Operation Noble Eagle: The Nation's Sentinels

Article excerpt

Task Force Sentinel is a small detachment fighting the war against terrorism--41 soldiers of the Vermont Army National Guard who are on active duty in the northwest corner of the state to protect their backyard and your front door. They are among approximately 1,100 Guard soldiers currently activated to help protect U.S. borders under Operation Noble Eagle, the domestic security operation launched in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

Supporting the U.S. Customs Service and Immigration and Naturalization Service, they help stop terrorists and weapons of mass destruction from entering the United States.

Vermont's Task Force Sentinel serves along a 40-mile or so stretch of the Canadian border. Its soldiers are stationed at eight land entry ports, only one of which can be considered major.

Highgate Springs border crossing on Interstate 89 services the main road connecting Montreal and the rest of Quebec to Boston. Up to 12,000 cargo trucks pass through there each month along with tens of thousands of automobiles.

The other entry ports are quaint outposts guarding back roads that cut across lush pasturelands and dairy farms from Canada. The busiest of them might see 40 or 50 cars roll up during a weekend eight-hour shift, and not long ago stations that were not open 24 hours a day posted a sign at closing time that politely asked crossers to turn around and go to another port that was open.

The honor system does not cut it now, however. The tranquil farmland is a dangerous frontier. Several cells with probable al Qaeda links are thought to be operating in or around Montreal, and for many years the area has been a major marijuana smuggling route from hydroponic farming operations in Canada.

From Morses Line station, one of the small entry ports where Task Force Sentinel soldiers work, you can see the tops of the silos on Sgt. Chad Bouchard's family farm. Sgt. Bouchard volunteered to be a part of the task force. You can see SFC Stephen Patterson's house from the small entry port in Richford, Vt. He is on the task force, too.

"If you live locally, you know the agents and you know the people," SFC Patterson explained. "That helps you see whether something is out of the ordinary."

Most of the Task Force Sentinel soldiers live within 20 miles of the stations they help guard, "Our first choices were local soldiers," said lst Sgt. Dennis Sheridan, the noncommissioned officer in charge of Task Force Sentinel. "Not only do they know the area and the people, but the people know them, and that makes them more comfortable with seeing a soldier at the port."

Inspectors have databases to help with the screening, but most of the time human instincts and experience are the tools. "It's a difficult task to know whom or what to search sometimes," said Inspector Scott Alderman of the Customs Service. "You must be able to pick up on body language and listen carefully to their story. You have to take in the totality of the situation, and you have about 15 seconds to make a decision."

"We're another set of eyes," SFC Patterson explained. Most Task Force Sentinel members are from the Vermont Army Guard's 1st Battalion, 172nd Armor, headquartered in Saint Albans, and they help secure entry ports along approximately half of the state's border with Canada. Another unit has responsibility for the other half.

Before Guard soldiers came on active duty to support the border services, inspectors had been working up to 16 hours a day for 30 or 40 days without a day off, causing fatigue that not only affected the officers personally but which could have led to decreased job performance. The military support also has allowed port directors to expand searches. For example, the Guard soldiers working cargo inspections at the Highgate Springs entry port allowed checks to increase to 7 percent of the truck traffic coming through that port, compared to 1 percent checked before the soldiers arrived. …