Medal of Honor fails to impress airline security

By Joyce Howard Price

Airline security personnel at Phoenix's international airport questioned a retired general and war hero about the Medal of Honor he was carrying before he boarded a flight to Washington, D.C.

"They just didn't know what it was but they acted like I shouldn't be carrying it on," retired Marine Corps Gen. Joseph J. Foss of Scottsdale, Ariz., 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 Jan. 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.

Gen. 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 the 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.

And to think, if he'd been going through Boston's Logan airport, they'd have just asked him if he was carrying any dangerous stuff, and let him pass on through!!

What do you think?  Email me at with your questions or comments.

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Created: January 26, 2002
Last updated: October 12, 2005
© 2002 Albert Lowe. All rights reserved.
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