Cole Yeatts shouted instructions to 10 Secret Service agents gathered on the beach under the afternoon sun – nine men, one woman, all lean. They were learning another way to save the president of the United States.
“Who are we looking for and what are we looking at?” Yeatts asked. “Victim and …?”
“Waves,” answered an agent.
“Correct: waves,” Yeatts echoed.
Five of the agents lined up behind five 2-foot-long orange rescue buoys and pairs of swim fins propped in the sand.
Yeatts, director of Kitty Hawk Ocean Rescue, counted down: “One, two, three, go!”
The agents grabbed their gear and sprinted into the surf. One tripped and fell, but quickly recovered. All struggled to slip on the fins as waves broke across their backs. Instructors representing victims stood in chest-deep water about 100 yards offshore.
“We don’t make it easy on them,” said Sean Donlon, a special agent and water rescue instructor. “The protectee does not care how much training we have – he just wants to be rescued.”
In a real emergency, the victim could be former presidents George H.W. Bush, who loves boating at the family property in Kennebunkport, Maine, or Barack Obama, who loves to body surf in the large waves in Hawaii where he grew up, or a member of the Donald Trump family at Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla.
These agents voluntarily exchange dark suits and earpieces for swimsuits and sunscreen. They pull duty on beaches in Hawaii or Tahiti rather than wearing a bulletproof vest while guarding a motorcade in the middle of a crowded city. A regular detail of agents guards the person being protected at the same time the water-rescue agents also keep watch, Donlon said.
Three weeks and three days of intense instruction and tests begin at a Washington, D.C., pool. Some don’t pass the initial swim test of covering 800 meters in 16 minutes, or the requirement to swim a length of a 25-meter pool underwater four separate times with a minute break between laps.
On the beach, the Kitty Hawk rescue team grills them for two days. They learn to retrieve a victim using a variety of grips and bring them to shore through the unforgiving Outer Banks surf where at least six people drowned last year. The class learns to recognize rip currents, and may intentionally dive into the strong outward flow to get to a victim more quickly.
“This is not like swimming a pool,” Yeatts said.
The group then goes to the Coast Guard’s Air Station Elizabeth City for three days’ training with the nation’s best rescue swimmers. There they learn to deploy from helicopters and wrestle victims into rescue baskets.
Elsewhere, agents also train for white-water rescues. Former Vice President Dick Cheney loves to fish in rivers with rapids.
“This is one of the most demanding fields of Secret Service training,” Donlon said.
Next fall, the same group learns emergency medical treatment, a first for Secret Service agents. They will learn how to handle spinal injuries and heart attacks as well as jellyfish stings.
Of the 3,200 Secret Service agents stationed around the globe, 75 serve on the water-rescue detail, Donlon said. Typically, about 10 percent are women.
Many of the trainees have been lifeguards or college swimmers. Most are in their mid-30s with experience as an agent, Special Agent Scott Healy said.
The Secret Service began water-rescue training during the George H.W. Bush administration, Donlon said. The Coast Guard conducted it in the early years and still oversees the overall curriculum. The class began coming to Kitty Hawk in 2003 at the recommendation of a senior Coast Guard official.