Standing at the gate of FBI’s elite training school in Quantico, Va. on Dec. 12, Capt. William Hart of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office took a deep breath and prepped himself for what lay beyond the armed security guard checking identifications.
His heart raced. His palms were clammy. He didn’t know what to expect. Beyond those gates and into the halls of the nation’s most prestigious law enforcement agency awaited a dream 16 years in the making. This was it, he told himself.
Within moments the gates sprung open and the 16-year law enforcement veteran was ushered inside. A sprawling field of vibrant fall-inspired colored leaves hanging from tall pines and oaks exploded his senses. Deer and groundhogs scattered through the grounds.
“I’m finally here,” Hart, 39, said to himself.
Hart was one of 256 police chiefs, sheriff’s, captains and other law enforcement officials from 50 states and 26 countries chosen for the 235th FBI National Academy Program. Only 1 percent of the nation’s law enforcement agents are ever selected.
The program, a three-month intensive training program is a boot camp on steroids. In a classroom setting participants learn interview and interrogation techniques, witness statement analysis, officer involved shooting protocols and behavior sciences of street and motorcycle gangs all taught by the nation’s foremost experts.
On the outside, physical training rules the day, including a 6.2-mile rope and obstacle course that even seasoned veterans find difficult.
It exhausts the mind and the body, Hart said.
But Hart, who had yearned, planned and hoped for this day, was not going to shy away. It had been his dream since he was 23 and a fresh-faced rookie deputy with St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office. It was then, on his first day on the job, he saw a newspaper article about the program. He never forgot it and vowed one day to be one of the elite chosen.
Over the next decade, he prepped himself for the honor. He rose through the office’s ranks and eventually became captain, today commanding a narcotics task force and street crimes unit. He donned bulletproof vests and shotguns during two hostage negotiations, took down big time local drug kingpins and in 2000 he was selected as “Top Cop of the New Millennium.” In 2003, he was also awarded the Sheriff’s Office Metal of Valor when a disgruntled husband sprayed Uzi shots his way during a SWAT team standoff. Just part of the job, he said.
But now, he found himself eating and sleeping in a dorm room type bunk shared with one other roommate where everyone was equal. His days began at 8 a.m. and ended at 5 p.m., culminating in a keynote address by FBI Director Robert Mueller. One time during an off day, the many nationalities got together, cooked their signature country’s dish and shared potent drinks from around the world.
It was then he was slapped with one of the most important lessons of the trip: a dose of humanity from a Liberian named Frank.
One day at the “chow hall” Hart noticed Frank looking down, head in his hands, sitting all by himself. Hart walked over and offered a friendly hello.
Frank stared up and in broken English said, ”I’m confused,’” Hart said. “My family is on the outside of this gate and I haven’t seen my son in nine years. I don’t know what to do.”
Reliving how hard it was for Hart to leave his own children, Ethan, an 11-year-old boy who can read a book in three days and Cecelia, his five-year-old girl who is a loving firecracker of energy, Hart offered the only thing he knew: Help.
“Get your ass in this car and let’s go,” he said.
They soon left and sure enough, just several hundred yards away from the complex was an African woman dressed in exotic and bright colored headbands and a dress, clutching her son by her side
She had lived in the states for years, birthing a son Frank had never seen.
They embraced in an emotional hug.
Hart just waited.
“He thought he was being a burden on me, but he wasn’t at all,” Hart said. “I was moved.”
A kinship was born.
And on the last day of the academy with Hart’s wife Barbara and two children by his side at graduation, Frank and his family walked over.
The boy reached out and embraced Hart in a hearty hug.
“I wanted to tell you thank you,” the boy said.
To this day Hart smiles when reliving the moment.
“That’s something I’ll never forget.”