Command Presence

I’m an introvert with an outgoing mind, the shy kid in the back of class, timidly raising my hand as if to say, "I have a voice, but I'm terrified my words will come out wrong." I only got my Masters because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and I was terrified of living a wasted life. Wealth was always secondary to being meaningful, and, to me, being meaningful meant I wanted my day job to be something I was proud of because it helped others as much as the paycheck benefited me.

My grandpa thought I should apply to the Secret Service. I doubt I would have considered the option without his prodding. Surely the Secret Service wouldn’t be interested in a quiet graduate student. But the allure and mystery of invisibility within the U.S. Secret Service appealed to me. While the politicians made public speaking look effortless, I envisioned myself blending into the background as a Special Agent, a barely seen suit and earpiece. I thought becoming an agent would allow me to do good without a spotlight. But being invisible was impossible. I stood out, not necessarily as a scarce female, but because I was very young, possibly too young. I'd never been in a fight, never fought in a war, never really been truly tested.

I sold myself on a platform of trainability. The Secret Service has an addiction to tradition and an aversion to change. I was a far cry from the typical crispness of cop-haired agents with a fetish for tactical gear. I was inexperienced, yes, but I was not dumb. I earned a Masters Degree at twenty-two, the learning sponge who kept her mouth shut. I was an endurance athlete and collegiate swimmer with enough strength to pass the tests. The specifics of the job could be taught: handcuffing, shooting, fighting, etc. What’s the point of training if not to teach me? Was I expected to know it all beforehand?

I thought becoming an agent would allow me to do good without a spotlight. But being invisible was impossible. I stood out, not necessarily as a scarce female, but because I was very young, possibly too young. I’d never been in a fight, never fought in a war, never really been truly tested.

The trainability platform worked, and I was hired. But I had to pass two training academies, the first twelve weeks at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia and then eighteen weeks in Maryland at the Secret Service Rowley Training Center.

During training, new instructors always started class with the same awful introductions, beginning with the instructor boasting his experience-laced resume followed by a solicitation of the class’ experience.

"Former military, raise your hand." Half of the hands would rise.

"Former law enforcement? Most of the rest would raise their hands, and some just kept their hands up, a double whammy of experience. Twenty-two was the youngest age in the class, the obvious outlier.

"I came from graduate school,” my honest answer when asked. Some instructors said nothing while others dismissively huffed. Whatever their reasons, it was painfully clear they weren’t sure I deserved the same badge.

The first twelve weeks in Georgia went fairly smoothly. But I would find the Secret Service Special Agent Training Course (SATC) to be a different story. It began with the Baton Test. Agents were issued an asp baton, a collapsible metal stick intended for striking an attacker. Thankfully, I only used it once in the field to retrieve a cell phone from a narrow space. But this test would prove to be pivotal to my success, a roadblock demanding a bulldozer.

I’d taken a baton test in Georgia without issue. But the instructors weren’t happy with me at SATC. They constantly told me to be more aggressive, to assert a “command presence.” During practice sessions, instructors would act as attackers trying to get past us. They’d single me out during these sessions, three or four of them hovering around me, taunting me with “Louder. I can’t hear you.” when my commands to “Stop!” were too hesitant. Sometimes they made me practice again after everyone else was finished, urging me to fight harder, yell louder, or give up entirely. After all, I was being tested on my ability to defend those I had sworn to protect.

I never assumed training would be easy, nor did I expect any special treatment. I genuinely thought I was giving my best effort. They wanted more. In hindsight, everyone was deficient in some aspect of training. Sometimes older trainees would fall behind during the runs only to find themselves “punished” into fitness by the end with endless pushups and more running. To the SATC staff, I was deficient because I lacked confidence. I lacked assertiveness. And I couldn’t be deficient in those qualities to become a Special Agent.

Test day had me literally shaking in my boots, convinced I’d overshot my abilities by applying for this job. I thought it probably didn’t matter what I did; it would be wrong unless the attitudes toward me changed…or I changed.

The assailant for the test was an instructor dressed in a red padded head-to-toe suit called the Red Man. We were given a scenario outside the testing room. For example, one scenario may involve moving the President to a motorcade following a speech. The Red Man would act as a would-be assassin during the scenario.

Until that moment, the person who exploded out of me had been invisible.

I watched my classmates command their scenes, thumping the Red Man with poise, asserting their strength by keeping their attacker away from the “pretend” President. Their moves were tactical and rehearsed as if they’d done it a million times. Many, I knew, had encountered similar situations in real life.

“Next!” It was already my turn.

My scenario was read by one of the instructors. I could see the doubt in his eyes when he looked up, his body language cocked and loaded with red pen and clipboard. His stance made my blood boil, and my self-doubt was forgotten for a moment as I inwardly sneered at him. He gave the signal, and the fight was on.

Until that moment, the person who exploded out of me had been invisible. She defended the Red Man with authority and fury. Who was this person? Where had she been? Was my voice really that loud? He charged me once so I didn’t have time to use the baton, grabbing and swinging at me. I ducked and shoved him with all my might, nearly knocking him down as I advanced with the baton. Not today, Red Man.

“GET BACK!” I demanded.

The out-of-body blur of attacks, cringe-worthy thuds and commands seemed to go on forever, yet it was as if I were watching a stranger from the sidelines.

When it was over, I stood there a moment as the room began to feel real again. The whole room was eerily quiet, and I felt the stares. I glanced at my class, their mouths agape. Was that good? I saw a smirk on one face, the tiniest glimmer of a smile. I stood with my baton, a disheveled and sweaty mess, adrenalin still throbbing in my head. I wanted to throw my baton against the wall and scream.

But I didn’t have to say anything. I simply handed off the baton and rejoined my class. Several subtle fist bumps and smiles were sent my way. “Nice job,” one classmate whispered. No one had reason to question my command presence again.

-Melanie Lentz

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Melanie Lentz grew up in Southern California and got hired as a Secret Service Special Agent right out of graduate school at age twenty-two. Her last assignment was with Former First Lady Nancy Reagan in Los Angeles. When Mrs. Reagan passed away in 2016, Melanie made the difficult decision to leave the job she loved to pursue other dreams, namely writing. She enjoys writing short stories and personal essays and is currently working on a memoir. If she’s not writing, she’s probably in the great outdoors hiking with her three dogs or loving on her nephew.