U.S. Military Heroes

Hometown Heroes, People
on January 4, 2004


Two years ago on Sept. 11, when terrorists darkened the clear skies over our country, we vowed to do everything possible to protect our nation and preserve our freedoms.

Today, we are more secure and better prepared than ever before. Every day, we rise to a new level of readiness—thanks to the citizen and the scientist, the computer programmer and the cop on the beat. In the war against terrorism, each of us is as crucial to victory as our armed forces and the new Homeland Security team.

The people you are about to meet are just a few of the many men and women in uniform who serve here at home. They guard the coastline, protect the borders, and patrol the skies. Now, more than ever, we need this Homeland Security team to be ready.

People like Larry Jerde and Petty Officer John Cunningham keep a keen eye on our 95,000 miles of coastline and stand a watchful guard as more than a million people cross our borders each day. These are ordinary Americans, who share one extraordinary goal: to protect our freedom and our way of life.

The threat of terrorism presents America with a challenge our nation has never known before. I encourage all Americans to learn more about what your country is doing to combat terrorism and what you can do to help. We are in this fight together, and together, we will win.

—Secretary Tom Ridge

Patrolling our Borders

By land . . .

Winter mornings begin in the deep cold along the U.S.-Canadian border for Larry Jerde, who starts most workdays driving portions of a 100-mile stretch searching for illegal entry.

He scans the snowy expanse for telltale signs of horses or cars appearing where they shouldn’t. He relies on intelligence from electronic sensors scattered throughout the North Dakota backcountry, and most often on tips.

“I think everyone in this country is on their toes more and it’s going to be a long time before they relax,” says Jerde, a 29-year-veteran of the U.S. Border Patrol.

He is the patrol agent in charge of the 13-agent Pembina, N.D., (pop. 642) office. There are many facets to the job, but one of the most critical is a duty the agents call “cutting sign.”

“We patrol the border and we do a lot of sign cutting, looking for evidence of entry,” says Jerde, 50. “Some people think it’s just tracking, but signs could be anything that was left behind like tire tracks or hoof prints.”

The duty is the same as always but the tenor has changed. “We may be a little more nervous about our jobs because we weren’t so worried about terrorists 20 years ago,” he says.

People living along the border respect the difference. “Before we were part of the community and they knew what we did, but now they’re a little more appreciative of what we do and they want more of us,” Jerde says.

Jerde transferred to the North Dakota post in 2002 after 28 years in Arizona, where agents stopped many more people attempting to cross the Mexican border.

“I was used to 700 a week, but here there are maybe seven a week,” Jerde says. “Some are seeking a better life. Some are on the run from deportation from Canada, and we run into a lot of criminals up here.”

Agents have identified the beginnings of a new trend, people paying to fly from Mexico to Canada in hope of slipping illegally across the northern border. “We’ve had one or two of them and they say that it’s so much easier than walking across the desert,” Jerde says.

Those violations underscore a tough reality. “By the time you figure something to smuggle, the smugglers have already figured out how to smuggle it,” he adds.

But anyone trying to cross the border will face men such as Jerde and a growing emphasis on security. “We are going to monitor it more closely,” he says.

By air . . .

Louisiana’s deep-water port of Lake Charles, home to massive refineries and fuel repositories, provides critical access to the Gulf of Mexico for slow-moving tankers.

For a nation on guard, security for the vital resources is critical, and federal and state agencies depend on a dedicated band of local volunteers for a bird’s-eye perspective.

“There are about a dozen folks, crew and pilots,” says Rock Palermo, a colonel in the Civil Air Patrol. “We’re a small group, but dedicated.”

And they have a key job, providing inexpensive, professional monitoring of the region’s key assets from the air.

The Lake Charles Composite Squadron of the Louisiana Wing often is called upon to fly missions over the 25-mile waterway linking the port to the gulf, videotaping the passage and searching for possible security breaches.

“We’re very good at visual observation,” Palermo says. “We move slow and can go to low altitude.”

The Civil Air Patrol based at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama is a nonprofit corporation with more than 64,000 members and a fleet of 550 single-engine planes. There are 1,700 units scattered across the nation.

“They’re one of our best kept secrets,” says John Salvador, the Civil Air Patrol’s director of operations. “Our volunteers are extremely dedicated and in their heart, ever since 9-11 and before, they just want to help out any way they can.”

Palermo, 37, is one example. He lives in Sulphur, La., (pop. 20,512) just outside Lake Charles, where he practices personal injury law.

He completed training for his pilot’s license in 1994, and his instructor recommended he join the Civil Air Patrol as a way to spend more time in the air. “It was a great fit for me because at that time I was looking for any reason to fly,” Palermo says.

With the Civil Air Patrol, Palermo saw an opportunity for a structured flying schedule and the chance to participate in everything from detailed training at U.S. Air Force bases to drug interdiction missions.

He maintains a commercial pilot license to fly multi-engine aircraft, and he and his father each own a plane. The volunteers often use personal aircraft for missions, such as long flights over water not ideal for the single-engine Cessna the local squadron maintains.

The volunteers also help local emergency management officials by providing aerial observations during industrial fires or after damaging storms.

Not only are the pilots well trained, their services are considered a value, costing about $100 an hour for expenses. “An agency may spend 10 times that to get a similar product,” Palermo says. “We’re volunteer so we don’t mind operating on weekends. We don’t mind overtime, so to speak, and we don’t get paid.”

And by sea

Petty Officer John Cunningham trains intensely with his latest U.S. Coast Guard partner, considered a key resource in ferreting out explosives hidden on ships bound for domestic ports.

They learn to identify dangerous materials, they board ships, and Cunningham makes sure his partner stays clear of table scraps.

He works with Bruno, a 2-year-old purebred Labrador retriever, and they are involved in new standardized Coast Guard training for bomb-sniffing dogs. It’s a partnership that will last until Bruno retires in about six to eight years.

“My mother was a dog trainer years ago,” says Cunnigham, 27. “I never thought I’d have the opportunity to participate in it, but I put in for this duty and it was the luck of the draw.”

Before the attack on the World Trade Center, Cunningham, a six-year Coast Guard veteran, participated in several ship boardings as part of operations to counter drug trafficking. After the tragedy in New York, though, the emphasis on boarding inbound ships for security reasons increased.

Offering a focused training program for explosive-sniffing dogs is another method of securing the nation’s waterways.

The Coast Guard regularly used dog teams in the 1940s and they returned during the past six years, says Cunningham, among the first dog handlers to go through the new training regimen. “The first goal is to get the training standardized because they want to get everyone on an equal playing field,” he says.

Cunningham and another handler trained at the North West Annex Naval Base in Chesapeake, Va., as well as with local law enforcement officers and at the Norfolk (Va.) International Airport.

He took Bruno onto many ships, allowing the dog to grow accustomed to working on the ocean. “They get used to the deck and they go up the ladders, which are usually very steep,” he says. “We don’t have problems with sea sickness, so that’s not an issue.”

The dogs also learned to identify potential trouble. “We used real explosives as training aids,” he recalls. “We can work it down to a very small amount, really any given amount for them to identify.”

The partnership between Cunningham and Bruno extends beyond work. “He comes home with me and he has a kennel at the house,” Cunningham says. “He’s still a working dog. There’s no table scraps or things of that nature because I don’t need a lazy or overweight dog.”

After all, Bruno is more than an average dog, and for the Coast Guard, the pairing is invaluable. “We’re just another tool of the team,” Cunningham says.