Life at the Academy, I Was A Special Agent, Chapter 2
Arriving to the Academy
When I arrived at the Federal Law Enforcement Academy, I was a little nervous. I had been told what it was like from the other Agents that had been there, and how bad it was. I did not know how much was bull and how much was reality. After I signed in at the visitor center, I was taken to my home for the next six months.
The Academy itself was an old Naval Air Base. Although the training site had some newer facilities, it was not the “modern” training facility I had expected. Our main training room was relatively small. The most modern technology we used was an old-style overhead projector. The area used for the practical exercises, called the raid houses, was nothing more than a dingy, run-down housing area. Some years ago, the raid houses were closed as a health hazard due to the amount of asbestos. One of the superior facilities was the indoor shooting range. It was clean and well kept and was one of the nicest I have ever shot on. If I remember correctly, everything on the Academy has either white (ish), tan or grey paint. I think they may have had a contract with a paint recycling business.
Life at the Academy
Living at the Academy was a unique experience. I had previously lived on Air Force bases while I was in the military and used to spartan conditions. This was much less than I expected it to be. The actual grounds were well kept, green and lush, beautiful actually. But our living quarters were something that would not be adequate housing for the homeless. The living quarters were the worst part of being there.
The area where we lived was called the “townhouses.” These were old row-styled three and four-bedroom residences that had previously been used for Military enlisted families. I do not remember how many there were. Still, the majority of the cadets for the various agencies lived in these. There was a newer dormitory on the campus, nicknamed the Taj Mahal. It was called the Taj Mahal because you had a room to yourself and shared a bathroom with only one person. I also heard a rumor that they actually had maid service. I am not sure who was allowed to stay there. Whoever it was, they were definitely fortunate.
When I first walked into my townhouse, I noticed the living room area. The furniture was old, ugly, and uncomfortable. It was a jarring lime green color and appeared as if it had been left behind when the military base had closed back in the sixties. Beyond that was the kitchen area. For my life, I do not remember what it looked like, or even remember walking into it again while I lived there. To get to the bedrooms, you had to walk up a narrow staircase, where there were four doors at the top — three for the bedrooms and one for the bathroom. In my assigned townhouse, six people lived there, two per room. To get into my room, you could only open the door halfway, because what ended up being my bed was blocking the door. The room was so small we literally had to step up onto my bed to get into the room.
After settling into the room, it was time to experience the fine dining available to us. I had figured that it would not be too bad if the Air Force can provide an adequate meal; indeed, this place could. I have never been so wrong in my life.
The meals were free for us, and honestly, there is no way someone in their right mind would pay for what we were given. The area where we choose what we wanted was split into 2 sides, one for hot meals like mommy used to not make, and the other was a grill. At the grill, you could get burgers, fries, hot dogs, the quick stuff. I decided to just grab a burger and some fries, which was edible and was the staple of my stay during my time there. I did try the hot meal side a couple times and cannot remember not going back to the grill to get something I could actually eat. I remember correctly, after two or three weeks, I was determined to find something on the hot side that was edible. I kept going back, tried every item available, and still ended up grabbing a burger.
To top off the fine dining experience was the staff. It is challenging to describe, try, and imagine a DMV employee’s friendly demeanor, mixed with the butt crack of a 300-pound plumber, and the smell of a ditch-digging garbage collector. Yes, very difficult to describe.
I recall once, when I was waiting to check out, there was a heavy-set woman at the register doing the checkouts. As I got closer to her, I noticed and smelled the sweat that seemed to emanate from every pore of her body. I am really unsure if the smell was the sweat or the three rotting teeth she still had left. As I approached her, she started to cough, hack, and produce this large brown and green wad, which she promptly spat out into a garbage can right next to me. I looked at her, sick to my stomach, and walked away, leaving my food tray there.
After a quick orientation, we immediately began our training. I will cover these briefly, because, quite honestly, it is boring as hell. The courses were split into three distinct areas, Classroom, Firearms, and Defensive Tactics.
Our classwork was the fundamental law classes, and the most challenging part of this was Immigration Law and Naturalization Law. If you want to talk about discombobulated Laws, you need to look no further than this. I do not know what Congress was thinking when they passed these laws, but it definitely was not to make it easy or clear cut. Another issue we had with Immigration Law was that in 1996 Congress had passed a new Immigration and Nationality Act. But of course, the Academy was still teaching the old law, even though we would never use it.
There was a lot of pressure during classwork, especially with the exams. To pass, you needed to get 80% on the tests, and you were only allowed to fail one exam. Still, you could not fail the Naturalization and Immigration Law exams. If you did not pass, not only did you fail the Academy, but you did not have a job anymore.
It was the same thing with the firearms and defensive tactics courses. These courses were no joke. I had carried weapons for 10 years when I was in the military and had qualified as an expert. The military course was nothing compared to what we had to do at the Academy. We had to pass the qualification course. If you did not, you went home without a job.
The instructors were good, but they put the pressure on you. I did have a difficult time qualifying and did make it through it. One of the things that I am frustrated with in the current political environment is that people seem to think that they will give a badge and gun to anyone, that training for Law Enforcement needs to be more difficult. I know what I had to go through to carry that gun, the seriousness and weight of responsibility that comes with carrying a weapon for the line of work I was going into.
Can we just all get along
Besides being away from my family, especially my children, the most challenging part of being at the Academy was my classmates. We heard that most classes built a strong bond that lasts throughout their careers. Not my class.
We were the most dysfunctional class that the instructors could remember.
The class was divided up into three groups. The discord’s primary instigators were a group that called themselves the dark side and considered themselves the “cool kids.” A second group was what most would consider the “uncool kids,” who were more compassionate, caring, and genuinely supportive of all those around them. The third was a middle group that just wanted to learn, not deal with the drama, and graduate. The latter two groups were selfless and great team players. I have never enjoyed boxing people into a group, but I would say that I fit into this middle group if I had to box myself in. I was able to get along with everyone.
One of the leaders of the dark side was my roommate Charles. In the beginning, we did get along, but I could tell he was troubled with his home life. He was diminutive in character, and as we progressed through the Academy, he moved into negativity.
The turning point for him was when his wife came to visit before Christmas. She was also an Agent in the same office as he was and had recently graduated from the Academy. When she came to visit, she only saw him twice during a week’s visit. She spent most of the time “visiting” instructors she had become friends with during her stay there.
This understandably was upsetting to him and propelled him into a negativity slide. A couple years later, they split up after having a domestic dispute in the office where the local police had to be called in. Charles was eventually fired from the Agency after being arrested for stalking and threatening a woman he had met online.
My fall from grace in the eyes of the dark side started when my family came to visit.
They came out during Christmas, and we stayed off the training facility. I still saw everyone during training, but I was with my family and not around during the downtime.
After my family returned home, I tried to get back into my old routine. What I did not realize was that Charles was pissed at me. His anger stemmed from his lack of time with his wife and my time enjoying mine. I made a mistake when I would come to class telling everyone what I had done with my family, things like going to the beach and visiting Disney World. Instead of understanding why he was agitated, he placed his anger on me instead and tried his best to make my life a living hell.
Charles stopped staying in the room, slept on the couch in another townhouse, and would try to get under my skin during class with his stupid comments. Unfortunately for him, I really did not care about his words and those of his dark side buddies. I ignored them at first, but after they made one of the female cadets cry during class, I had had enough of the stupidity.
At this point, I was still hanging out with them a little, and I confronted them about what had happened. This was my final transgression in their eyes, for who was I to dare question them. After this point, they tried their best to harass me during training and shunned me during off-hours, not understanding I really did not care what they said or did. I tried to avoid adding to the conflict they created and tried to support my classmates as best I could, but me being me, sometimes I just could not resist myself.
I realized that the dark side did not like it when other students would ask questions at the end of a block of instruction. The dark side was ok if they asked questions, but if someone else did, they would start making rude comments or harass that student after class.
Once I figured this out, I was one question asking fool, even if I knew the answer. The more agitated they would become, the more I would ask and start discussions with the instructor. I know this was not the most constructive thing to do, but it did make me smile.
Close to graduation
Training progressed well; I was among the top of my class with my test scores and did well in defensive tactics. The one issue I had was qualifying on the weapon. We were using the firearm, a Beretta .40 cal. It was large and bulky, was not very friendly to me.
The stress of trying to qualify increased with each failure. I eventually made it through, but it took a team effort to calm my nerves, and I love my classmates that supported and encouraged me through it.
Years later, I learned why it was so difficult for me to shoot this weapon. I had a Firearms instructor ask me if I had ever broken my hand or wrist in my life. I had broken my right hand when I was a kid. The instructor told me that my hand was not as strong as it should be, and he showed me how to compensate for it.
When graduation day arrived, I was so excited. My training was done, I was finally an Agent. It was the first time I felt no pressure or stress in 5 months. We did not have to worry about the next test, qualification, or exercise. I was honored to receive my certificate, badge, and credentials.
When the ceremony was over, we prepared for the next phase of our career. Instead of getting on a flight home to start our new jobs the next day, we went back to class. Part of our training was a five-week Spanish immersion course. This was not a heavy lift for most people, but I am a language idiot, and it was tough for me.
Not done yet
Spanish immersion is just what it sounds like. Starting day one, the instructors spoke Spanish, and they recommended we only speak Spanish both in and out of the class. It did not really work out this way. Some did, some tried, but most did not do that.
The Spanish we were taught was what we would need to do our job. We had to interview people in Spanish, things like where you are from, where you work, and how you got into the country. And just like we did during the regular Academy, we also had practical exercises, completing a scenario all in Spanish.
This would entail executing a search warrant, detaining or arresting everyone present, and conducting interviews. It was fun, but the pressure was even higher for me due to the foreign language. The instructors also enjoyed themselves more during this portion of the Academy, at least it seemed like they did. They smiled, joked, and messed with us more.
During the practical exercises, the Academy would use role-players. These are just ordinary random people hired to play the roles of the type of people you might encounter. I remember one in particular, and we heard about her before we even got to the Spanish course.
She was the wife of one of the instructors and had been a role-player for some time. We heard she was very good at what she does, and she was. During the exercise she was a role-player for, we entered a room where there were four people. We had to determine who were the bad guys and who were people that were being smuggled. She was, of course, in this room, and the first one to approach us. Imagine being approached by a beautiful young Hispanic woman wearing Daisy Duke shorts, and a very revealing loose-fitting shirt.
When we entered she immediately became extremely friendly and flirtatious. Yes, she was one of the bad guys, and not many made it through without making mistakes because of her. And she was incredibly good and had the ability to mirror what we would experience in real life doing the job. Once you realized she was a bad guy, she would turn from the friendliest woman you would want to marry into a complete vicious and angry nightmare. That is one reason this role-player stuck with me through the years, you do not know what you must deal with, and outward appearance is not something you can count on.
I loved the Academy and have very fond memories of being there. Even with all the adversity and difficulties, we went through, our class was one of the few that made it through without losing a single student. I was able to make it through the Spanish course, barely, as my grades were ten percentage points less than during the formal Academy.
My only wish is that we would have bonded better as a class.
I was able to speak to one of the members of the dark side years later. His name was Jonathan, and he had transferred into the San Francisco Office. He was well-liked by everyone in the office. But I did not speak much to him other than a cordial hello for years.
Before his passing, we talked about what happened and why he participated because he was actually a nice guy. He told me that he regretted what happened there and could not explain why he participated in it. After that conversation, we spoke more and were friendly with each other, I think he was a little embarrassed about what happened and the grief he helped cause there.
Jonathan was a good man and an excellent Agent that got wrapped up with some unfriendly people. I was sad when he lost his battle with cancer and wished we would have been closer.
As the Spanish immersion course came close to being completed, and once I passed the final written test, the atmosphere became much more relaxed with our class. We were all excited to be going home soon and starting our new life. Some of the class would be moving to assignments in new cities, and some, like me, were just going home.
On the last day, we said our goodbyes and started to depart the Academy. I was a little sad to leave there for the last time. It had been my home for six months. But I was excited to be going home and see my family. I can remember closing my eyes as the plane lifted off the ground, picturing what it would be like to see my family once again. I could not wait until I could hold them in my arms.
Finally finished and going home
Once the plane landed back in California, my spirits were running high. I departed the plane and walked out looking for my family. I missed them so much.
When my two children and I saw each other, they ran towards me, yelling, “daddy.” I was so happy tears came to my eyes while I was holding them. My wife was walking behind, and as she came closer, I could see that she looked angry.
I tried to give her a hug, but she turned away and only said to pay attention to my kids. I was only a little surprised by how she was towards me. I tried to find out what was wrong, and she finally told me on the way home that she was unhappy because she had to take the time to pick me up from the airport. I only sighed and thought, ‘yes, I was home once again.’