On Mother’s Day Rachel and I visited Laurel, Matt, and the grandkids in Manassas, Virginia. We always enjoyed our visits with them. Emma and Ian would get some quality play-time with Grandpa and Mimi. Laurel and Matt would get some rare alone-time to do errands and have a date night. We had planned on going to their cabin in the mountains of West Virginia, but the weather did not cooperate. As an alternate plan, Matt arranged a very special tour of the FBI Training Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
Matt has been an FBI agent for several years. He was a computer scientist at Microsoft in Seattle before hearing the call to service following the terrorist attacks on 9-11. These days, Matt works as a squad leader in an FBI office that specializes in cyber-crime. He was the perfect guide for our private tour, since Matt went through the grueling, five-month training program a few years ago.
The New Agent Training Program includes classroom instruction on topics like investigative techniques, law, behavioral science, forensics, and interrogation methods. New agents must pass rigorous physical fitness tests and demonstrate proficiency with a number of different firearms. Trainees are placed in real-life situations in a simulated town, where actors play criminals, and trainees are required to think on their feet as they respond to the scenarios.
The FBI Training Academy is located on the sprawling Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia, about 40 miles from Washington, D.C. The Academy takes up 547 acres. To enter we passed through a security gate manned by Marines and a second gate manned by FBI personnel. I was struck by the scenic forest that we drove through and the beautiful landscaping of the grounds. We drove around the campus, as Matt gave us descriptions of the various facilities. These included dormitories, classrooms, physical fitness gyms and tracks, firing ranges, and a large forensics laboratory building. We passed an entire area of the campus dedicated to Hostage Rescue Training, an important sub-specialty within the FBI.
The parking area in front of the main administration building was crowded, and there seemed to be quite a bit of activity for a Sunday afternoon. Several young men and a few young women were unloading suitcases and garment bags from their cars. All of the men were dressed in coats and ties. We would see many more well-coiffed, young people when we went inside the building. Matt told us that this was a special day at the Academy. These were members of a new trainee class, arriving for the start of their five month program. Most of the trainees looked like they already were in pretty good physical shape. Some looked like they might have played college sports. As I watched their faces, I saw both excitement and some nervous expressions. I wondered what part of the training would create the most anxiety for the new agents. I noticed one trainee who didn’t quite fit the mold. He looked like he had never worn a suit before and had borrowed one for the occasion from someone who wore a larger size. He had longer hair and a few days growth of beard. I thought he looked like a young, absent-minded professor. Later, I asked Matt about the diversity of his class from a few years earlier. He said that there were thirty trainees in his class. Ages ranged from mid-twenties to mid-thirties. Most were men. Matt shared that they came from a variety of backgrounds. A few had law enforcement and military experience. But there were also teachers, accountants, lawyers, and even computer scientists!
We spent the next few hours touring several buildings and walking around the campus. Along the way, we passed lots of different trainees and instructors, some walking alone and some in groups. Different categories could be identified by the color of their shirts. For example, the dark green polo-shirts belonged to trainees and instructors in the National Academy. This special program provides advanced law enforcement training to experienced personnel from agencies across the US and from over 150 different countries. Almost everyone we passed would greet us with a very formal, “Good afternoon, Sir” or “Happy Mother’s Day, Mam.” When I passed one young Asian gentleman with a green shirt, he put his hands together in front of his chest and bowed to me. Matt pointed out that the regular trainees carried blue plastic guns on their belts. This was designed to help them get used to the feeling of being armed at all times.
One of my favorite movies is Silence of the Lambs. Jodie Foster plays Clarice Starling, an FBI Academy trainee. Matt said that this was the first time that the FBI had participated in the filming of a major motion picture. Most of the training scenes were shot around the campus. Walking around, I recognized the setting for several scenes from the movie. We saw the gymnasium where Clarice practiced hand-to-hand combat skills. We walked through Hogan’s Alley, where she walked through a car chase scenario on her way to meet with Agent Crawford, the head of the Behavioral Science Unit. We saw the wooden signs nailed to a tree near the end of the obstacle course that weaves through the woods around the Academy. In the movie the signs spelled out these words: Hurt, Agony, Pain, and Love It. The actual group of signs included a few more: Family, Pride, Attitude, Respect, and Loyalty. I wondered how recently those signs had been added. Matt reported that the obstacle course was affectionately referred to as the Yellow Brick Road. Trainees were awarded an actual yellow brick when they completed this challenge. I thought that was fun, as The Wizard of Oz is one of my other favorite movies.
We walked through Hogan’s Alley, the small town built for training simulations. It included a bank, post office, pharmacy, motel, small office building, bar, and even a working Subway restaurant. I wondered what nefarious criminal activities took place in these innocent looking buildings. Most were unlocked and we enjoyed checking a few of them out. Matt described one of the simulations he did in the office building, serving a subpoena to a disturbed businessman. I found two metal shell casings on the ground in front of a building used to practice forced entries into buildings. What better souvenirs of our visit.
Near the end of our walking tour, we entered the main gymnasium. Again, there seemed to be a lot of activity going on. Along one wall were tables of food. In another area were a variety of games that one might find at an amusement park or carnival. A gregarious National Academy instructor waived us over and insisted that we help ourselves to pizza, popcorn, and cookies. He explained that the Academy was hosting a special group of kids for the day. The kids came from all over the country, and each of them had lost a parent in the line of duty. The day combined lots of fun activities for the kids, along with classes and counseling. The kids had already eaten, and there was a ton of food left over. Emma and Ian were more than happy to comply, and we enjoyed our feast, sitting in the grass outside of the building.
All in all, it was a fascinating and thought provoking day. The trainees and instructors who we encountered were bright, professional, and dignified. The sacrifices that they are making are significant. The risks that they are willing to take for their country are substantial. Their motivations come from somewhere beyond personal recognition and reward. Like my son-in-law, Matt, they have found a calling to serve. At a time when leadership from some of our highest elected officials is suspect and lacks even a semblance of dignity, it was reassuring to see that some institutions have maintained their integrity. I am very proud of Matt and thankful to the men and women who work to keep us safe.