At six points around the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge, the soldiers stand in teams of two. Just 10 miles away from Ground Zero, across the Hudson River in Manhattan, these members of the 250th Signal Corps of the New Jersey National Guard are performing what many consider the bread-and-butter tasks of America’s citizen soldiers: directing traffic, providing backup to the state police in the case of an emergency and guarding against possible sabotage.
“This role requires basic soldier skills — providing security and leadership,” said the battalion’s public affairs officer, Col. John Dwyer. “It is different because it doesn’t involve the technical skills they were trained for,” which include setting up mobile communications networks.
The battalion, one of nine units that rotate through the bridge posting, comprises just a small part of the 1,750 soldiers deployed over the past seven months to New Jersey’s airports, nuclear plants, bridges and tunnels.
A little more than half of the battalion’s 450 members were deployed for the unit’s three-week stint at the bridge. For many, this was the first call to active duty. “This is my youngest unit,” said Dwyer. “It is a high-tech unit so it attracts a lot of students.”
At one of the more remote guard stations at the base of the bridge, three teams of soldiers stand watch for anything suspicious and prevent visitors from taking photographs, not an easy task in this scenic area of the Palisades Park — a frequent refuge for joggers, and picnickers in warmer weather.
On the next to last day of Pfc. Laura Moreland’s rotation, she stands guard on the road leading to the base of the bridge tower. At little more than five feet tall, Moreland, 20, dressed in a flak jacket, helmet and holding a rifle, looks years too for young for military service.
Excited for her first call to duty, she is anxious to leave as well. Moreland’s husband of one year is scheduled to arrive home after a one year posting in Korea.
A year apart
“He left the day after we got married and he gets home a week after I get off,” she said.
Across the river, on the New York side of the Hudson, there is no permanent security presence, and police patrol only occasionally, according to Dwyer. Security matters such as which bridges to guard are decided by each state.
The lack of consistency does not bother the New Jersey soldiers, who feel that, despite few actual threats to the mile-long bridge, their presence is necessary.
“I do think there is a legitimate reason why we are here,” said Sgt. Larry Cascio, a 13-year veteran of the Guard. “The fact that we have had to call the police a few times alone, even though it ended up not being a threat, shows we are needed. We have to be some sort of deterrent.”
The soldiers have been well-received by New Jersey residents.
“We see the same people here all the time,” said Sgt. Tim Alexander, stationed next to the entrance of the bridge’s pedestrian path. “If anyone sees anything suspicious, they are quick to alert us.”
Alexander walks the bridge six times a day as part of his security duties. Over his three-week stint at the bridge, he recalls calming down drivers anxious to cross the bridge, investigating a suspicious man in the elevator who later turned out to be a repairman and bringing down attempted jumpers.
Though the soldiers say they’re happy to serve in the military after Sept. 11, some profess that it is humanitarian missions that excite them the most.
Cascio said work that he did to help victims of Hurricane Floyd in 1999 “was my most meaningful mission. … After being in the guard for 13 years, that is what I had hoped to do.”