Protecting Myself: Three Lessons the Secret Service Taught Me
Words and images by Melanie Lentz
When I became a Secret Service agent at twenty-two, I understood the physical act of protecting someone was not to be taken lightly. But college didn’t teach me how to spot the assassin in a crowd or evasively drive a fully armored SUV in Los Angeles traffic. I had to be taught all of that and continually train and practice to stay sharp. “Remember your training,” I was told.
As vigilant and proactive as I was at work, I never anticipated that my personal life would crumble by my thirties. Call it arrogance. Call it naivety. Call it whatever you want, but I fell apart, my good intentions and work ethic seemingly wasted by the subtle passage of time. Protecting others in a chaotic and travel-laden workplace ultimately negated the need to protect myself, at least that was the case in my overtired frame of mind. I was trained to quickly spot security concerns in my professional life, but I missed the glaring “jackals” in my personal life.
I’ve spent the last two years picking up my broken pieces, an unexpected blessing and my most difficult assignment to date. My marriage ended. I was diagnosed with depression. The eating disorder reappeared. I left the Secret Service.
Where did I go wrong? That’s a sobering question, and I wanted answers.
All this time, I desperately wanted to live a meaningful life. I thought I was happy, but I’d merely found a skewed sense of belonging and worth in my romantic relationship and my occupation. But dwelling on the past rather than seeing the profound lessons within it did me no good.
Revisiting the fundamental concepts surrounding the Secret Service protective mission was my catalyst to a positive transition into a more secure woman who’d begun to see herself as something worth protecting.
1. Access Control
It is the foundation of the Secret Service’s protective mission. Agents have to control who gets close to the protectee and implement security plans to ensure everyone’s safety. It’s not so different in my personal life. I liken access control to self-respect. I have a long history of allowing access to toxic relationships and situations. I’m a Type A perfectionistic people-pleaser. I allowed friends to use me rather than recognize their access to my self-esteem and generosity needed to be addressed. I let my job become everything interesting about me. I let my spouse determine my worth by the way he showed (or didn’t show) his love to me. The list goes on.
I realize now that a strong lady must recognize when access to herself needs to be granted, denied, limited, or even revoked. I’m learning how beautiful it is when positive access is granted and negative attempts at access are controlled. Easier said than done.
2. Situation Reports
They’re called SitReps, and they happen during motorcade movements. They’re a status update of sorts. The Secret Service agents in the motorcade communicate with agents at their destination because they need to know important nuggets of intelligence such as crowd size and details about press, demonstrations, greeters, etc. When the motorcade is close, the SitRep needs to be “all clear for arrival,” or the motorcade is not arriving.
I gave myself an “all clear” SitRep for a long time. I’m fine, I’d say. Always freaking fine. But I wasn’t fine. I was poorly handling my marital problems, my demanding job, and the horrible realization that I was becoming someone I didn’t like. I suppressed and diffused my true feelings because I thought I had to be tough and “suck it up.” Maybe I felt added pressure as a woman in a male-dominated profession. I didn’t want to be perceived as weak.
A dishonest SitRep in a motorcade could have negative consequences, and a dishonest SitRep to myself knocked me on my butt. I had “jackals” that needed addressing, and in (finally) doing so, I realized an honest SitRep, even if the SitRep is not “all clear,” was not a sign of weakness but really my first sign of true strength.
I was assigned to Former First Lady Nancy Reagan when she passed away. I was in the embalming room and present when she was laid to rest next to Ronald Reagan at the Reagan Presidential Library. I stood at my post during her official memorial service and listened to the speakers share their personal stories about her huge capacity to love. Her legacy was love, and I was headed toward a self-destructive legacy of anger, resentment, and depression.
While the concept of legacy is not a part of the Secret Service protective mission, it brought the other protective lessons full circle. I could not become someone I was proud of if I continued to practice poor access control and dishonest SitReps. I was incapable of a meaningful and loving legacy without them.
I still haven’t mastered access control. I still catch myself in dishonest SitReps from time to time. I’m still figuring out my legacy and what kind of woman I want to be. But one thing is certain: I’m finding happiness in becoming a woman who appropriately protects and loves herself.
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Melanie is a former Secret Service agent and is currently writing and speaking about her experiences on and off the job. She's a closet artist and fashionista who can usually be found singing loudly in her car, walking with her dogs, reading and writing until the wee hours, or working out (preferably with a pair of boxing gloves).