A former Secret Service agent and BYU-Hawaii alumni said he went through rigorous training such as being shot by a shotgun with a bullet-proof vest on, but he advised students to choose a career path that allows them to have a family. During a forum sponsored by the Political Affairs Society on Thursday, Feb. 9, the agent, who worked under Obama’s administration, said he couldn’t share his name or personal information for security reasons concerning his family. He said he’s grateful for the career he’s had but wished he could’ve spent more time with family.
In relation to why keeping his identity secret was important, the agent said the recent change in presidents makes his current situation “a vulnerable time right now. We don’t know what’s going to happen with this new presidency.” The agent said he or his family could get hurt. “I don’t care as much about me but more my family,” he added.
Family was the main message of the entire event. Even though the majority of his talk was spent discussing Secret Service training, the agent said his biggest advice for students was to focus on their families. He advised students in the room to choose a career that lets them focus on their families more than their work because of how demanding his job was.
“It’s really easy to get wrapped up in work,” he said, “especially in the Secret Service.” He shared a story about how his son was born in TVA and “next thing I knew, he’s about to graduate and go on a mission.”
Brendan Scott, a senior political science major from California who attended the forum, said, “I think he was advising for work in general, because that’s not just a Secret Service thing.”
The agent said one of the funniest moments of his training was his polygraph test. “You feel like the worst person in the world,” he said before laughing. He said one of the exchanges involved analyzing his relationship with his wife in order to see how easily irritated he’d be. “They asked, ‘Do you have any arguments with your wife?’ and I was like, ‘Well, yeah.’ Then they said, ‘It must frustrate you,’ and I was like, ‘No!’ and they responded, ‘Why are you getting upset?’” The test was four hours long.
One experience he said deeply inspired him was during a long run the trainees had to perform. The snow was “basically going sideways,” and an ambulance followed them so if anyone gave up, they could opt out and quit the training. One of the trainees was a 38-year-old single mother. At one point, she decided to give up and started walking to the ambulance. The group looked over at her, and all of them decided to run back and pick her up before she could reach the ambulance. They carried her the rest of the way. He said the trainers were very impressed and said the real point of the test was to see if they could become a close group.
Once they finished, they were escorted inside to a warm room with available drinking water. As they started to relax, the trainers sprayed pepper spray in their eyes and started hitting the trainees. At the beginning of the training, the trainees were given a safe word that if they said at anytime would automatically disqualify them in the training. The trainers beat them and yelled, “Tell us the word!” The agent said while they were beating him, he shouted, “Don’t anyone tell them the word!” He compared the point of the exercise to the participants “being detained by another country and giving [their] keys to the White House.”
He thought things couldn’t get worse, but it did. He said he was shot by a shotgun while wearing a bulletproof vest for the next part of the training. He said the first thing he thought was, “What’s that safe word again?” The entire training involved getting shot in the chest by the shotgun, removing the vest immediately afterwards, handcuffing a guy by the wall, dragging him across the room, and then jumping up and down to say they’re done.
When he was shot, he said he wet his pants the instant the rounds hit his chest. “The pain was ridiculous,” he said. By the time he had to jump, he said he was exhausted but still pulled through.
In addition to the physical training, one requirement was to memorize all the laws and rights U.S. citizens have. Because he had been out of school for a long time, one student confronted him and said he was bringing the whole class down because of his poor scores. The student told him to study in a group and not alone. “All my free time in college was spent at home studying because I was married,” he said. During his first study group, he was assigned only two pages out of the total 27 they had to read; the other students studied two pages each and summarized what they read. “That present was the best thing that was ever given to me. Out of all the other stuff, the hardest stuff was going back to school, even more than getting shot.”
After graduating from BYU-Hawaii with a degree in special education, the agent said he was struggling financially. He was married after his freshman year and wanted to play baseball professionally but had been playing on the basketball team at BYUH. He said he met a Secret Service agent who told him about the job. He was given the application, which was 85 pages, and the deadline was three days away. He was able to apply within the three-day limit, so he only had to compete with 500 other applicants as opposed to thousands.
Being a professional baseball player was always his dream, but the agent said he saw the job opportunity as beneficial to his family life. “The moment I decided I was going to choose my family over my dream and take the government job, I cried like a baby for three nights... It was the hardest decision of my life.”
During the first week of training in Maryland, he said the organization tried to weed out the weak. “The first week, they beat you up. They make you run, getting into your mind... It’s all pre assessments. Your actual training is in Georgia, but the first week is to see how mentally tough you are.” The trainers said applicants had to complete seven months of training to get the job.
Applicants came from all over the country, the agent said, and the trainers told them, “Listen, during training you’ll have tests you have to study for. You can have two grades less than 80 percent. If you get a third one, then you’re out.”
Despite the harsh conditions, the agent said, “They don’t want to get rid of you. They spent all this money getting you to this point in the training. The polygraph alone was about 20 grand... the background check was 20 grand alone too. They flew you out there, financed the rental cars, hotels, and so on.”
During a Q&A session, Dr. Brian Houghton, professor of political science, asked what would happen to Kerry O’Grady, a senior Secret Service agent who posted on Facebook that she would not take a bullet for Trump, according to Fox News. The agent said she would probably go “into retirement,” making quotation signals with his fingers. He said the comment could make things worse for the Secret Service because people might think they can shoot President Trump without the Secret Service interfering. “It was a really stupid thing for her to do, as far as her career,” said Scott.
Erica Knight, president of the Political Affairs Society and a senior political science major from Utah, said one of the agent’s neighbors arranged the event. The neighbor noticed he was gone for long periods of time, so she decided to ask him what he does. When she learned about his career, she contacted the Political Science Department to get it in contact with him.
Knight said the event almost didn’t happen because the society disclosed his personal information while advertising. “We found out it had to be totally secret because we had been advertising with his name and photograph beforehand - because there couldn’t be any photography, and people couldn’t post on social media that they met a secret service agent. He found out we’d been using his name and photo, and then really late one night he forwarded us an email saying, ‘I can’t be on social media,’ and no one could know his name.
“We had already sent in the request for the event to be in the Student Bulletin and handed out fliers, so someone ran and tore down all the fliers. We ran into the Student Bulletin [office] right before they submitted it.”
Scott said he attended the forum because he finds security trainings interesting. “It’s always fun just hearing the stories of the hiring process. The tests are always a lot more complicated. It’s also fun to hear about it because I don’t have to experience it. I don’t have to get tased, pepper sprayed, or get beat up while not giving in to revealing secret stuff.”
Though it was fascinating for him, Scott said, “I wish he would’ve shared more about personal experiences like interactions with the presidents and their families, but I think a lot of it is related to confidentiality. I think about 98 percent of what he does is probably confidential. He tried to share with us as much as he could, but there’s only so much he could share legally.”
Scott said on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being no interest in a career with the Secret Service and 10 being absolutely interested, he would rate himself as being a 2 before the forum. After the forum, he said it was a 4. “I’m more interested in work with the state department and diplomacy,” he said while sighing.
NOTE: This story was delayed online publication because it was featured in the March 2017 print issue.