Orangeville resident Steven Thornton has recently returned from the 2002 Winter Olympics. Thornton is a command sergeant major for the 1457th Combat Engineers Battalion of the Utah National Guard. Thornton's battalion contains 511 soldiers who come from around the state. "We have soldiers from Utah County and as far north as Camp Williams. We have some from Tooele, as far east as Vernal and some soldiers as far south as Blanding.
"We meet one weekend a month for drills and for our annual training in the summer. We have helped with building roads near Strawberry Reservoir and we've also worked on the road from Beaver to Junction. The Olympics this year was supposed to cover our training for this year, but we will still have training in June.
"I've been up with the Olympics since Jan. 12 and our official finishing day was March 1. There are still 30 soldiers from our battalion who will help with the Paralympics most of those people are from Blanding and Spanish Fork. I think overall there will be under 200 soldiers there to help. I am a supervisor at Deer Creek Mine and Energy West was very supportive of my involvement in the security.
"There were around 3,500 Utah soldiers called up for Olympic security. We were law enforcement augmentees. The whole operation was headed up by the Secret Service and the Salt Lake Organizing Committee Security. It also involved FBI, forest rangers, local law enforcement from cities all around the state, sheriff's departments and the highway patrol. We, the National Guard worked for them.
"Each venue had an officer in charge of security. He would let them know how many soldiers he needed. TaskForce 1457 was responsible for security at the Soldier Hollow venue and with the security of the Homestead where the athletes stayed who competed in the events at Soldier Hollow. We had 236 soldiers who carried out three missions. We did vehicle sweeps and checked them for bombs just off Highway 40 by the Heber airport. There was a huge parking lot where the vehicles were parked and then the spectators were bussed eight or nine miles up to Soldier Hollow.
"When they arrived at the venue, our second mission was to check them with the magnetometer. The soldiers ran these wands over the people and it would buzz if it came into contact with any metal. Our third mission was the perimeter security of the Homestead. We used armed soldiers to patrol the perimeter. Our mission was to protect the athletes on the 'backside' as we called it. The bobsled teams all stayed at the Homestead. Most people didn't even know athletes were being housed up there it was kept pretty secret.
"The Homestead was tough because there are no fences and it was open to the public, which was a cause of great stress at times. The Olympic Village downtown was restricted, but our area was being patrolled by armed soldiers in small town America. It really caused me to stop and reflect about what has happened in our country since September 11. Initially we were not involved with security at all until we received word in October. Then the numbers grew from 1,200 to 3,500 soldiers just that quick.
"Our battalion stayed in a warehouse in Heber by the airport. Bunks had been built and it was sectioned off into cubicles. Carpet was installed and we had showers. Our food was catered by Sysco. The food was excellent. One night we had Mardi Gras night with shrimp. One night we had Asian night, Mexican food night and we had excellent prime rib.
"We operated around the clock. When the soldiers were out at the venues they ate there. When they had the late shift, sack lunches were brought in for them. Some also had to eat, MREs, which are meals ready to eat. But, they've improved a lot over the years. Everyone worked a lot of hours. Some of the soldiers running the magnetometers met such celebrities as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Clint Eastwood. They thought that was 'neat.' Many of the soldiers also got involved in trading for different Olympic pins.
"National Guard units from Colorado and Wyoming were also attached to our battalion. I had three days off the whole time. I would come home for a night and then go right back up again. We worked really hard getting ready. After the opening ceremonies it slowed down a bit. We had some tickets donated to us from SLOC and we put everyone's name in for a drawing. So some of the soldiers were able to go to some of the events. Sometimes they were also allowed to look around the venues after the event was in progress. At the Homestead they were able to meet a lot of the athletes.
"It's hard to say if there was a real threat or not. But, what we did prevented something from happening. One guy from one of the California radio stations wanted to show how weak Olympic security was so he tried to climb under a fence at the Olympic Village. He was caught trying to get in and will spend some time in jail for that.
"A 50 caliber sniper rifle with 200 rounds of ammunition was found by a farmer or rancher in the Heber area. He called the sheriff and it was brought down and looked at. The rifle was in good shape. Someone came forward and said they had left it out there because they didn't have a safe place to put it. A rifle of this type has a range of 3,000 meters.
"Initially we didn't know what it was all about and how it pertained to the games and if it did. It was a piece of concern. It was quiet in the Heber area. We can hold our heads up with pride because our mission was a success. There were no bombs and nobody breached security. Our presence was key to no incidents. Our soldiers were very professional and I think that was a big key. The president has said that the National Guard is to take care of homeland defense and this mission was a model for homeland defense. Where do we go from here is a question in everyone's mind.
"Our battalion went to Germany during Desert Storm we are a FS Package, which means forward support. We are high up on the call up list for mobilization. If the need arose for a large troop buildup, we could be mobilized very quickly. I have been enjoying the National Guard now for 26 years. I went to join the Navy but a friend of mine talked me into joining the National Guard and I thought what the heck. It was unpopular during that time. We had people spit on us, but now people shake our hands and say thank you. There has been an evolution in the guard. We are very professional and capable of going to war.
"The whole Olympic experience was very memorable. Seeing the opening and closing ceremonies and seeing it end and knowing that everyone went away unharmed. We showed the world that we can protect the world. We had such a sense of pride and accomplishment because we had done something that had never been done before. It was a good mission.
"We presented plaques and certificates to some of the businesses in Heber. They were great to us and let the soldiers use their facilities. We gave volunteer awards and awards to the soldiers. One of our soldiers was tested without his knowledge. Two undercover FBI agents tried to breach security but he wouldn't let them through. They flashed their badges, but he wouldn't let them through until they were properly identified. He was recognized for that. The soldiers at the Homestead were given different awards because their mission was high priority, they were armed; it was a big thing. Never once were they unprofessional, they took a lot of pride in what they did.
"There were aircraft up continually during the games doing airchecks. We weren't involved in that. The Montana National Guard aviation came down to help with that. Pilots from Alaska, Massachusetts, Arizona and all over the country. All of the out-of-state soldiers were volunteers. This says something for the high level of professionalism of the out of state volunteers. Usually a mission of this magnitude would be planned for normally a year but we did it in three months. It was a unique situation with all of the agencies working together. The Army Reserve set up our warehouse. Other units stayed in a warehouse in Salt Lake and an old hospital, some in Ogden stayed at an old hotel and some at Camp Williams. We all deserve an Olympic ribbon for getting along together the entire time in close quarters.
"There were speed bumps along the way but everyone worked through the issues. The coordination between the agencies was outstanding with everyone working together on a state level and with the Secret Service. I was proud to be a part of it," said Thornton.