Military pins and badges have become status symbols for military members, each telling a different story about the person who possesses them. So when Supervisory TSA Officer Ruben Idarraga went to the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport (GSP) baggage room to cover for a co-worker’s lunch break, he had no idea the adventure he was about to take.
The mother of a deceased U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Rescue Swimmer had traveled through GSP on her way home after her son’s funeral. It is not difficult to imagine her preoccupied with distress and grief as many parents can’t believe they will outlive their children.
At some point during the screening process, her son’s leather ID patch, with several special service pins — including Polar Operations and Rescue Swimmer — somehow fell out and was later discovered by Idarraga on the floor of the GSP baggage room. Finding the patch so close to the screening table, Idarraga did a quick search of the area and not seeing any bags, began what became a remarkable adventure to locate the owner of the patch.
Idarraga initially asked several airline agents for help reviewing recent flight manifests for the name on the tag, Jeff DaMotta — but the name was not found. Not one to be easily discouraged, Idarraga did a quick Google search and found that DaMotta had recently passed away. Idarraga then informed TSA Manager John Knight and Assistant Federal Security Director-Generalist Danise Daville of the situation and asked for authorization to find the owner of this unique military memento.
With leadership approval, Idarraga asked Supervisory TSA Officer Susan Henderson and Lead TSA Officer Anna Burns for investigative help. They soon located the names of two brothers and a sister-in-law on Facebook, along with associated telephone numbers and addresses. After several Facebook messages were not returned, they called—the numbers had been disconnected. But they discovered an older brother lived in the area.
As one door closed, another opened and Idarraga decided to drive over to talk with the brother. After a 50-minute drive, “I found a long, narrow, unpaved driveway in the middle of tall trees,” said Idarraga. The sign in the driveway said “this house is protected by camera bullets. I turned around, aborted the mission and went home.”
A week later, while Idarraga was working at the ticket document checking position, a passenger presented his boarding pass and ID — he was a USCG Auxiliary member. After the passenger completed security, Idarraga approached him and told his story of the lost ID patch and pins. He asked the passenger if he knew of anyone to contact that could help and was provided with a USCG contact number in Florida.
Henderson called the USCG spokesperson, who in turn provided the phone number of DaMotta’s mother. After confirming she had flown from GSP on the day the ID patch was found on the baggage room floor, they attempted to reach her. DaMotta’s mother was both emotional and thankful “for the [TSA officers’] compassion and extraordinary efforts in returning Jeff’s name patch.”
“Finding [the owner] was a team effort and Supervisory TSA Offficer Susan Henderson and Lead TSA Officer Lisa Burns embraced this mission,” said Idarraga. “Both helped me look for every possible source in order to find the owner. Even though we didn’t have answers right away, I never lost faith that in some way or another we would be able to return the patch to its owner.”
By Wayne Carey, Strategic Communications & Public Affairs