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Medal Of Honor
Fails to Impress Airline Security
by Joyce Howard Price
"They just didn't know what it was but they acted like I shouldn't be carrying it on," retired Marine Corps General Joseph J. Foss of Scottsdale, Arizona said yesterday in a telephone interview.
"I kept explaining that it was the highest medal you can receive from the military in this country, but nobody listened," he said. Gen. Foss, an 86-year-old former South Dakota governor whose resume also includes stints as president of the National Rifle Association and as commissioner of the old American Football League, said he was "hassled" about the medal by two separate security crews at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix. He was trying to board an America West airliner January 11 to attend an NRA meeting in Arlington.
"I received the medal in 1943 from President Franklin Roosevelt," after shooting down 26 enemy planes in the Pacific, said Gen. Foss, who was a Marine fighter pilot during World War II. "It states all that stuff on the back of the medal," he said. "I was held up for 45 minutes, while they decided what to do about the medal. I almost missed my flight, as they went back and forth," Gen. Foss said.
He stressed that he would not have boarded the plane if he had been stopped from taking the medal aboard. "I'm one of only about 140 surviving Medal of Honor recipients," he said.
General Foss acknowledges that a commemorative metal nail file - also bearing a Medal of Honor inscription - and a dummy bullet were also in the same pocket of his sports coat as he military medal. Those items were seized before he boarded the plane, but he was allowed to keep the Medal of Honor.
Metal nail files and other instruments with blades are prohibited from aircraft cabins under Federal Aviation Administration regulations that went into effect after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Bullets and other ammunition are not permitted on an aircraft in a passenger's possession. However, the bullet taken from Gen. Foss was harmless, as it has a hole in it so that it will fit on a key chain.
An FAA spokesman was unable to say whether a dummy bullet would be banned under the federal regulations. But he pointed out that airlines are allowed to impose restrictions that go beyond those of the federal agency.
Gen. Foss said he normally doesn't travel with his medal. "I do not carry the medal around with me. But I had it with me this time to show to cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point," where he was a guest speaker last week.
Patty Nowack, spokeswoman for America West, said she could not respond to specific questions about the Foss case, as she cannot verify he flew on the airline. She could not say whether there would be any security concerns about a medal but that it would cause a metal detector to go off.
"Our primary objective is to ensure the safety and security of all passengers and employees. We're not trying to single out any individual," she said yesterday.
Gen. Foss says he believes his one-way, first-class ticket, coupled with the 10-gallon hat and western boots he was wearing, made him seem suspicious to security personnel. Because he wears a pacemaker, he said he couldn't go through a metal detector and so he had to be "frisked" by guards.
Also, Gen. Foss said, "I had to take off my cowboy boots three times (before boarding), as well as my belt and necktie. I compared the situation to bailing out to land in a foreign country.
He said security personnel went so far as to remove razor blades from his luggage, which also went beyond FAA requirements. Jim Baker, chief lobbyist for the NRA, said he understands the need for "extra security." But he questions how an 86-year-old man bearing the Medal of Honor could be considered a security risk.
"There appears to be a need to incorporate common sense" with the additional security that's being imposed, Mr. Baker said.
Follow-up to this story
Joe Foss Interview on CNN
PHOENIX, Arizona (CNN) -- Retired Gen. Joe Foss, 86, one of the most highly decorated U.S. war veterans, recently was detained at a security checkpoint at the Phoenix, Arizona, airport because he was carrying an item with sharp edges.
The sharp object turned out to be the Congressional Medal of Honor, which he had received in 1943 from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. CNN's Jack Cafferty spoke Tuesday with Foss about his airport experience and career.
CAFFERTY: General, Franklin Roosevelt, the president of the United States, awarded you the Congressional Medal of Honor, and your picture was on the cover of Life magazine on June 7, 1943. For what did you receive the medal and what can you tell us about the day you were given the medal by the president?
FOSS: Well, actually, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for action over Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. ... See, I was the top ace during that time.
CAFFERTY: You shot down 26 enemy aircraft, is that right, general?
FOSS: That is correct.
CAFFERTY: That is amazing.
FOSS: We were the decoys over the enemy fleet a number of times flying over them at 12,000 feet and having everyone shoot at you. They try to get you, and then you dive -- take a vertical dive on the warship -- in the middle of the thing -- to draw fire so the torpedo planes could get in.
FOSS: I was on my way -- after a National Rifle Association board of directors meeting -- to go up to West Point and speak to the sophomore class there.
CAFFERTY: And you were going to take the medal and show the cadets up at West Point. You got to the airport, what happened?
FOSS: Well, you see, when I got to the airport, I planned on just going through as I normally have in the past. But they had this mass of checkers back there that seemed to hone in on me.
I had on a Western hat, which I normally wear, and this tie, which is known as a bolo tie, and a belt buckle that says, "Dakota Gun Collectors," on it and Western boots.
CAFFERTY: They eventually wound up taking the Congressional Medal of Honor away from you, didn't they, at the airport?
FOSS: Well, the whole deal was the medal and this little thing that was with it, which has a little fingernail file on it, and it has the Congressional Medal Society insignia on this thing -- I've carried it for years -- and that set off the thing when I threw my jacket in there.
They said, "Take everything out of your jacket," and I thought I had. I'm just not used to carrying a medal in my pocket here. So I threw the whole thing in a basket, and when that set that off, they said, "We thought you emptied the jacket."
And now it came back. And that started the fracas, and they said, "Off with your boots. Off with your belt. Off with your tie. Off with your hat."
CAFFERTY: Were they nice to you at this time? I mean, were they polite?
FOSS: No, they were very nasty. It was a nasty group of individuals that I couldn't seem to make understand. And I was trying to show them this medal, that it had all the inscription on the back there. About me receiving it from the president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and so forth.
But no one seemed to know what was going on. And then I said, "What happens to the stuff you take from me?" And they said, "Oh, it's destroyed." And I said, "Well, you aren't taking that medal, that's for sure. Or this other thing." And so then the next number on the program, I had some keys and stuff that I -- and an imitation bullet thing -- it never was a bullet -- but it looked like a bullet that President Charlton Heston of the NRA gave me. And they took that.
I said, "What happens to all of that?"
So then I said, "Can I keep any of it?"
And they said, "No, unless you go over there, write that desk right there and mail it back to yourself."
"Well OK." What happens, I step over there, and they say, "Off with your boots. Off with your belt. Off with your hat."
I said, "You just checked me."
And, of course, then in the meantime, my jacket gets lost in the back, and we horse around. And all of this operation took about 45 minutes or so.
Finally, I get out of here, and I get to the gate. And as the passengers pile on, I had a first-class pass to get on -- not pass, we paid for the ticket -- and they take me out of line, and the lady says, "Off with your boots. Off with your belt. Off with your tie."
CAFFERTY: This is the third time?
FOSS: That's the third time. And by that time, I was fairly warm.
CAFFERTY: I bet you were at that, general.
FOSS: And, of course, the questions that they asked and all -- it was so nonsensical, the whole thing. There's no way you could catch a terrorist. In fact, you'd be -- while you were looking at some clown like me, the terrorist would go by.
CAFFERTY: Now you talked to the officials at America West, the airline that was involved in this.
FOSS: They've been very nice.
CAFFERTY: There's been a visit arranged. Tell us about the visit that's upcoming here.
FOSS: Well the airline, America West, has been very nice. The vice president called me, and I personally talked to him. And the public relations director talked to me. And I'm going to have them out to the house to meet my wife and the rest of the tribe and let them know that we are not terrorists. We're just ordinary citizens trying to get on an airline to go someplace and back home.
CAFFERTY: General, let me thank you so much for a very entertaining and interesting, if unfortunate, story.
Let me also thank you for what you and your buddies did all those many years ago. Because I've got a hunch, without the likes of you back there during World War II, the likes of me wouldn't be sitting here right now talking to the likes of you.
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