­fi­ca­tion level of the call. Our conver­sa­tion begins. It’s Dr. Ken Kan, deputy historian for HQ AFRC:

Him:
We just got word. You’re going to Saudi Arabia.
Me:
No, I’m not.
Him:
Yes, you are.
Me:
No, I’m not. Figure out where you really are sending me.
Him:
We already know where you’re going. You’re going to {some base} in Saudi Arabia.
Me:
Look, let me remind you why we went to war with Iraq. The Saudis despise us for being in their country for so many years. They want us to drop to a force only just large enough to deter the Israelis. The Kuwaitis couldn’t care less about our presence anymore. They both finally gave [president] Bush their blessings to attack Iraq only because that’s what he keeps wanting to do, and he’s willing to leave their countries in exchange for their blessing. In the next few days you’ll hear us announce we’re pulling out of Saudi. So I won’t be going there. Tell me where I really am going.
Him:
You’re going to Saudi Arabia.
Me:
Fine.

Well, wouldn’t you know it: the U.S. State Department comes out a few days later to say we’re pulling our troops from Saudi Arabia.

An office STU-III secure telephone rings. It’s Dr. Kan again. “Your rotation to Saudi Arabia has been ‘nixed.” Wow, that’s a surprise. “Where would you like to go?” You know, I didn’t really expect to get a choice, this being a war & all. “Uh, how about wherever we’ve got a real need for a /HO [pronounced 'hoe'].” Coincidentally, they need one at a captured air base in Iraq. “Okay, I’m there.”

Denise rushes up to me. “The security people want to inspect your rifle.” Uh, okay. I hand her the key to the gun case and she rushes off.

Now I really begin packing. Among other things, I elect to take a full set of desert winter uniforms — a wool blend that does great if you’re willing to wear it in the dorky-looking “Bedouin” fashion. If a Bedouin can wear wool in the summer, then I can wear wool in the summer.

I haul myself down to the range to update my AF Form 522 for firearms proficiency. I qualify with the very same M16 I’ll be carrying into combat. I dunk it in a tank of cleaning solution, brush it up, and go on my way.


My wife, a retired MSgt, drives me to the St. Louis airport. It’s not yet a tearful goodbye; we’re preoccupied getting my bags on a commercial flight to Atlanta where I’ll board a military charter.

Among my effects: an M16 with two 30rd magazines. In a lockable metal gun case approved for commercial air cargo.

I’m familiar with the rigmarole process to transport firearms on commercial airlines. I once took a short vacation to visit Jim Button, one of the millionaire founders of the shareware concept, and I brought along my Springfield military surplus rifle. Why? Because I only had a 200yd range near my home in Illinois and I wanted to hurl lead 400yds at a range I know about in Washington state. Ah, but I digress…

So anyway, I’m up at the counter, finishing my paperwork so I can drag a military rifle into combat. Denise rushes up to me. “The security people want to inspect your rifle.” Uh, okay. I hand her the key to the gun case and she rushes off. The stewardess behind the counter thanks me for my service and clears me for gate access.

I walk down to the area where two TSA dweebs are about to open my gun case. Mind you: TSA is less than two years old at this point, and there’s a lot of military people flying out of St. Louis with all sorts of military firearms.

The two men open the case. Lo & behold, it’s an M16 with two 30rd magazines.

Technically: the sear has been replaced to modify it from “A1″ full-auto to “A2″ 3rd-burst. I won’t fire an M16 in full-auto because I consider it a total waste of ammo. Today’s bullpups are a different story but I’m stuck with Vietnam-era technology. Ah, but again I digress…

“Gentlemen, can I help you with anything with that?” One turns to me and says in a stern voice “STAY BEHIND THE LINE.” A velveteen rope separates me from grabbing a select-fire weapon in the middle of an airport.

This thought actually goes through my head: “it’s been a good career.” I am now only seconds away from being arrested.

The two men gawk at my M16 for a few seconds. Then one turns to the other: “do you think we should check it for explosives?” He’s not really asking a question so much as he’s asking for validation.

This thought actually goes through my head: “it’s been a good career.”

Seriously: I just qualified with that M16 and I dunked it in a tank of solvent permeated with gunpowder residue. There is absolutely no way I’ll get to Atlanta.

The man who asked the question pulls out a Stridex pad and rubs it on my M16. I am now only seconds away from being arrested.

I cock my head and furrow my brow in thought. “Well, shit. If this machine doesn’t detect explosives,” I ponder, “I’m gonna shout ‘you guys are security theater! You can’t even sniff out a military rifle covered in gunpowder residue!’ But what should I do if it does detec—”

TSA detection machines have a siren with a bright flashing light on top. Its job is to warn everyone it detected an explosive compound.

I don’t get the chance to complete my thought.

The TSA dweeb has placed the Stridex pad in the detector machine. He has pressed the button. The machine instantly goes WOOP! WOOP! WOOP! WOOP! WOOP! WOOP! WOOP! WOOP! The siren surprises Denise so much that (if I recall correctly) she nearly falls to the floor. Me & the guards jump in surprise, too.

This is not a “beep beep beep you’ve got metal” alarm like you hear at the TSA checkpoints. This thing has a siren with a bright flashing light on top of the machine. Its job is to warn everyone it detected an explosive compound.

All eyes in the airport turn toward us. Anyone curious enough to walk up will see an open gun case with an M16 in it.

One of the TSA dweebs pounds a panic button to stop the alarm. No more disco light, no more noise.

“OH GOD! NOW WHAT?” I blurt out.

The TSA dweebs look dumbfounded — but their tiny little brains are probably, finally, processing whatever Denise told them. She almost certainly told them “oh, that’s my husband’s M16, the Air Force is sending him off to the Iraq war tonight.” Or words to that effect. And, of course, the tags on the gun case identify it as containing an unloaded firearm bound for the plane’s cargo hold.

I want to scream “you guys are security theater! It has explosive residue all over it, and you just let it go on the plane!”

The TSA dweebs look at each other. They look at the M16. They look at each other. They look at the M16. And then…

…they close the gun case, lock it, and send it on its way.

At this point I want to scream “you guys are security theater! It has explosive residue all over it, and you just let it go on the plane!”

But I need to go off to war. So I keep my mouth shut.

Denise follows me all the way to the TSA checkpoint. We bid tearful goodbyes before I continue on to my gate. My experience at the checkpoint proves uneventful. Now we’re off to Atlanta.


The flight proves uneventful. I disembark in Atlanta.

Suddenly a sly grin crosses my face. “Time to play the ‘semi-trusted third party‘ game.”

I actually know this routine better than I normally like to admit. I must leave the secure area of Atlanta’s airport; stand in line at a military counter; then go through a TSA security checkpoint to reach the military departure gate.

Military folks get so used to doing a “bag & drag” that they’ll carry heavy loads on their own all the way across a commercial airport. Screw that! I wave for a baggage man.

“You’re off to Iraq, eh, sir?” You bet. “Why don’t you give me your carry-ons and we’ll go pick up your luggage at the carousel.” Sounds great. By the way, is $20 appropriate for your service? “Well, you know, most people, they might give me ten.” Yeah, well, I said twenty. Lead the way!

My baggage man whistles a tune as we take a shortcut he knows about. I almost feel pity for anyone who drags their bags across this monstrous facility. Almost.

“Sir, is this your bag? I need to inspect your carry-on.” What, another Stridex pad? “Excuse me?” Never mind.

“There’ll be no M16 bullshit this time,” I keep telling myself. “Hundreds of us going out with M16s, M9s, and other nefarious weapons, and that’s just this flight out.” TSA won’t waste its time scrubbing a machine gun with a Stridex pad.

The line to the counter is long but appears to move at a steady pace. I tip my baggage man an extra buck and he goes off to help the next person. Suddenly a sly grin crosses my face. “Time to play the ‘semi-trusted third party‘ game,” I tell myself.

I utter my first words to the person in front of me. “Excuse me, sir, would you watch my M16? I’ve really got to go to the bathroom.” Sure, he says. He’s got to go pretty soon, too. “God, thank you, I’ll be right back.” Off I go, leaving everything behind.

Here’s a tip if you want someone to do any small favor for you. Phrase it in the form of a question, then follow immediately with any excuse. If you’ve got two items and the person in front of you has 20 items at the 20-items-or-less register, you can cut in front by saying “excuse me, may I cut in front of you? My child can’t wait for me to show her these.” It’s amazing how many times people will do something for you if you phrase it like this. Annnnnnd let’s not digress…

My new friend — whose name I don’t yet know — hurries off to use the facilities, leaving all of his stuff behind just as I did.

Nose hair scissors

TSA feared I might use my nose hair scissors to hijack an aircraft filled entirely with buff soldiers and marines heading off to war in Iraq.

“Hi, I’m Rob,” I say upon his return, offering a handshake. “I’m {whoever},” he replies. We strike up a conversation to pass the time. I don’t remember a single word of it. All I can recall is that I left my M16 and my military laptop under the control of a semi-trusted total stranger.

The stewardess behind the military counter clears me for my flight to the desert. Next stop: Qatar, a little island country just off the coast of Saudi Arabia. I grab my carry-ons and off I go to the TSA checkpoint.

“Sir, is this your bag?” The TSA woman looks concerned. “I need to inspect your carry-on.” What, another Stridex pad? “Excuse me?” Never mind. Of course, inspect away.

She pulls out my nose hair scissors. Now, I try not to use a digital recorder of any sort in airports because I’m not a big fan of how uniformed authorities react when they catch you legally taping them in the performance of their official duties. Here’s our little conversation to the very best of my recollection:

Dweeb:
You can’t take these with you.
Me:
Ma’am, they’re nose hair scissors.
Dweeb:
They’re pointed.
Me:
Ma’am, they’re only long enough to go up my nose. Please. Let me go to Iraq with my nose hair scissors.
Dweeb:
You could hurt somebody.
Me:
“Hurt” somebody? Ma’am, everybody on this aircraft is in the military and they’re in better shape than me. I couldn’t hurt anybody. Let me go to Iraq with my nose hair scissors.
Dweeb:
You can’t be at the airport with pointed scissors.
Me:
I saw the departure TV. We’re the only flight left to go out of here tonight. There’s no one else besides military and every one of us is off to war. Please. Let me go to Iraq with my nose hair scissors.
Dweeb:
I can’t let you do that.
Me:
Come on. The St. Louis airport didn’t raise any concerns about them.
Dweeb:
That’s their fault. You can’t have these.
Me:
Lady, you just let a woman through with six knitting needles! {I would later discover they were aluminum knitting needles}
Dweeb:
Well, she cried.
Me:
Then I’ll cry! Let me go to Iraq with my nose hair scissors.
Dweeb:
No.
Me:
Come on. It’s a war. I might return home in a body bag. Let me go to Iraq with my nose hair scissors.
Dweeb:
These could be used as a weapon. {she points my nose hair scissors at me, not in a menacing fashion, but simply to demonstrate her assertion}
Me:
Is this a weapon? {I pick up my military-issued laptop and hold it in a menacing fashion as if I’m about to whack her upside the head}
Dweeb:
No.
Me:
Keep the fucking nose hair scissors. And by the way: don’t, under any circumstances, touch your eyes or mouth with the gloves you’re wearing. I’m still contagious from a smallpox vaccine. I can show you the seeping wound if you need proof.
Dweeb:
I don’t need to see it.

I turn to the person behind me. “Have you taken the smallpox [vaccine]? Because she’ll be wearing those same gloves when she touches your shit. She ain’t gonna change ‘em.” I gather my effects and walk down the hallway.

A young military member catches up to me. “Wow, sir, I can’t believe you threatened her with that laptop!”

I harumph. “She said it wasn’t a weapon…”


Denise mailed a pair of nose hair scissors just so I could prove a point. And, indeed, the post office delivered them to me without question. On another continent. In a war zone.

Denise passed away two years later, else she’d confirm her participation in this event. Dr. Kan can of course confirm the quotes I attribute to him. And that, my friends, is the absolutely true story of my TSA experience while flying off to war in Iraq in 2003.

Yo, did I mention I was armed when I took the jumpseat in the cockpit of a C-130 traveling between Iraq and Kuwait? Granted, I only had a knife on me because my wing commander was in a hurry and didn’t have time for me to snag my M16. He told the control tower to hold the plane; cleared his vehicle to approach the aircraft with its engines running & no chocks; and tossed me out of his car with nothing more than my bugout kit…

But hey, that’s another story.

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