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PHOENIX — An 82-year-old woman in a wheelchair reaches the front of the security-screening line at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport's Terminal 4 as she waits to board a flight to London on a Friday evening in June 2012.
The metal detector beeps over her chest. She explains she has a prosthesis. She'd opted out of reconstructive surgery after the breast cancer.
Transportation Security Administration agents take the woman to a room and order her to take off her blouse. Then her bra. Then her prosthesis, which they examine. The elderly woman strips to her waist, with nothing to hide her scars.
"At her age and physical capability she posed absolutely no risk whatsoever to anyone's safety and should not have been subjected to such invasive and (undignified) treatment," the woman's grandchild wrote in a formal complaint. "This sort of degrading treatment is more appropriate for prisoners."
This was just one of 26 complaints filed on behalf of people with disabilities at Sky Harbor's checkpoints in 2012, according to records recovered by The Arizona Republic under the Freedom of Information Act.
The documents show that the number of such complaints more than doubled in 2012 from 11 in 2011. And the 2012 figure is about 2 1/2 times the national average. The government withheld the names of those who complained to protect their privacy.
The Republic requested the complaints after a high-profile incident in March. A Marine who'd lost both his legs in an Afghanistan bomb attack said he was asked to stand up on his artificial legs to pass through the full-body scanner at Terminal 4. TSA refuted that claim and showed partial airport video footage supporting the government's version.
Eight of the complaints since 2011 involved women who had survived breast cancer. Their stories were similar.
One woman wrote that an agent ordered a pat down of her prosthetic breast and refused to conduct the search in private, before a flight in May 2012.
"She made me pull it out in front of the world. When I got upset I was told to shut up. I have never been so humiliated in my life," the woman wrote. "The TSA has overstepped their bounds and ruined my vacation."
Two weeks earlier, another passenger wrote that TSA agents twice patted down her breast in as many weeks.
"Since this has occurred at two different checkpoints on two different dates, TSA clearly must have a procedure in place (that) requires that women with breast prosthesis to be singled out and treated in this cruel and humiliating manner," the woman wrote.
There is no record that the TSA responded to the second woman. When it does, it's usually a form letter.
"Thank you for your recent e-mail," most begin. "We apologize for any insensitivity or inappropriate treatment you experienced during the screening process." Most cases were labeled "closed" without explanation of any action or discipline taken.
It's unclear how passenger screening at Sky Harbor stacks up next to other individualU.S. airports. A little more than 20 million travelers boarded planes at Sky Harbor in 2012.
TSA officials were unavailable for comment due to the ongoing partial shutdown of the federal government.
It is not just breast-cancer survivors who shared their Sky Harbor horror stories.
People with artificial joints, with insulin, with other life-saving medication, with pacemakers and spinal-cord stimulators, and those confined to wheelchairs all reported mistreatment.
They complained of being forced to stand, of medicine being seized with dangerous results and of painful or humiliating pat downs.
A man with an enlarged prostate, returning from a recent exam, complained a TSA agent hit him in the genitals with the metal detector.
One passenger described how he carried daily insulin shots and fast-acting booster shots onto a flight in 2011. Although the medicine was properly labeled and kept in a clear ziplock bag, TSA agents insisted on running the passenger's bags through the X-ray machine twice. Diabetic passengers complained that X-rays can damage their insulin. That's what thepassenger complained of, noting that blood-glucose levels shot up to dangerous levels after the flight and could have resulted in a diabetic coma.
A woman on a layover in January says she was in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank and was transferring planes when agents drew their guns on her and called her a terrorist. Agents accused her of smuggling contraband. When she returned home, all of her prescribed pain pills had been confiscated, she reported.
A 92-year-old man with childhood polio was ordered out of his wheelchair to stand up in the body-scanning machine. His grandson reported overhearing one TSA screener shout: "Find out if he has his knees and hips. If he does, then there is no reason he can't stand."
The TSA's policy is clear.
"Passengers with prostheses can be screened without removing them," the TSA advises on its website.
TSA posts advisories on its Website, and explanations of its procedures on a dedicated blog site.
The TSA blog noted for instance that in late 2011 the agency launched TSA Cares, a hotline to advise passengers with special medical needs in advance of their travel.
Other postings explained that agents inspect wheelchairs because they've founded loaded firearms in them.
In November 2011, after a passenger's urine bag broke during a pat-down at Detroit's airport, the TSA blogged:
"When our officers are hired, they are given extensive training on screening passengers with disabilities and they continue to receive recurring training throughout their career. TSA has established a coalition of over 70 disability-related groups and organizations to help us understand the concerns of persons with disabilities and medical conditions. These groups have assisted TSA with integrating the unique needs of persons with disabilities into our airport operations."