Homeland Security--Brunswick's FLETC

Homeland Security--Brunswick's FLETC
This simulation aims for realism.
This simulation aims for realism.

Just today--Iraq's parliament rejected the United Nations' demands for weapons inspections. It could lead to more military conflict in the region, and some believe it may spur more terrorist attacks in the US. That's just one of many reasons why President Bush wants the Homeland Security Cabinet in place. And you'd be surprised where the men and women who will protect our country under this new agency are trained.

The front entrance to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) says little about the life-and-death training that goes on there. Since 1975, officers from 76 federal agencies, from customs and US marshals to INS and border patrol, have received their training at FLETC. And that training is intense.

"This is about as realistic as you can get in this type of training," says instructor Chuck Herrera. "This is scenario-based training, it's interactive, it's dynamic, and as close as you can get to the real thing."

And that real thing has changed since September 11 of last year. Federal officers now train, not for the possibility, but for the certainty of another attack. With agencies beefing up their workforce and more people willing to face the dangers, FLETC has exploded. Two years ago, enrollment approached 26,000.

"We've basically doubled that," says associate director of training Cynthia Atwood. "We've gone to a projection of 50,000 students for next year."

FLETC director Connie Patrick says even though they've hired back retired instructors, everyone's working longer days and more of them.

"People were willing to work 12- to 14-hour days and work every weekend," she told us. "I have to tell you after nine months, we saw a waning. Not in spirit; just being tired."

Across the 1,500-acre campus, agents get behind the wheel of one of 300 police cars. The toll is showing there, too. Workers now repave the nine driving tracks yearly to fight the wear and tear.

In shooting, they learn to fire not from a perfect stance, but from realistic positions that reflect the way a life-and-death struggle would go. Instructors say the work is worth it: by teaching them to take aim at the enemy, they know the agents they train are the very ones who'll protect them and their families.

"We're here not to teach these students a mechanical shooting skill to prepare for the Olympics," said Jim Diskin, who instructs firearms classes. "We're teaching them survival skills."

Trainees even learn the hand-to-hand combat skills they might need to make an arrest.

"You try not to look at it as a game," said Jim Otteson, who works for the border patrol. "It's an exercise for a reason, and you try to apply what you've been taught. Its very important cause the scenerio can change at the drop of a dime."

While soldiers defend our country on foreign soil, these officers protect us here at home.

"These guys put their lives on the line," said Herrera. "They are the protection between good and evil in this country."

FLETC is located on an old navy air base in Brunswick. The FBI  is one of only three agencies that don't train there. Many new recruits were moved by the tragedy of September 11, and they come from all kinds of backgrounds.

Reported by: Dal Cannady, dcannady@wtoc.com