The Bodyguards

To be a woman on the secretary of state’s security detail, you have to be fast, smart, and tough—and willing to take a bullet, even if you’re in heels. Laura Blumenfeld works out with Hillary’s Angels

female bodyguards             

From the backseat of the secretary of state’s limousine, you can hear the ambush before you see it. The crackle of machine-gun fire, boot-steps, shouts. Then you see them through the smoked-glass windows, two men in kaffiyehs running at your car, gripping AK-47s. By the time I grasp that we are under attack, the Diplomatic Security Service agent in charge of the secretary’s detail has hurtled from the front of the limousine, over the seat.

“Get down, ma’am!” The agent pushes me facedown against the leather upholstery. “Don’t move until I say so.”

I am playing Hillary Clinton during this ambush exercise at a top-secret State Department compound in West Virginia. Simulated AK rounds disable the secretary’s motorcade. Agents hustle me from the car: “Ma’am, grab on to my jacket! Go, go, go!!”

They surround me, their ponytails swinging—Brittany, Natasha, Joann, Meghan—closing ranks to form a body bunker. The women—part of Clinton’s security detail—stepped into the line of fire. They did it on instinct.

The number of women  on the secretary of state’s Protective Detail team has been increasing (there are currently 13—about a fifth of the force guarding Clinton), in part because three of the past four secretaries of state have been women. Over several months, I observed them—in the gym, on the firing range, in the mat room decking each other. Their regimen is exhaustive, physically and mentally, with quarterly fitness and weapons-proficiency tests. They rehearse until the choreography of a crisis is etched into their reflexes. They learn how to fire four kinds of guns upside down, do 45 push-ups in two minutes, and jog for blocks alongside rolling motorcades.

The women share a sisterhood of state secrets: The spandex in Banana Republic suits makes for easier scrambling out of SUVs; for holster abrasions, rub cocoa butter into the skin on your hips; if you’re in Mexico and can’t get to a StairMaster, run up and down the ancient stone steps at the Pyramid of the Sun. In Egypt, one agent explains, where there’s no time for bathroom breaks (so you barely drink), you can soothe your parched throat by sucking on cough drops. They are single, funny young women who wake up at 4:30 A.M. to meditate and 20 hours later fall asleep to the Food Network. They splurge on facials. They pack 100-calorie bags of apricots. And they can take down an assailant with one precise strike.

Teresa Momber, 35
Putting on my weapon to go to work is the same as some people putting on high heels and lipstick. We battle through traffic jams, host governments, all for the goal—protecting the secretary. When I was younger, I would exercise to fit into an outfit. Now it’s preparing for an emergency: What if the secretary has to be evacuated? We plan every detail of her events: where she’s going to sit, what she’s going to eat; we even have to screen the flower planters. As agents, we are like wedding planners with guns.

Brittany Kross, 24
We are constantly hyperaware; it’s the adrenaline. Waiting for the motorcade to arrive, your heart is pounding like crazy. You have to retrain yourself, the way you think, how you react. We are strong women, type A, but we have to be diplomats, too. In Cambodia, people cut the grass with machetes. There’s no way for us to tell everyone, “Hey, don’t bring out the machetes.”

When you’re abroad, there’s no time to eat until you’re starving, and then you eat complete crap, fast. In Egypt, I was awake for two days straight; I ate a whole pepperoni pizza and regretted it. At home, I like to look at a bowl of fresh fruit, even if I know I’ll never be home long enough to eat it.
Didi Nikolov, 27
I played cops and cowboys as a kid. I won a top-shot award in the air force. I absolutely love firing weapons. It’s empowering as a woman knowing you can do something as good as—or better than—a man.

Joann Topacio, 34
On the range, I carry Nature Valley granola bars. Shooting in the morning makes me hungry.

When I travel overseas, I can’t tell my mom where I’m going. I say, “Watch where the secretary goes. Follow the news, and you’ll find me.”

Photo: Stephanie Sinclair

TAGS: june 2011



The Magazine

Rihanna May 2012

Cover Story

May 2012 - Rihanna