I’ve Seen The Elephant

By Brian Thiem: In my current WIP (that’s Work in Progress for my non-writer friends—the book I’m currently working on), one of my main characters had looked forward to “seeing the elephant,” but once she does, the experience profoundly changes her.elephants

The phrase “seen the elephant” has been around for centuries. It originally meant to experience the world at a significant personal cost. Years ago, people had to travel to Africa to see an elephant, an experience filled with excitement and danger.

More recently, the military coined the phrase to describe the experience of combat, and some police departments use the phrase to define an officer’s experience in a life and death battle.

There are various degrees of seeing the elephant. Some soldiers, especially those who served in Vietnam, only consider soldiers who really saw the elephant as those engaged in close-range firefights, where they could see the faces of the enemy as they traded volleys of bullets. Others qualify anyone who has faced death at the hands of an enemy and prevailed as having seen the elephant.

When I deployed for the Iraq War, I saw how my fellow soldiers experienced their first sighting of the elephant when we were still in Kuwait and the sirens sounded as Scud missiles headed our way. I saw the faces of soldiers preparing to face the elephant when riding in a C-130 amid anti-aircraft fire on a night landing in Baghdad, and when leaving the wire in a HUMVEE to travel along the road to the Green Zone, where roadside bombs, snipers, and suicide bombers killed or wounded soldiers daily.

Some young soldiers and police officers secretly desire to see the elephant. They want to test their courage and skill by facing an opponent determined to kill them. They want to know if they’ll freeze or if they have what it takes to fight and win. However, few cops or soldiers who have faced the elephant in that manner ever want to again. They often end up with more regrets than triumphs.

In my WIP, Simone had spent years in the Army and law enforcement yet had never elephant chargingtruly faced the elephant. When she does, she is like an African hunter who had tracked a rogue bull elephant that rampaged villages and killed dozens of people. When the elephant charges her, she has a split second to summon every bit of courage and skill she possesses. Or die.

Those soldiers and police officers who have never seen the elephant might think that once they face the elephant and prevail, it will be easier the next time. But that is far from reality. Seeing the elephant changes you. Some are hardened by the experience, others suffer enormous regret at having taken a human life, some numb their emotions with alcohol or drugs, and others experience various degrees of PTSD or debilitating anxiety. And some take their own lives, as demonstrated by the higher rates of suicide among police and combat veterans.

Although my WIP is about a murder investigation and stopping bad guys from killing again, it also explores the lives of several characters, one of whom had looked forward to seeing the elephant, and how after she sees and conquers it, her life and the lives of those around her are forever changed.   

Running Toward Safety

As an officer, I’ve given countless presentations on personal safety. One maxim I unfailing mention: It’s not enough to run from danger, one must run toward safety. This is not intuitive. When a person’s fight or flight impulse is triggered, higher reasoning goes out the window — and that can make a bad situation worse.

Mention personal safety, and most people think small. Officers discuss how to make oneself less vulnerable, things to think about during a confrontation, and ways to keep your home safe from intrusion. But the bigger the emergency, the more likely it is you are going to be on your own — at least initially. Weather, fire, or floods may isolate you and your family for days.

Alamosa, Colorado. Emergency Ops Center. March 2008.

Large weather events are dynamic. Experts rely on models to help identify patterns and hazards, but models are based on statistical probabilities— and there is always a margin of error. Having worked in emergency operations centers, I can tell you that sometimes it’s obvious when an evacuation is needed. Other times? Well, not so much. 

Decisions are based on the best information available at the time. What is necessary one moment can change the next, but emergency service providers will always err on the side of safety. No one wants to leave their home. In fact, it’s human nature to devise reasons not to leave. A near miss is still a miss, and the more frequently we dodge danger, the more likely we are to think we can do it again. 

That mentality will get you hurt. 

Sometimes sheltering in place is the right decision. Sometimes it’s a necessity. Not everyone has the ability to evacuate, whether due to economics, disability, or other circumstances. Some preplanning, however, can go a long way to make a bad situation better. Every government website has preparedness guidelines and tips. Most agencies have resources to help those with special needs.

As a new cop, when my shift slowed down, I knew to expect my training officer to pepper me with what-if questions. He’d create emergency scenarios and quiz me about how I’d respond. The exercise broadened my thinking. It also lowered my stress level when I confronted a situation similar to what I’d already considered. 

I still play the what if game. I’m a fan of risk management—if it’s predictable, it’s usually preventable. But don’t confuse prepared with paranoid. I’ve worked and weathered plenty of critical incidents and I know my risk profile. Everyone has their own comfort level.

Hurricane Dorian went from a Category 1 to a Cat 4 storm in a blink. Winds traveling in excess of 145 mph wreak havoc and my county ordered mandatory evacuations of its high-risk zones. Worse? The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore began broadcasting from our hometown. No offense to Mr. Cantore, but his presence falls somewhat south of comforting — a fact playfully captured in one of the program’s commercials. It was time to leave.

Screenshot of The Weather Channel with Jim Cantore and a Hurricane Dorian graphic.

From the time it was first identified, the storm that grew into Dorian defied expectations. Dorian meandered along an unanticipated path, strengthened with unexpected ferocity into a Cat 5 with 180 mph winds, stalled for an unimaginable length of time over the Bahamas, and left heartbreaking devastation in its wake. Sadly, there will be more hurricanes, another earthquake, wildfire, or flood. Are you prepared? Where will you go? What will you take? Do you know where those items are? If you stay in your home and conditions worsen, which room is the safest? How can you make it more secure? Do you have first aid supplies, food, water, and other necessities? Thinking about these issues before an emergency will help you remain level-headed during the event.

It bears repeating. It’s not enough to flee danger. You must head toward safety. In my case, Dorian remained far enough off the coast of Florida that my husband and I could have weathered the storm had we chosen to stay.

But what if?

Stay safe ~ Micki Browning

My Tribe

In three weeks time I will have been retired from law enforcement for seven years. Seven! Even as I look at the calendar I am unsure how time passed so quickly. But a quick trip into Portland and the sight of another twelve-year-old behind the wheel of a black and white confirms the awful truth. I am officially a dinosaur.

If you’ve followed some of my prior blog posts you already know how much I struggled after leaving my police life behind. The first few weeks were grand. It felt like a vacation. The phone wasn’t ringing constantly, no frantic emails to return, no emergency trips into Portland in the dead of night. It was truly great. But then, after those first few weeks had passed, I noticed something. The phone wasn’t ringing. There were no emails. Nobody needed me. It was as if I’d become obsolete overnight. Worse was the realization that I had lost that decades long connection to my police family. It might be hard for some of you reading this to imagine the feeling of no longer belonging, especially if you’re still approaching retirement from your current occupation. But trust me, it’s an unnerving experience.

I’ve known for some time that my fellow mystery/thriller writers are a welcoming and supportive group of folks. That awareness began in New England, quickly spreading to faraway places like Ireland and Australia. Fellow crime scribes abound. But it wasn’t until a week ago that I realized exactly where I belong.

I was in Tennessee attending my first Killer Nashville mystery writers’ conference. If you are a mystery writer, or hoping to be, this is a can’t miss conference. Similar in size to the New England Crime Bake, Killer Nashville draws writers from far and wide, each of whom are more than willing to share their knowledge, both of writing and the business of writing. I took part in several panels and book signings, but more importantly I got to spend time with old friends and made some new.

On Saturday night the awards banquet was held. A classy event with a fabulous band, great food, some heartfelt speeches, and the presentation of Killer Nashville’s annual awards. As the evening unfolded I had occasion to really observe the people seated at my table, former journalists, musicians, and a cop. While our our prior occupations ran the gamut, each of us shares a love of storytelling and a passion for the written word. Amid the laughter, gaiety, and playful irreverence was the unwavering support and appreciation displayed for their fellow writers. As I watched them interact with one another it occurred to me that these were exactly the same people I had surrounded myself with when I still wore a badge. People from all walks of life, with widely varying backgrounds and experiences, united by a remarkable passion for their chosen career. I realized, with certainty, that I had once again found my tribe.

Internet Research and the Bigfoot Dilemma

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Photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com

by Lissa Marie Redmond
This blog usually handles some very serious issues in regards to police work and writing. Today I’d like to stray away from that tradition a little. I am easily distracted, as a lot of writers are. Internet search engines are both a blessing and a curse when researching a new book. The other day I was doing some serious research into national parks, scouring the Internet (every writer knows what happens next, right?) when I came across an interesting article about a man in Texas who claimed to have hunted down and killed a Bigfoot and was now taking the body on tour. He was putting the corpse on display for all the world to see. Curious people would come from far and wide to catch a glimpse of the giant corpse, for a small fee, of course.

It got my writer’s mind to thinking: what if Bigfoot was real? Is it possible in the 21st century for a seven-foot-tall hominid creature to co-exist among us, virtually unseen?

Most scientists say no. In modern North America it would be virtually impossible for such a creature to exist, without leaving any scientific physical evidence of its existence. But then again, I’ve never seen a squirrel skeleton and those little scavengers are all over my backyard bird feeder.

The BFRO (Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization) claims there have been over thirty five hundred credible sightings in 49 states since the 1960’s. Can anyone guess which state has never had a Bigfoot sighting? Hawaii, that’s right. Apparently, Bigfoot doesn’t swim.

So what if Bigfoots (the accepted plural of Bigfoot is Bigfoots) are real? Should Bigfoots be granted protected species status without physical proof of their existence? I say yes, and here’s why:
The BFRO puts the estimated North American Bigfoot population at 2,000 to 6,000 individuals. This means at the high end there could be only 122 Bigfoots per state. Imagine if there were only 122 black bears left in New York State. Or only 122 Starbucks? Would you agree they needed to be protected? (If my calculations are wrong, I apologize. No one said there would be math on this test.)

Currently, it is perfectly legal in 49 states to hunt, kill, harass, or trap a Bigfoot.

As an animal lover, I find this unacceptable.

Believe it or not, there are only two places in the entire country where Bigfoots are protected. In Washington State there are laws in place against harming a Sasquatch in Skamania and Whatcom Counties. Whatcom County has also declared itself a Sasquatch refuge and protection area.

Bigfoots have always been part of Native American Lore. The word sasquatch itself comes from the Halcom Indian word sasquets, meaning wild or hairy man. In Australia, local aboriginals have sighted Yowies for centuries. The Pendek Tribe of Indonesia talks of the Orang, and of course there is the Yeti of the Himalayas.

Once again, my curious writer’s brain asks: What if these hominids were real?

Should camera crews be allowed to tramp through the woods with “field researchers” knocking on trees and howling? Should so-called Bigfoot hunters be allowed to shoot them dead and display their carcasses? (The Texas Bigfoot corpse was exposed as a hoax, by the way. Everyone should demand their fifteen dollars and dignity back). Is this any way to treat an endangered species?

I ask you to consider for a moment the Komodo Dragon. It was thought to be a mythical creature until 1912. And so too, the Mountain Gorilla, whose existence was not confirmed until 1913.

But that was a hundred years ago, you say, a large mammal couldn’t remain undiscovered in the 21st century, right? Not with Millennials running around Snapchatting and FaceTiming and Tweeting every second of every day of their lives. Surely, one would have been captured in the background of a selfie at some point.

Wrong.

In 2007, a researcher looking at photos of a recent trip to the Congo noticed a picture of a strange looking monkey with a human-like face that was being kept as the pet of a 13-year-old villager. Though widely known by locals, the Lesula Monkey was finally identified as a new species in 2012.

With these facts in mind, I believe we should air on the side of caution. We have to ask ourselves, what if the sasquatches are real and trying to squeak out an existence alongside of us? There has never been one report of a human fatality caused by a Bigfoot. Not one. Lawn Jarts have killed more people. Yet it is perfectly legal to hunt them. Shouldn’t they be given endangered species protection?

If you want to protect our Sasquatch brethren, there are several online petitions calling for protected status for Bigfoots. The time is now to protect our Bigfooted friends. And for me to get back to work on my manuscript and stop being distracted by my Internet searches. Because I think I have an idea for a new story.

Aaron Burr, Sir

I had intended to take a break from discussing a historical trial this month. But then, I discovered that Aaron Burr went on trial in August 1807. I felt compelled to release my inner Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Aaron Burr had served as an officer in the Continental Army and New York’s attorney general. In the election of 1800, he tied Thomas Jefferson in electoral votes for the Presidency. The House of Representatives chose Thomas Jefferson as the third president, electing Burr as vice-president.

Broadway Spoiler Alert—He later killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel.

Burr never went to trial for shooting Hamilton. Rather, he was tried for empire building in the American West.

The participants in that case represented some of the major players in the founding of America. The trial judge was John Marshall, chief justice of the United States Supreme Court and the most important justice in Supreme Court history.

Burr was defended by two delegates to the Constitutional Convention—Edmund Randolph and Luther Martin. The prosecution’s team included Charles Lee, a former attorney general and William Wirt, a future presidential candidate.

Behind the scenes, Thomas Jefferson pushed for the prosecution and helped craft the government’s theory of the case.  

In March 1805, Burr resigned as vice president near the end of Jefferson’s first term. He had earlier lost the race for the governorship of New York. Following his political setbacks, Burr turned his attention to the vast expanse of western lands. In 1803, Thomas Jefferson completed the Louisiana Purchase. Many people living on the frontier considered the lands of Nueva España rightfully part of the United States as well.

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In 1806, Burr acquired a large tract of territory from the Spanish. He envisioned a settlement and possibly an empire and began recruiting armed men. In his cause, he enlisted an old friend, General James Wilkinson, then Governor of America’s new Louisiana territory.  Allegedly, Burr worked to secure support for an independent dynasty stretching from New Orleans across Texas. He traveled about the American republic, enlisting support and exchanging ciphered messages with Wilkinson. At a dinner meeting on Blennerhassett’s island, a large island in the Ohio River, Burr and Herman Blennerhassett planned to assemble and train men there.

In July 1806, Burr’s secretary delivered a ciphered letter to Wilkinson announcing that the operation had commenced. The secretary allegedly told Wilkinson that Burr’s troops numbered in the thousands. Wilkinson, however, abandoned the dream of a western empire. He turned on Burr and forwarded to Thomas Jefferson a deciphered copy of the letter.

Jefferson responded by signing a proclamation urging the local authorities to “Search out and bring to…punishment all persons engaged…in such enterprise.”

Burr surrendered near Natchez, Mississippi. A grand jury was empaneled and after listening to evidence declared Burr “not guilty of any crime or misdemeanor against the United States.”  He was released and disappeared into the wilderness.

Under the direction of the president, government agents gathered additional information. A new arrest warrant was issued. The authorities arrested Burr in Alabama and transported him to Richmond, Virginia. John Marshall, sitting in Richmond, heard the preliminary evidence and ruled that Burr could be tried on misdemeanor counts of violating the Neutrality Act with Spain, but not on treason.

Unsatisfied, Thomas Jefferson printed circulars asking the western lands to produce any good citizen to come forward with information. He offered blanket pardons and sent out a marshal to gather testimony.

Burr’s pre-trial resumed in May. The prosecution pushed for the treason charges and offered new evidence. The defense urged a subpoena for presidential correspondence between Jefferson and Wilkinson regarding the matter. Marshall authorized the subpoena, Jefferson never complied. Jefferson invoked what we think of today as executive privilege.

Treason is the only crime described in the United States Constitution. The case against Burr required Justice Marshall to interpret the meaning of “treason”. He defined it as requiring an overt act levying war against the United States, and not just a scheme. The Constitution additionally requires two witnesses to testify to prove treason. In a written opinion on the admissibility of evidence, Justice Marshall restricted the government to proving that assembling men on Blennerhasset’s island was Burr’s overt act of waging war on the United States.

Aaron Burr never levied war against the United States. When a United States official came to Blennerhasset’s island to arrest some of the men, they refused arrest and pointed muskets at him. This was the overt “act of war” upon which the United States government based its treason case. It might have been treason or more simply, resisting arrest.

The testimony, furthermore, showed that Burr was 100 miles away from Blennerhassett’s island when the event occured.

With Marshall’s restrictions, the outcome was pre-ordained. The jury’s verdict, returned September 1st, 1807, found Burr “not proved to be guilty under this indictment by any evidence submitted to us.” The wording has left scholars to ponder the “what ifs” ever since.

Historians have never resolved whether Burr committed a criminal act. Academic debate continues to the present. Were Burr’s actions patriotic or treasonous? How Burr’s actions were viewed may depend as much upon where one lived and the politics of the observer. The Burr case is worth pondering in our current political climate as we again discuss the limits on executive privilege and behavior disloyal to the nation.

Or, if we want to rap it, what word rhymes with Blennerhassett?  

Mark Thielman

Out Of Place

-Ben Keller

Hello, all, and namaste from India.

Frequent visitors here know that I travel a lot, and my turn to submit a blog entry happens to fall on a business trip to one of the furthest destinations I’ve been from my home, India.  I’m currently in Delhi, but I’ll also visit Chennai and have a quick stop in Rome before I return to the States.

As a writer of crime fiction and an international security consultant, I can hardly avoid seeing everything through the lens of an investigator.  As such, I’m constantly on the lookout for things that might pose a security risk.  Things that could become a problem.  Unfortunately, danger doesn’t always announce itself clearly.  The first signs of danger might only be small things that are out of place, and the investigator relies upon such things.  As the Lord of all fictional investigators Sherlock Holmes said, “The most commonplace crime is often the most mysterious.”  Without those subtle variations from the norm, an investigation is that much more difficult.

Since one of the reasons for my trip was assessing the level of risk to my company’s international travelers, I was on the look-out for these potential precursors of trouble.  I’ll admit, I wasn’t very observant when I landed, jetlagged, and made it to my hotel at about 3:00 a.m. local time.  One immediate difference stood out at the hotel:  the wonderful service.  I was greeted by three hosts who didn’t simply hand over the keys, they took my bags and walked me personally to my room.  This was a pleasant change of pace.

After a little sleep, I ventured out into the district I was staying in outside Delhi.  I was trying to replicate the practices of an average business traveler in order to identify and assess what potential risks they might encounter.  I hailed a driver and drove to nearby restaurants.  I spent some time at a local shopping center.  Inside, I saw such exotic Indian merchants as MAC Cosmetics, Cold Stone Creamery, and McDonalds.    Despite a real risk of fried foods, this was depressingly ordinary.

The next day, I ventured out of the city center, and went to Agra, and the most famous tourist destination in all of India, the Taj Mahal.  The journey there held few observations, except for the traffic conditions.  Even on a Sunday morning, lanes were seen as merely suggestions and cars and jitneys veered in and out of each other’s way with a lack of collision that was frankly impressive.  While the boldness of the pedestrians crossing busy streets like a life-size game of Frogger made me a little nervous as an American, I knew it wasn’t different than the practices in many, many other parts of the world. 

But as we drove on, more differences began to appear.  Cell phone coverage was intermittent, a rarity for those of us accustomed to ubiquitous internet availability.  Not a risk per se, we humans actually functioned without data on our phones for thousands of years.  My kids were shocked to learn that even in my lifetime, road trips were not navigated by our phone’s GPS system, but by carefully consulting the series of maps in your glove compartment.  I made a note to ensure our travelers were aware of the need for advanced planning when cell phone coverage might be interrupted.

The closer we got to the Taj Mahal, the more things began to seem out of place.  Here, I saw cows wandering freely in the streets.  Not a risk, but not ordinary either.  Cows belonged on a farm, or in extreme cases of runaway silverware, jumping over the moon at the very least.  As we parked and took an electric tram from the parking are to the east gate of the site, we were approached by an unusually high number of children and infant-laden women, asking for a few rupees.  Finally, as we paid our fare and collected our shoe coverings required to enter the sacred space, I saw a few monkeys.  My companion told me that when some traveling tourists arrived and learned no food was allowed inside the site, they were forced to throw out any snacks they had brought.  The local monkey population had learned this was a reliable spot to find assorted fruits and other food, and their numbers abounded at sunrise.  So the monkey pictured here may not have been out of the ordinary, but he still looked sketchy to me.

Then, we went through the gate and made our way to the main entrance of the grounds.  I’ve attached a picture, but the picture simply doesn’t do it justice.  The Taj Mahal is a magnificent building that defies easy description.  And as I toured it and learned its history, perhaps the greatest “out of place” observation of all was right in front of me.  As legend has it, the Taj Mahal was ordered built in 1632 by emperor Shah Jahan to serve as a mausoleum for his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal, who tragically died in childbirth.  Construction took 22 years, and employed over 20,000 workers and over a thousand elephants.  With special non-porous marble and painstakingly etched inlaid jewels, the cost of the construction was inestimable. 

But perhaps the most impressive of all is the symmetry of the entire structure.  Four towers flanking the structure, minarets, are placed at strategic angles not only to topple away from the main structure in case of earthquake, but to also direct the eye toward the pleasing balance.  Verses of the Quran inscribed along the arched entrances (in inlaid onyx, not paint) gradually increase in size the higher it goes, all to give the illusion of a uniform size to the eye.  The mosque structure built to the west of the tomb (another thing out of place – my experience told me Muslims faced east to pray, but on the other side of the planet, Mecca is to the west!) was flanked by an identical but generally unused structure to the east, all for the sake of balance.  Symmetry.  Uniformity.  Everything in its place.

And at the precise geometric center of it all was the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal (well, a replica of her tomb, the actual is in an unadorned room exactly below the replica).  All corners are at precise angles to the tomb.  One can see a direct line all the way from the northern entrance of the building, through a seam in the hand-carved marble lattice screen shielding the tomb, all keeping perfect line with the fountains in the reflecting pool south of the opposite gate.  Everything in precise geometric symmetry.

Except one thing:  the grave of the man who ordered the tomb built in the first place.  After he ordered construction to begin, Shah Jahan grew gravely ill.  Sensing a succession was in order, some of his sons began battling for control in anticipation of their father’s imminent demise.  They were surprised by Shah Jahan’s recovery, but they already had a taste of power.  One son deposed his father and locked him in prison.  After many years in prison, Shah Jahan died.  His son had his body placed next his beloved late bride in the center of the famous structure.

But it seems obvious that Shah Jahan never intended to be buried there.  Some legends say that he had plans to build a shadow image of the Taj Mahal, this one made of black marble, situated across the river in a seeming extension of the perfect symmetry.  There, the legend holds, is where Shah Jahan intended his final resting place to be, with a silver bridge forever linking his tomb to his wife’s.  (I won’t point out here that the legend of his plans to build a similar structure seems to conflict with another legend that says Shah Jahan had one hand severed from all the workers so the grandeur of the Taj Mahal could never be replicated.  Hey, I’m a storyteller… the last thing I want to do is kill the magic of a good legend!)

Once seen, it’s impossible to un-see.  For a structure so painstakingly built with perfect symmetry and harmony around Mumtaz’ tomb, seeing Shah Jahan’s tomb right next to hers sticks out like a sore thumb.  It by no means detracts from the overall beauty of the site, but it is clearly… out of place. 

On the ride back to my hotel, I reflected on that as a tourist, an investigator, and a writer of crime fiction.  I was struck by the irony of the very person who strove so hard to achieve perfect symmetry became the only unsymmetrical thing in the whole place.  I thought about how the human brain approaches pattern recognition, and how the greatest detectives in both reality and fiction can spot those outlier details better than most.

And finally, in terms of the world of writing, I thought about all those other “abnormalities” I’d observed so far here in India, and I realized that my internal dialogue had become my very own unreliable narrator.  All those things I found unusual were simply a part of daily life for a vibrant, prosperous country of more than a billion people.  In reality, only one things was out of place.

Me.

I truly love traveling to new places and seeing new ways of living.  I love hearing new legends and the stories other peoples tell themselves.  I’ve found my trip to India so far to be quite an education, and I can fully appreciate how the Taj Mahal is considered a wonder of the world.  The next time you travel to a new country or a new mystery novel, I wonder if you’ll be able to spot what’s out of place.  Maybe it will have been staring you in the face all along!

Five Lessons from the Yellow Brick Road

by Isabella Maldonado

The FBI National Academy is an advanced course for law enforcement executives from around the world. For approximately three months, over 200 men and women move into college-style dorms at the FBI training campus at Quantico.

The academic portion of the program is rigorous, requiring attendees to take classes, undergo exams, and submit theses at a university level. Successful graduates receive 17 hours of credit from the University of Virginia.

Several years ago, when I was a captain on my department, I was selected for this prestigious program. Since the training is for those in management, the average age of attendees is 42, and I hit that mark squarely.

The academic portion of the training was highly enjoyable for me. Studious by nature and curious by training, I relished the mental challenge. The expansive library at the facility became my haunt, where I pored over texts and case studies, or met with groups to create presentations. When others struggled with the heavy course load, I offered what help I could. Some hadn’t taken college classes for twenty years, and studying is a perishable skill. The physical aspect, however, did not come so easily.

I suspected the PT instructors laid awake at night thinking of new ways to torture us. One of my fellow attendees, a woman with the NYPD who ran marathons in her spare time, coached me on proper breathing and body mechanics. Still, I couldn’t get the hang of it.

The culmination of our physical training was completing the infamous FBI obstacle course, which comprises 6.1 miles on uneven terrain in the Virginia foothills. The course is interspersed with all manner of barriers and challenges. I’ll never forget the day I lined up with my fellow LEOs to take my shot at completing what they termed The Yellow Brick Road. The picture below is a tree decorated with signs depicting the experiences each runner can expect during the course. This foreboding image is what you see before you begin.

We were grouped in squads of ten with staggered start times. I eyed my running group. The standout among us was a lieutenant named Tim from a department in Wisconsin who belonged on the cover of Muscle & Fitness magazine. The leader of his agency’s SWAT team, we all figured he would set a new course record. The FBI posted such accomplishments in a place of honor for all future classes to see. Everyone knew Tim would do our session proud, and we patted him on the back and wished him well as he stretched at the starting line.

The whistle blew and off we went. The thoroughbreds took off, but I kept my draft horse pace, conserving energy for what lay ahead. Hearing footfalls next to me, I turned to see Tim loping effortlessly by my side.

“What the hell are you doing?”

He grinned. “Running with you.”

“No way.” I was determined not to let him sacrifice his only shot. “Your name has to go up on the wall.”

He sprinted ahead and spun around to face me, running backward. “I’m 42 years old, happily married, with three beautiful children and a great career. What do I have to prove to anyone?” His look spoke of utter resolve. “You’re always helping everyone else with the academics. Now it’s time to let someone help you.”

He knew I wouldn’t make it on my own. Deep down, I knew it too. That course was too damned hard.

“Are you sure?”

He gave me a stare calculated to make hardened criminals wet themselves. I stopped arguing and started listening. Tim’s extensive SWAT training had taught him techniques. He demonstrated the proper way to get over a six-foot wall, or shimmy under a mesh grid, (sometimes repeatedly) until I could clumsily follow.

At one point, I had to use a single rope to climb a sheer rock outcropping. Halfway up, my arms and shoulders burned, my muscles like noodles. I had nothing left in the tank. Or so I thought. Tim had already scaled the rock face and was looking down at me. He had total faith that I could make it. One of the instructors stood next to him and snapped a photo of me from Tim’s perspective. He wasn’t allowed to help me physically, but his encouragement gave me the needed boost to hoist myself up. That’s why I’m smiling.

A short time later, my NYPD friend came barreling toward me from the opposite direction.

“What are you doing?” I said, panting. “You must have finished ages ago.”

“I did.” She shrugged. “They recorded my time, then I came back to find you.”

“Because you’re insane?”

“Because I’m going to run the rest of the course with you.”

My wingmen stayed by my side, chatting comfortably as if taking a leisurely morning jog while I sucked air into burning lungs and relied on sheer will to keep my rubbery legs pumping.

While other runners flew past, a captain with the Texas Rangers (from a group that had started a good forty minutes after I did) caught up to us and slowed to match the plodding pace I had set for our trio.

He gave me the customary Texan greeting. “Howdy.”

“Your group is leaving you behind,” I said, gasping.

“I’m going to cross the line with you.”

“Seriously?” I couldn’t believe someone else wanted to help. I must have looked every bit the total charity case I was at this point. “It could take me another hour.”

“Then that’s how long it takes.”

We had become a foursome. Amazed by their sacrifice, I began to pick up the pace a fraction, buoyed by the solidarity they showed. The picture below is of the four of us crossing the finish line together, arm in arm.

That humbling and powerful experience changed me in many ways. These are the five life lessons I learned in my journey along the aptly named Yellow Brick Road:

  1. If you’re better at something, help others.
  2. When you’re the one struggling, swallow your pride and accept help.
  3. No one makes it through the rough patches alone.
  4. Coming in first doesn’t mean you won.
  5. We are all capable of far more than we believe.