I walked into... No, I barged into a historically male-dominated profession, law enforcement, and I did it at the highest level, as a United States Secret Service Special Agent.
I did this by choice. I expected there would be doubters, critics, chauvinists, and jackasses alike, and there were. But there were also men who were tremendous supporters, authentic cheerleaders, and firm believers that female agents were not only necessary in the Service, they were more than capable of doing the job. That being said, I learned early on to keep my head down, keep my nose clean, and do my job. Oh and never let them see you sweat. Ever.
Here are just a few of my many meaningful experiences on the job.
As a Secret Service Agent, I went through two phases of training; one down in Glynco, Georgia at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC), and the second at various training locations in Washington, DC. When I was down training at FLETC, we had only three female Secret Service Agents in our class of forty-six. We were all solid candidates — smart, competent, and athletic — we had to be. The male candidates were of a much broader variety. One in particular clearly had an issue with women, more specifically, with me.
His disdain motivated me, every single day of training, to excel in this world, to be better than the boys, and to have even more fun.
One day, he couldn't keep his (obvious) thoughts to himself any longer. He was frustrated that I was actually enjoying training and that I, along with the other two women, had just nailed the physical fitness test. He looked at me, shaking his head, and said, "What are you doing here? Why don't you just leave?!" I literally laughed at his face, which pissed him off even more. I told him, "I'm kicking ass and having fun. How about you?!" His disdain motivated me, every single day of training, to excel in this world, to be better than the boys, and to have even more fun.
In the second phase of training, there was another male agent who was a legacy (his brother, father, and uncle were all USSS Agents). He was clearly an angry young man who would have rather joined the old boys club of his forebears instead of the Service as it actually was then. To put it mildly, he was rude to the female agents. One day, we were set to get trained on the Remington 870 shotgun. Walking into the classroom, I could not have been happier to see that our instructor was a woman. And the look on that guy's face was priceless.
After classroom instruction, we headed out to the range for practical exercises with the shotgun, using slug ammunition, which has a major kickback. Everyone knew we would all go home with bruised shoulders, no matter how tight we kept the shotgun up against our bodies. During a break, we were all standing around chatting and another male agent looked at Mr. Angry Guy and said, "What's that peeking out of your shirt?" Mr. Angry Guy's eyes nearly popped out of his head as he quickly tried to push the white cotton back into his sleeve so none of us could see. Too late.
Mr. Macho Man, Tough Guy, Chauvinist had put a maxi pad on his shoulder for protection so he could go home without a bruised shoulder. What a beautiful way to put him in his place. He never lived it down, and he did it all to himself.
On The Job
Working on the job in the Washington, DC field office (WFO), was a dream come true. We were the epicenter of the USSS with the President and Vice President as the main protectees, along with their families and the dozens of Foreign Dignitaries that came through DC for official visits and, thus, received USSS protection. Even though I went through the same application process, had been through the same training, and was doing the same job every day, I was still treated as though I were being tested by many of the other (male) agents. Expectations are much higher for women agents than they are for male agents. It was as if the rookie male agents were automatically assumed to be worthy and belong, but the rookie women and I still had to prove ourselves.
Women agents have always been scrutinized with particular intensity — any perceived flaws were noted and exploited — as if we had to prove we were not just filling a quota.
But hell, I thrive on challenge, especially when the stakes are high. And, so, I proved myself. Every day. It was also well established that if the women agents were better than their male counterparts at something — especially shooting, defensive tactics, or physical fitness — many of the men would be absolutely pissed. And I loved it. It motivated me like nothing else, and to watch some of my fellow (male) agents come around to seeing and treating me as an equal was almost entertaining.
On one of my first protection assignments, while a few of us were taking a break in the down room, one of the older male agents said to me, "Yeah… the job used to be so different, so much better. Buicks, booze, and broads... Those were the good old days, and bringing women into the Service ruined that." I was caught off guard but did not show it. I just smiled and responded, "I'd say that was the best decision the Service ever made, but that's just me." At least I got a chuckle out of him and a nod. When it comes down to it, stress, challenge, naysayers — they all motivate me to be my best self.
During my time on the job, I had the distinguished position of being the only Spanish speaker (man or woman) in the Washington Field Office (WFO). Because of that, I was involved in all sorts of missions: accompanying advance agents to Latin American embassies, fielding phone calls in the WFO from citizens who were only Spanish speaking, doing interviews with suspects who claimed, "No hablo Inglés," and working counterfeit currency cases (including raids) on individuals from South America.
I was getting experience that new agents definitely did not get. My absolute favorite mission was an assignment to go undercover and bust up a fake passport ring being run by a Latin American man. Did I hesitate? Hell, no! I jumped at the opportunity. Any mission they offered, I said "yes," and never thought twice. This is what I was meant to do.
Surprisingly, in the USSS, there were also a few conflicts with the female side of the house. The most salient issue was that, for several weeks on end, I was asked, encouraged, and even guilted by many women agents to attend the Female Agents' Organization meetings within the Service.
I did not want to go. I figured it would be an environment that was based on complaining about assignments we, as females, were not getting and, thus, would be unhealthy for me. I eventually capitulated and went to one meeting. I never went back. Simply put, that one meeting confirmed everything that I had believed about the group. Personally, I have never found bitching about what I don't have helpful. I prefer to do the assignments I am given and do them really well. This was just another reminder to keep my head down and do my job.
It was as if the rookie male agents were automatically assumed to be worthy and belong, but the rookie women and I still had to prove ourselves.
But sometimes it does help to get a little positive reinforcement. The best thing I ever heard while on the job was when an older woman said to me, "I didn't know there were female Secret Service agents." I smiled at her and responded, "Yes, Ma'am, there sure are. We are about 10% of the agents in the Secret Service right now, and I am one of them." This made me feel incredibly proud and even more unique to be a woman in the USSS.
In The Private Sector
After working in the USSS for some time, at some point I had to move on. That's when I began working in the private security sector. Life as a protection agent for hire out in the world of international executive protection was amazing as a woman. There were so few of us, and I was fortunate enough to be building a very solid reputation, so I never wanted for work. Yes, there were challenges but, much like before, they fueled my ambition, often made me laugh, and simply proved that I was exactly where I belonged, even if other people wouldn't have expected that.
While I was working in Lima, Peru protecting an Ambassador from the Organization of American States (OAS), for example, I was asked "And you must be the ambassador's secretary?" for what felt like the hundredth time. And, for what felt like the hundredth time, I smiled and said, "Of course." How many secretaries, I wondered, carry 9mm handguns?
In another meeting, an aide, squinting his eyes and stepping a bit too close for comfort, said, "Ah, you must be the ambassador's daughter!" "Sí, claro," I answered. After all, who couldn't see the family resemblance between the short, rotund Colombian ambassador and me, a tall, athletic Lithuanian by way of Chicago? Secretary, daughter, oh, and my personal favorite: mistress.
Rumors about who I was and what exactly I was doing hanging around the ambassador made their way around Lima at lightning speed. As long as people didn't get in the way of me getting my job done, I didn't care if they mistook me for Elvis. And, because Peru was such a chauvinistic country, people not suspecting that I was actually the Ambassador's protection agent was a huge asset for both of us and one that, in a time of crisis, attack, or embarrassment could even save our lives. But having my life on the line has always been a part of the job. Even if it means having a bounty placed on me. Yes, that happened... a tidbit of information I never shared with my parents!
I worked in Bogota, Colombia for two and a half years, under the US Embassy. At that time, Colombia had the notable moniker of the "Kidnap Capital of the World." My title was U.S. Security Advisor to the Minister of Defense (MOD) of Colombia. She (yes, the MOD at the time was a woman) was considered to be under a higher threat than the president because, once named the MOD, she declared that she was going to end corruption in the Colombian military. This made instant enemies out of many of the very generals serving under her.
In addition, she was part of a presidential administration, which had campaigned against leftist guerilla groups, rightwing paramilitary groups, and the drug cartels. I, along with my three colleagues, were called into the Embassy one day and taken up to the cone of silence (aka the CIA) and told that all of us had bounties placed on our heads by the guerillas because of our roles in keeping the administration alive.
One Friday night, I received a call from one of the special agents in the Regional Security Office about an attack that had just happened only two blocks from my house. I phoned one of my colleagues who had received the same call minutes earlier. We agreed to meet there ASAP. The scene was chaotic — two grenades had been tossed into some bars and restaurants in a very chic area of Bogota, which Americans were known to frequent. This was done by a leftist guerilla operator, with the intent of hurting Americans. The only death was a Colombian woman, although many people were injured, including two American Airlines pilots.
Yes, there were challenges but, much like before, they fueled my ambition, often made me laugh, and simply proved that I was exactly where I belonged, even if other people wouldn't have expected that.
Despite our quick response, my colleague and I were both hailed and reprimanded for showing up on the scene. You see, it is often a tactic of the guerillas to create a chaotic scene, hope a very large crowd gathers, and then follow through on a much bigger attack, in the hopes of a greater death toll. What was I thinking? I wasn't thinking. I just did what I was trained to do — my job — to be the calm in the storm no matter where I was.
However, even in a career I loved and thrived in, there were some downsides. In Haiti, I was a contractor on a U.S. State Department mission to protect the president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and later, his successor, René Préval. I worked on a team of eleven protection agents — ten men and one me.
We had all protection duties as well as a training mission. It was an intense assignment to begin with and working with this team really changed my life forever. Yes, we had what we thought was an attack on the presidential palace, where the president lived and where we operated out of — that was an unforgettable adrenaline rush. Not to mention, Haiti is a country that practices both Catholicism and voodoo. As such, I bore witness to witch-burnings whereby, once deemed a witch, an individual would have tires tossed over them, be doused in gasoline, and then lit on fire.
All of that, I could handle. It was the behavior of my ten male teammates that eventually drove me to leave the security industry and pursue a graduate degree in forensic psychology.
It wasn't just the amount of alcohol many of my teammates put down every single night, so much that I had to question whether I could even trust them to cover my six (watch my back). It was much more than that. Several of my very married teammates were not just sleeping with local women, but even going the concubine route by moving local women into team houses. In addition, one of my teammates left one of our cooks pregnant when he left Haiti and returned home to his own wife and children. Another even put the word out, on several occasions, that he had died because he knew Haitian women were looking for him to receive child support.
That was it for me.
Here's Where I Stand
There are two sides to every coin; you get to choose how you want to view each and every situation. Regardless of the danger, the chauvinism, the judgment, the challenge, I chose to see all of my experiences as opportunities. I chose the lens through which I viewed those situations. I chose to be motivated, to push myself to be better and to stay sane in the many insane places and situations I've encountered throughout my life.
If you'd like to read more of my experiences, I share even more in my new book.
This article was originally published April 29, 2020.
WRITTEN BYMary Beth Wilkas Janke