LESSON ONE: Get Ready To Die
The teacher walks into the mat room.
"Good morning, Mr. Mixon," the students say in unison.
"Cut that [expletive] out. Don't act like you give a crap about my morning."
Steve Mixon smiles, or maybe it's a snarl. Before he became an instructor at the Secret Service training camp outside Washington, Mixon served as a team leader on President George W. Bush's Counter Assault Team.
"Everyone's going to leave today in some degree of pain," Mixon tells the special agent trainees.
The 24 recruits, dressed in black combat pants and jackets, stiffen into four rows, jingling handcuffs. Scott Swantner clenches his jaw. Krista Bradford rubs raw knuckles. One trainee, who broke a rib, is keeping it a secret, fearing he'll be discharged.
"Everything is in play here, guys. Everything you learned from Day One," Mixon tells them in a basement that muffles rifle blasts. "Assailant control. Guillotine chokeholds."
For the members of Special Agent Training Class No. 283, this is finals time. They have been cramming here for months, since days after the election of Barack Obama, hoping to join the men and women charged with protecting the president.
Not all of them will make it.
If they fail, they will leave humiliated. If they pass, they'll become members of an elite, stealthy service during a period of exceptional pressures. At their annual party, Ralph Basham, the former director, greeted his replacement: "I'm the happiest guy in Washington because I'm not the director of the Secret Service anymore."
With the rise of Islamic terrorism, the agency's roster of protectees has grown. With the election of the first African American president, public scrutiny has exploded. Presidents typically receive 3,000 threats a year, says a Secret Service expert. Obama is outpacing the average.
"We understand the historic significance," says the current director, Mark Sullivan. "If we make a mistake, it's going to be devastating for the country. We're not going to let the country down."
That promise depends in large part on what happens inside this 493-acre compound. Unmarked, behind barbed wire and hidden in the woods, the James J. Rowley Training Center sits so close to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway that its inhabitants -- in chemical weapons suits, suicide bomber vests or white robes while role-playing the pope -- can hear the commuter traffic's oblivious swish.
Obama's security detail drills here two weeks out of every eight. The vice president's detail, the first lady's, the agents who protect foreign dignitaries and former presidents, as well as the tactical units -- the counter snipers posted on the White House roof, and the Emergency Response Team, which stops incursions into the White House grounds--also drill here.
Overseeing them are instructors like Mixon, who wears a size 52 suit jacket, whose T-shirt says "Fighting Solves Everything," and whose 2-year-old son knows how to do a one-man takedown. This morning Mixon, 40, is testing control tactics, or ground-fighting.
Forty minutes into the wristlocks and head stuns, the trainees' necks burn with scratches. Dan Batt is supposed to disarm a classmate but accidentally knees him in the groin.
"Right in the junk!" Mixon laughs.
Dan wants to apologize for his clumsiness -- his infant daughter is teething and kept him up half the night -- but the men keep wrestling, too afraid to stop. A student in the class ahead of them flunked out the week before graduation for buckling during push-ups.
"Next!" Mixon calls.
Scott Swantner ten-huts, shoulders back, towering over the others. A former rifle platoon commander with the Marine Corps, Scott lost three fingers in Iraq. In Beltsville, he attended remedial control tactics with Krista Bradford every Friday before sunrise.
"Yes, sir!" Scott says cheerlessly. For the last scenario of their four-hour exam, the mat room becomes a heavy metal bar. Red and blue lights flash in the dark. The rock band Disturbed blares from speakers.
Their instructions: "Patty McGuire has made threats against POTUS [President of the United States] and you have an arrest warrant . . . An informant told you Patty is in the bar."
In pairs, the trainees open the door.
"Why don't you [expletive] off and die?" shrieks Disturbed. The instructors pounce with sticks and training knives. They slam the trainees into the wall. They rip at their hair. One trainee shatters his instructor's cheekbone. But another freezes, goes into "brain vapor-lock," as his partner is repeatedly shot.
Krista and her partner wait outside for their turn. "If they clench their fists," Krista strategizes, "I'll pull out my baton."
Krista is 4 feet 11 inches. She moves like a gymnast, nimbly, with concentrated grace. She has lively green eyes, fine features and a buoyant ponytail. She cheers Scott, Dan and the others between drills with Dove chocolates. A social worker, she also used to work at Disney World, dressing up as cartoon characters.
"She was Minnie Mouse, for God sakes," Mixon grumbles.