by Lori Edwards
I distinctly remember coming to the sudden and uneasy conclusion that I really didn’t have any idea what I was getting myself into. My seatmate on my flight had asked me why in the world a girl from Texas would come all the way to Minnesota by herself, especially in January, without any personal history there or family ties to the area. I chuckled a little and explained that I’d be attending a class that would train me to become a bodyguard. He wondered aloud if I was serious. I simply smiled and nodded.
I’m not exactly what you’d picture a female bodyguard to be. Although I’m very athletic and have two black belts in Taekwondo, most people don’t suspect it. In fact, most folks would take one look at me and drop me into the category of “indoor girl” pretty quickly. And of course, so did my seatmate. In rapid fire succession, he began showering me with questions regarding all the things the class might require of me, and if I thought I was adequately prepared for it. The only response I could manage was, “I really don’t know.”
I spent the rest of the week finding out.
The 5-day ICON Celebrity & VIP Protection Course is arranged very intelligently. Beginning with some brief welcoming statements and announcements, we jump right in. ICON CEO, Elijah Shaw, starts with some lectures about team formations and foot drills. About an hour in, we hop up from our seats and start literally walking out the things that his 17 years in the business has taught him. Then we move into tactical weapons drills led by Assistant Instructor and resident firearms expert, Mike Briggs. Holster drills on verbal command with a realistically heavy, but imitation firearm consume the next hour or so. I must admit, having never handled a weapon either real or fake, this was challenging to me. Trust me when I tell you, that during the initial movement drills I probably have never found my left and my right so ridiculously confusing. Thankfully, our final instructor and champion mixed martial art fighter, Justin Newcomb rescued me by announcing to the class that it was time to take two hard laps and meet him in the gym. Aaaahhhh, relief. This part is something I know I can do, –Interval training. The instructors tell us we will have a 5-minute workout. It’s true. What they don’t tell us, is that it’s a butt-kicking five minutes. I’m game, and have the sneaky suspicion this won’t be the last time we’re at the gym. Then back to the classroom to discuss some of the broader issues of Executive Protection.
Did I mention, all this was before lunch?
We spend that afternoon and the next few days repeating the cycle of classroom discussion, walking/formation drills, weapons drills later on, live fire at the gun range), physical training and industry-specific do’s and don’ts. Each session, we expand and practice our skills, and information received at a pace that only NASA can truly comprehend. The instructors begin throwing in unexpected surprises to keep us guessing, and learning. At the end of every day, I am spent. I had no idea the amount of information that these professionals must process, and how quickly they must process it in order to keep their clients safe and sound.
Add to all that craziness the unique challenges that come with being female, and you begin to get a reasonable idea of my personal experience. I wanted to make sure that I made a good impression right away, so I showed up on the first day looking nice. Not formal ball-gown nice, but reasonably professional. I had spent ample time online researching ICON and was well aware that Elijah Shaw is nearly always in a suit. First rule of business: Never show up sloppy when the boss expects a suit. I also knew that this course was very hands-on, and as such, there would be some physical activity. No details were given as to our daily schedule or the demands thereof, so I decided to land somewhere in the middle. I wore nice pants, a jacket I could remove easily, and my favorite stiletto boots. I did fine until break time when Mike Briggs wandered up asking me if I had brought gym shoes. I had, but they were in the hotel, because surely our kindhearted instructors would warn us of what we’ll need when we’ll need it. Heads up future classmates: a deliberate lack of pertinent information is a constant, so come prepared for anything – just like in the real world of VIP Protection. Needless to say, I spent most of the day running laps and all the other physical training in barefoot. (And carefully. I mean you don’t really want to ruin a $65 pedicure slamming into the gym equipment so I considered it practice in situational awareness).
I also tried my hand at figuring out when it was safe to put my boots back on. Just as soon as I had convinced myself that the workouts were finished for the day, I slipped them back on. About that time, Justin Newcomb tiptoed up behind me and whispered, “You’re gong to want to take those boots off again….”. Bless him. I actually thought about running the laps while wearing the stilettos, but decided against it. So I just gave up. I wore running shoes the remainder of the week, however there’s more to the story where those boots are concerned.
Everything went smoothly until Friday night. I ended up pulling an all-nighter as part of a real-world exercise through which ICON puts its course attendees. I took the first client shift, which lasted from roughly 10pm to 6am. I was wearing a radio device with which I have no previous experience. In the chaos of last-minute information and preparation, I threw the earpiece on and the radio in my front jacket pocket. There were several loose wires flapping about, but I didn’t really care as, the clock was ticking and I had to get on post. No worries right? Well that is until the instructors came to visit me on site. There’s something very unsettling about three grown, strong men standing together in a huddle while smirking and rubbing their foreheads. Mike Briggs convinced me to slip off my suit jacket and got me reorganized into the very picture of a female Close Protection Agent: black jacket, white shirt, black skirt, black tights and those 4 & ½ inch black stiletto boots. I’m a mom, so I know what its like to stay up all night looking after someone. I’ve just never done it in those boots before. You learn in training, so you don’t make the mistakes in the real world.
Twenty-four hours later, I find myself about to enter Force-on-Force Drills. In that moment, I have no idea what is about to happen, I only know I’m not really crazy about the sound of it. I’ve never shot the realistic airsoft training weapons before. More importantly, I’ve never been shot BY the airsoft training weapons before! I had nightmarish visions of being in a room with all my classmates and instructors just shooting ferociously until someone has the compassion to yell “TIME’S UP!”. I worried needlessly. That’s not what force-on-force drills are about. These exercises are designed to place the trainee in situations that as closely as possible mimics real world experiences. Trust me when I tell you they are valuable and bring a whole new element to the course. To this day I find myself mentally rehearsing some of the multiple scenarios I went through that evening. In my mind I’m moving the client, negotiating check points, climbing walls, jumping over people or things, asking questions, taking charge, providing cover, evacuating, locating exits, thinking critically, and looking for the less than obvious.
I think that’s the point of good, solid training: It stays with you.
Before the ICON Celebrity & VIP Protection Course, I was just a yoga-mom from Texas. During this course I challenged myself to become something that I’ve always envisioned: brave, decisive, resourceful and capable. In the middle of the week I questioned my decision to be there, and I questioned my ability to do this job to the extent that I thought about packing up and going home.
I’m so glad I didn’t.
By the end of the course, I had experiences I will never forget, and was handed opportunities I’d have never believed. I was challenged far more than I expected, resulting in a depth of confidence I’ve never known. I loved it so much that I’m actively seeking my next opportunity to train. I’ll get some gun range time with Mike Briggs later in the spring, and hopefully, I’ll get to take the 10-day Advanced Executive Protection Course soon. In the meantime, I’m hoping to establish a foundation in the industry through Advance work—The security preparations and logistics that occur before the actual client even enters the area. We had one assignment specifically on advance work during the course, and I did particularly well at it. I now find myself making mental sketches of practically any building I walk into, even here in my hometown. I draw mental route cards, too, when I’m traveling. So, I’ll be looking for opportunities to continue to implement skills, while my girls are attending summer camps and other things. Eventually, and with continued training, I’d like to move toward protecting female celebrities at events, and finally as their personal protection. We girls gotta look out for each other, you know. I have to believe that for the newcomer or as a refresher, whatever your goals or interests are in the field of Executive & VIP Protection, this course will meet them.
Take it from the “indoor girl” – you’ll be glad you did.
Note: We plan for this to be the first of several articles by Lori that while chronicle her experiences as a newcomer in the Executive Protection Industry. (of course without violating any client confidentiality.) We hope that it will serve as an inspiration for others and the realities of the profession.