Over 18 Weeks, an Arduous Path to the Badge
Thursday, August 17, 2006
They gathered anxiously that first October morning, the 50 members of class "06-01," the first of 750 agents-in-training who will graduate from the FBI Academy this year.
In the first of many traditions they would encounter at Quantico, the recruits, still dressed in their dark civilian suits, were asked to stand and describe their backgrounds and explain why they wanted to join the FBI. For many, the amphitheater-style classroom was not a surprising destination. Thirty students -- 60 percent of the class -- had been in the military or law enforcement, traditional recruiting grounds for the FBI.
But others came from the highly educated nontraditional backgrounds the bureau has tried to emphasize.
The recruits, whom the FBI would not allow to be fully identified in this article, included Jenny, 27, a biomedical engineer with a doctoral degree in pathogenesis; Michelle, 28, a lawyer from a white-shoe Manhattan law firm who was taking a 75 percent pay cut; Alex, 32, a lawyer and college instructor from Georgia with a doctorate in forestry; and Elvis, 36, a Chinese American with degrees in chemical engineering and chemistry. There were no Arab Americans and only one black recruit.
If the FBI answered a call that many of the recruits had heard for years, it was something different for Elvis, who had left behind in Sacramento a pregnant wife, a 15-month-old daughter and an ill father who worried that his son -- who had never handled a gun -- might accidentally shoot himself. Elvis had a lucrative job in Silicon Valley and felt set for life until terrorists attacked the Pentagon and World Trade Center. "I thought, 'Man, what am I doing here? I'm making computer chips.' It all felt so heartless. I thought, 'What can I do to help?' "
On a tour of the academy their first night, the recruits had passed by a reminder of the FBI's new mandate to fight terrorism -- two 10-foot black granite towers formed in the shape of the World Trade Center and bathed in soft light. At the base sat a jagged stone from Ground Zero and a concrete piece of the Pentagon. On the ground nearby rested a blue metal fragment of the airplane that crashed in Pennsylvania.
Yet everywhere the students went in the ensuing 4 1/2 months there were also reminders of the FBI's past and the culture into which they were being initiated. The street leading into the sprawling academy is named Hoover Road. A portrait of the agency's controversial first director, J. Edgar Hoover, hangs in the reading room named after him. On the walls near the cafeteria and gym are posters of famous FBI movies. The one from "The FBI Story" is autographed by its star, Jimmy Stewart.
A few days into the course, Elvis and the other recruits received a pointed lesson that whatever their backgrounds -- science, law, computers or intelligence -- there could be no doubt about what they had signed on to do. It was an FBI tradition called "Reality Check." For the next hour and a half, Chuck Hauber, the firearms instructor, told the recruits -- by now wearing FBI-issue uniforms of blue polo shirts, khaki pants and hiking boots -- that there were to be no questions. Just listen, he said.
Hauber showed the class a collection of handguns he had removed from the academy's gun vault. The first was the partly melted remains of a .40-caliber Glock 22 that had been carried by an FBI agent who rushed into the World Trade Center.
You are volunteering to put yourself in harm's way, Hauber said. When everyone is running away from danger, you must run toward it.
The Glock was followed by a 9mm Smith & Wesson with a bullet hole through the middle. The gun belonged to a special agent who was killed with another FBI agent during a gun battle in Miami in 1986. Then a 9mm SIG Sauer that a criminal wrested away from a female agent at D.C. police headquarters in 1994. He shot her in the head.
Hauber then asked the recruits to look under the firearms manuals in front of them. Everyone who found a slip of paper with a name and age scrawled on it was to stand and read them. The 16 names read off were of agents killed in the line of duty, Hauber said, agents who once sat in this room. In those exact seats, he said. They were just like you. Don't think it can't happen to you. You need to think about it.