Saturday, July 10, 2010

President Ronald Reagan Visits, 1982

~Compiled via accounts from Maxwell SPs, plus news reports

Speech to Joint Session
On March 15, 1982, President Ronald Reagan flew into Maxwell AFB to deliver a speech to a Joint Session of the Alabama State Legislature. He was greeted at the Flight Line by U.S. Senator Jeremiah Denton (formerly the highest-ranking POW of the Vietnam War), Montgomery Mayor Emory Folmar, and other dignitaries. Senator Denton and Mayor Folmar then escorted the President to the Alabama State Capital. President Reagan was received there by Alabama Governor Fob James and a delegation from the Legislature. At that time, Denton was a senator from Alabama. He and Reagan were personal friends, and they were staunch allies in efforts to fight Communism.

President Ronald Reagan
(official White House photograph)

Awaiting Air Force One, Maxwell AFB Flight Line - 1982
Podium: Mayor Folmar (left) and Senator Denton (right)
Background: A1C Andy Miller (SP), plus four others unknown (hidden and/or in suits)
(courtesy of Andy Miller)

Air Force One and Motorcade Security
The 3800th Security Police Squadron, Montgomery PD, Alabama State Troopers, OSI, FBI, and the Secret Service were involved in the team effort. Our unit provided security for Air Force One (which was parked behind Base Ops, Building 844), and along the route of the motorcade. Tensions were high, because it was almost one year to the day from when President Reagan had been shot (30 Mar 1981) by John Hinckley, Jr. (see video below).

SP Guarding Air Force One
AFB and Year unknown
(via Global Web Site)

Incident Approaching Base Ops
On the return trip, the motorcade entered through the Bell Street Gate, turned onto Poplar Street, then left onto Ash Street towards 8th Street (now named "Twining Street"). A "plug" car had been parked in the southbound lane of 8th Street, and northbound traffic was stopped by SSgt Tom Kovach. An individual on a motorcycle bypassed the traffic that had been stopped, and drove his motorcycle between the automobiles and the curb, towards the motorcade.

Intersection of Ash Street and 8th Street
Note: "8th Street" has been renamed "Twining Street"
(photo ©2010 Yahoo! Inc.)

At the same moment that Kovach observed the motorcycle, he could hear the distinctive engine sound of the presidential limousine as it turned onto Ash Street and passed the First Alabama Bank building (no longer there, as seen in aerial view). Kovach calculated that, unless he took immediate action, the motorcycle would arrive at the intersection at the same moment as the president's limousine. That, of course, was an unacceptable risk.

Beginning with the lowest level of force, Kovach raised his hand in a universal "stop" signal, and shouted, "Halt!" He shouted so loudly that pedestrians on Maxwell Boulevard immediately halted. From his nearby post across Ash Street, A1C Andy Miller heard the shouting and radioed the incident to the Desk Sergeant.

The motorcycle kept coming. Maneuvering between the line of stopped cars and the curb, the motorcycle traveled at about 10-15 miles per hour. Kovach could see the face of the rider inside a full-face helmet. So, it appeared to Kovach that the rider's continued movement was deliberate. Having no other choice, Kovach escalated the level of force.

He was not alone. Just east of the intersection of Poplar and Ash, there had been a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter hovering about 500 feet over a viewpoint of the motorcade. As the incident rapidly unfolded, the helicopter swooped down, made a "pirouette" turn over the incident, and the long-barreled rifle of a Secret Service sharpshooter could be seen sliding out the side door. The chopper took up a new hover position no more than a hundred feet above the SP Dorm.

Kovach drew his caliber-.38 revolver from its holster, shouted for occupants of the stopped cars to get down and take cover, and ran to the trunk of the second stopped car for cover as he aimed his pistol at the motorcyclist. By this time, Kovach and the motorcyclist were no more than 25 feet from each other. The bike came to a halt. But, the rider kept his hands on the controls and did not turn off the engine. Things were rapidly approaching an impasse.

Using exaggerated hand signals and lip movements, Kovach shouted for the biker to dismount. The two men were looking at each other. Even with the helmet's face shield, there was no doubt about eye contact. The biker stated, "I can't hear you," but took no action in response to Kovach's hand signals. Using an exaggerated hand movement, the Security Policeman cocked back the hammer of his pistol. Immediately after that, the biker exclaimed, "Oh! You want me to get off the bike!" He began to dismount.

As the motorcyclist -- wearing civilian clothing and a leather jacket -- was getting off his bike, OSI Special Agent Ron Norris roared around the corner in an unmarked sedan, accompanied by a Secret Service agent on the passenger side. The "plug" car backed up, making way for the agents, who then leaped out of the sedan and ran to assist Staff Sgt. Kovach with the apprehension. All three men simultaneously introduced the motorcyclist to the fence of the base swimming pool.

As the two special agents took up close-watch positions on either side of the subject, with pistols at the ready, Kovach searched the subject. No weapons or explosives were found. Kovach handcuffed the subject (who was tentatively identified at the scene as a Federal civilian GS-15, employed at the Air University Library), and then the agents took the subject into custody. He remained in Secret Service custody at SP headquarters for approximately four hours.

Diagram of Incident
(photo ©2010 Yahoo! Inc.; comments added by Tom Kovach)

Follow-up at Building 837
After the departure of Air Force One, the SPs involved in this incident were back at SP headquarters (the Campbell Building) – doing paperwork, of course. One of the supervisors, TSgt Mark Guest, came into the briefing room to give Kovach back his handcuffs. Guest had been in the room during part of the Secret Service interrogation of the subject. Guest told Kovach that the subject had explained that, because of his position on the base, he felt "entitled" to get up close to the motorcade for a better view. Guest also told Kovach that the Secret Service had confiscated a TV-news video of the incident.

Building 837 (south side) - 1979
(photo by Philip "J.P." Brown)

For about two months after that incident, Kovach was derisively nicknamed "Quick Draw" by a few people in the unit (mostly lower-ranking airmen), but upon learning about this, then-Major Carson told supervisors at a staff meeting to put a stop to it.

A recollection is posted on this web site by LtCol (Ret.) Leonard Carson. He was a Major then, and Commander of the 3800th SPS from 1981 to 1985. LtCol Carson wrote, "No one in the 3800SPS assigned will forget the day Pres. Reagan visited Maxwell. That was the day we almost killed the stupid Major. Us, the OSI, or the Secret Service.". Note: A GS-15 is a Civil Service rank roughly equivalent to a Major.

Weekend Threat in Birmingham
The Tuscaloosa News reported that a Birmingham, AL, man was arrested over the weekend prior to President Reagan's Monday arrival. The man allegedly made a threat against the president's life, and claimed to be a member of a "group of people who would kill the president" (see link below). Although that incident was not related to this incident, and no charges were filed in the Maxwell incident, the Birmingham incident illustrates the seriousness with which the Secret Service takes presidential security and protection.

Editorial Comments
The motorcyclist should have known better than to bypass stopped traffic, and disregard the order to "halt" of a Security Policeman. This was during an era when terrorist threats were high. During the 1972 election, then-Governor George Wallace of Alabama (a candidate for president) had been shot in the spine at close range, and was a paraplegic for the rest of his life. President Ford had two attempts made on his life in 1975. Given the hindsight of the Beirut Marine barracks bombing (Oct 1983) and the USAF Khobar Towers bombing (Jun 1996), and the current era of suicide bombers, security at presidential motorcades has hopefully been increased even more.

The job of a Security Policeman has been described as "98 percent boredom, occasionally interrupted by terror". The day of President Reagan's visit to Maxwell was a clear example that any moment can become a historic moment in an SP's life.

Related Links:

1981 Assassination Attempt on President Reagan

ABC News Nightline Broadcast, March 30, 1981

Former President Reagan Assaulted by Protester

President Reagan's "Tear Down This Wall!" Speech

1 comment:

  1. I worked this detail also. I was assigned to the rear Perimeter Rd. (out by the picnic grounds) near the golf course. There was another "Incident" that day...a Lt. attending SOS stuck a long lens out of a window (that were earlier ordered shut/no AC back in those days), to get a photo of AF One coming in on approach. On the response, I almost put a cruiser into the golf Pro Shop on that back dip and curve right in front of it.