Revelations: Reporter spends day with Special Response Team
Earlier in the week, I was invited to spend the day with Homeland Security Investigations' Special Response Team (SRT) in Houston.
For about seven hours, a handful of media professionals were allowed access to the covert world of the HSI SRT training, which, among other activities, comprised of vehicle extractions, M4 rifle training, helicopter surveillance, home invasions and riding in what a close military friend of mine often refers to as "BAVs," or big (expletive) vehicles.
(Are you following all these abbreviations?)
SRTs are made up of existing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, and they all volunteer to be on the teams (although some do not advance after initial training).
If an SRT is called in for a mission, it's almost guaranteed they're putting their lives in danger. These men and women are not FBI, or CIA, military or local law enforcement. But they are federal agents who keep us safe every day from some of the most violent domestic and international criminals. And they're almost never acknowledged for it.
HSI SRTs work cases involving the illegal movement of goods and people, such as human trafficking, human smuggling, child sex tourism, child pornography, weapons smuggling, gang activity and bulk cash smuggling, among many others.
Many SRT agents are former military, and all are superior gunmen. They're weapons and intelligence trained, sometimes language trained, and they exist among us in our communities - hidden behind the occupation title of "government employee."
I admit, watching the SRT agents last week was overwhelming and impressive.
The firearms alone that were exploding within mere inches of my head were enough to caution my footsteps and keep my brain on high alert.
At one point during the home invasion training, I volunteered to be the "bad guy" in a role-play take-down mission, where I was instructed to draw my weapon when the SRT invaded the home. After drawing my weapon, I was informed an SRT gunman was to take me out - or shoot me in the chest with a military-grade paintball bullet.
Even though I was strapped into full chest padding, long sleeves, padded gloves and a Darth Vader-like helmet, the thought of being shot by paintball bullets from an automatic weapon had me somewhat unnerved.
"Don't worry. It hurts less than bullets," my instructor chuckled. "You probably won't feel anything."
"Less than bullets? It probably won't hurt me? (Keep smiling. Keep smiling.) Wait, are you serious?"
Standing on my mark, I remember looking at my photographer and mumbling, "Did I really volunteer for this?"
She couldn't understand me through the helmet, which was now fogging from my nervous deep breathing.
"Is it too late to say, 'Hey, just kidding, I'm going to sit over here and watch you guys play with your machine guns?'"
The role play was a success, and they were right, the paintball bullets didn't hurt. We shared a good laugh, and I gave the gentlemen back their gear.
What continuously impressed me throughout the day was how pleasant and humble everyone was. I supposed I assumed their egos would be more inflated.
But they were grounded and team-oriented. And they seemed genuinely interested in performing their jobs well and with excellence.
I wanted to shake all their hands and offer to cook them a home-cooked, thank-you dinner for putting their lives at risk and sacrificing their time and talents to make the world a safer place.
But I didn't. "That's weird," I told myself. "Don't make jokes now."
Toward the end of my day, after I had time to process the events of the training, I couldn't help landing on one specific thought.
Yes, we had fun, and the SRT guys were joking around for much of the day. But they're here training, using billions of dollars of government-funded weapons and training facilities because there's tremendous evil in the world.
And it's not the mild evil. It's the knock-you-over, shoot-to-kill, murderous, torturous, unapologetic evil. It's the kind of evil that needs HSI SRT special agents and an arsenal of machine artillery and BAVs.
And while I'm confident in the men and women serving in these positions and appreciative of their willingness to fight the great evils of our world, I want so desperately to believe that God is fighting alongside them - in equally covert fashion.
And I want so desperately to believe that one day, I will know a world without evil, or the need for SRT training.
But until that day, a special thanks for all the men and women who dedicate their life to public safety. And if you're ever hungry for a home-cooked meal, my kitchen is always open.
Jennifer Preyss is a reporter for the Victoria Advocate. You can reach her at 361-580-6535 or firstname.lastname@example.org.