Amid the bustle of commuters and tourists at New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, Airman 1st Class Peter Grajewski’s camouflage uniform stands out.
He’s grown accustomed to the strange looks and questions. Being in the military and standing guard at one of the busiest train stations in the country does make passersby curious.
While he wears a camouflage uniform, with it comes a lot of hats.
Sometimes he’s a tour guide, giving tourists information about the station; others, he’s a director, telling people which trains leave from which platform; and then he’s also a prop, posing for pictures with people from all over the world who are enamored with his uniform. His favorite hat is the one he wears most often, the one where he’s a protector of the city.
Grajewski is part of Joint Task Force Empire Shield, which brings members of the New York Air and Army National Guard into New York City to conduct security operations in the metropolitan area to deter and prevent terrorist acts.
These guardsmen aren’t just protecting a city, though, they’re protecting their home.
“We are a full-time, state active-duty force of 280 New Yorkers,” said Army Lt. Col. Peter Riley, the task force’s commander. “(This force) was formed on 9/11 and has been here since.”
Headquartered at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, teams of JTF Empire Shield Airmen and Soldiers stand guard at key locations throughout the city, including Grand Central Terminal, Pennsylvania Station, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and entrances to a number of tunnels and bridges.
“New York, historically, has been a city greatly targeted by terrorists,” Riley said. “Empire Shield is designed to show the bad guys that we’re here and hopefully make them think twice about trying any sort of terrorist attack.”
The transit hubs, like Pennsylvania Station and Grand Central Terminal, were chosen as key locations to position the Airmen and Soldiers because of the sheer mass of people passing through these areas on a daily basis.
According to New York’s Mass Transit Authority, Penn Station, the busiest commuter station in the United States, serves 300,000 passengers every day. Grand Central, the second busiest, hosts another 140,000. The Port Authority Bus Terminal, also the largest and busiest in the nation, served more than 58 million people last year alone.
“When you’ve got so many people passing through these stations and terminals, it just made sense to make them part of our operation,” Riley said.
The task force uses two shifts, a morning team and an afternoon team, to cover its prescribed areas. The teams meet at Fort Hamilton, receive a briefing on where they will be posted that day, and then drive there in government vehicles. Once at the location, the teams split up into smaller groups, usually made up of two or three individuals, and either stand guard at high traffic points or walk the area as rovers.
The Airmen and Soldiers of JTF Empire Shield don’t handle these protection duties all on their own. They stand alongside men and women of New York law enforcement, including the New York Police Department, Amtrak Police, the MTA Police and the U.S Coast Guard. In total, the task force works with 54 partner agencies around the city.
“It’s their show, really,” Riley said, referring to the local police departments. “We’re here solely as an aid to them. We have no law enforcement responsibilities, and we can’t arrest people. This isn’t a martial law scenario.”
What the JTF Empire Shield teams do add are extra eyes as they help local law enforcement agencies scan the area for any sign of suspicious behavior. The Soldiers and Airmen may not be able to arrest anyone, but they can stop someone from entering an unauthorized area or use whatever force necessary when someone is brandishing a weapon or explosive device.
Either way, it’s help the local police are happy to accept.
“We love having them here,” said Jason Wharton, an MTA police officer. “The military guys are easy to work with and professional. It’s nice to know they are people we can rely on so if something does go down, they’ll be there right beside us.”
Sept. 11, 2001 was such a dark day for the city, said Senior Master Sgt. Edwin Mondezie, Jr., the task force’s senior enlisted adviser.
“Being here in the city shows that we’re trying to stop something like that from happening again, and if it does (happen), that we’re better prepared to respond,” he said.
Since the task force was created, “things” haven’t been going down as much, Riley said. While there is no hard and fast way to track numbers or statistics what people notice are the intangibles that his unit brings to the city.
“We don’t know how many terrorist activities we’ve stopped just by being here,” he said. “But local police do tell us that crime is down and our presence is making a difference.”
One of the reasons this task force is important is its ability to respond at a moment’s notice.
“(City and transit) police are spread all over the city, and it can take a while to get everyone together,” Riley said. “We have a (quick reaction force) that’s always on standby, so it’s really just one phone call for us and we’re in the vans and rolling wherever we’re needed.”
Still, the uniforms and weapons do draw strange looks and are unnerving to some.
“I get people walking up to me and asking if there’s something going on they should know about,” Grajewski said. “But I tell them, ‘no, we’re just here to keep you safe.’”
For the most part, New Yorkers understand this and feel better knowing the military is around.
“I think it’s great they’re out here,” said Mary Culvert, a Grand Central commuter. “You see them, and it automatically makes you feel safer.”
Since all of the unit’s people are either from or now live in New York, this responsibility hits home with many of them. The job is more personal than simply protecting a city full of strangers — it’s about keeping family, friends and each other safe.
“My cousin takes the subway to work and home every day,” Grajewski said. “So, what I do on a daily basis is keeping her safe. When you think about it like that, it really drives home how important this mission is.”
The unit is all-volunteer, meaning each of the people assigned submitted a request to join the task force.
“All of these guys and gals are officially assigned to other Guard units,” Mondezie said. “They still report for their monthly drill weekends and their annual training with their home units and are temporarily assigned to the task force. That’s how dedicated these folks are.”
This dedication comes from a love for the city, remembrance of the tragedy of 9/11 and the knowledge that JTF Empire Shield gives the task force’s Airmen and Soldiers a chance to keep the former safe and prevent the latter from occurring again.
“I love this job,” Grajewski said. “Being from the city and now doing something every day that helps keep it safe, it doesn’t get any better than that.”