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TDY: A Border Patrol Agent's life on the road

When you’re a ‘loaner’ you can be on urban streets surrounded by millions on one day and the next day be deep in a canyon outnumbered 10-to-1 by rattlesnakes

I’m a loaner. I know what you’re thinking. No, I didn’t misspell the word. I’m not talking about a loner — as in a “L-O-N-E-R” — as in, a rifle-toting, bell-tower-climbing gunman who the neighbors later describe as being “a nice, quiet kid — a bit of a loner — but a nice, quiet kid.” No, I’m talking about life as a “L-O-A-N-E-R.” I am talking about “on loan.” As in, “the-border-is-chaotic-and-we-need-your-boots-on-the-ground-to-help-us-gain-control” type of “loaner.” We Border Patrol Agents are loaned out to other patrol stations throughout the nation in order to help a ‘hot’ patrol sector secure operational control of their slice of the international border. It’s a mouthful, right? Yeah, we feds love to be verbose in the mistaken belief that we’re going to impress everyone. I’ll try not to do that, but no promises.

I’ve heard local cops and deputies complain about being assigned to work different beats — typically this entails working the other end of the city and/or county. But for us? Well, that entails working the other end of the state, in others a different state altogether, or at the other end of the country. On Monday, you’re working the urban landscape in Tampa, Florida or foot patrol in the rugged mountainous back country in eastern San Diego County. Then on Tuesday, you’re working the broad sweeping expanse of rugged foothills and deserts and/or any number of highway checkpoints north of the Mexican border in Tucson, Arizona. After the unthinkable tragedy of September 11th, 2001, many of us were loaned out to JFK or La Guardia Airports in New York City. We’re accustomed to taking the show on the road, all day strong and all year long, and we do it with focused professionalism.

The Nuts and Bolts
What does being loaned out really entail? Those of you who are prior military, the term “TDY” — or “Temporary Duty” — is a familiar thing. Border Patrol Agents are issued travel orders, which authorize costs associated with travel, hotel expenses and “per diem” for the purchase of food throughout the duration of an assignment. The government even covers laundry expenses, and in some cases, daily phone calls home. I only explain these things, because for some of you out there, being TDY’d might not be a familiar concept. There’s a travel day, then a day of orientation at the temporary duty station, during which the most important component is the re-programming of your agency-portable handheld radio to the local frequencies. You’re given some standard local maps, as well as hand-drawn or custom-produced maps to illustrate specific landmarks and associated intelligence.

And that’s it. You’re 10-8 the next day or that night, if you’re assigned to midnights, to wreak havoc at your speed and leisure. The reality, aside from the tongue in cheek narrative, is that Border Patrol Agents are required to mentally readjust several critical sets of data in order to work successfully at their temporary duty stations. It’s not so much about ‘tactics.’ as it is about ‘application.’ In other words, the learning curve is quite steep.

The Learning Curve
With some exceptions, Border Patrol Agents are linear thinkers and they know that in order to succeed in a new location, they need to reassess four critical sets of data, as they pertain to their new local patrol area:

• Geography
• Demographics
• Economics
• Politics

It’s important to remember that because the Border Patrol is a national agency and that its operations cover every contiguous state across the southern and northern borders, including the Gulf States, part of the eastern seaboard and the Caribbean, these sets of data will be radically different. And once an agent has incorporated these data sets, they then get a better sense of the operational enforcement tempo or ‘picture’ of any particular locale.

A Border Patrol arrest made in Temecula, California can — and often is — completely different from a Border Patrol arrest in Tucson, Arizona. One might be made on a paved, four-lane superhighway — an asphalt ribbon of traffic cop nirvana and a smuggler’s delight — that runs from Mexico to Montana. The other is made in Manzanita-choked desert — on foot patrol in deep, dry rivers beds abuzz with insects the size of your fist and the eerily quiet rattle of whole communities of rattlesnakes.

You could be used to working in deep canyons, crawling northward from the Tijuana River valley, arresting groups of 20 subjects or more in eastern San Diego County, and the next day find yourself seizing 10 pounds of Methamphetamine in an engine manifold load, at a traffic choked checkpoint on I-19 near Nogales, Arizona. The tactics of the actual arrest remain the same, but the ‘application’ of those tactics may change radically depending on terrain, access to emergency medical care, and radio coverage. In reality, even the most modern of radios won’t work well in the tomblike structure of deep canyons and river valleys. Conversely, tracking the sign of twenty sets of human footprints across sandy river bottoms, or the quickly evaporating shoeprints over hot rocks in a barely running creek, is altogether different than the more urban investigation techniques needed to detect smuggling loads.

The ability to adapt is key — history has proven that Border Patrol Agents can do so with relative ease and innovation.

Border Patrol operations conducted in predominantly middle-class areas? Usually met with a more than moderate welcome reception from the general public. Border Patrol operations conducted on the largest Native American reservation in the United States, which coincidentally is located directly along the border with Mexico? Not so much. Coastal enforcement along the beachfronts on which multi-million dollar homes cover every square inch of that beachfront? “Glad to see you Agent X!” One-lane checkpoints near communities founded by avowed naysayers of the Federal Government? “You guys really piss me off!”

Border Patrol Agents must change their demeanor, approach to the general public, and level of awareness because across the board, demographics are a nightmare to keep straight. I’ve worked with agents who are on a first name basis with the locals — they know what schools their children go to and have even recruited those same children years later into the Border Patrol. These guys/gals are some of the most competent, affable, and articulate professionals that I know. Yet, they can be reduced to nothing but “tools of a Communist government” by an unappreciative, ignorant, and downright disrespectful populous that makes it a point to come through our checkpoints with the sole purpose of picking a fight.

It really pays to pick the brains of the permanently-assigned agents to see just which way the wind blows in any particular locale. It could mean the difference between having a passing motorist call 911 for you after you’ve been hit by a driver that wasn’t paying attention, or bleeding to death on that same spot while being passed up by people too disinterested to care. Callous, but all too true.

Let’s face it, in communities where a majority of the populous is working and/or earning a decent living, the likelihood of criminal activity associated with alien and/or narcotics smuggling — while not eliminated — is much lower than say in communities along the border where most people are unemployed. The social relationships and family bonds along the immediate border areas are inherently complex and diverse — blood lines and familial associations know no ‘border.’ Further complicating the issue is the fact that an immediate border community may rely heavily on the flow of commerce from Mexico into the U.S. and vice-versa.

It stands to reason, then, that agents must often take several days to observe daily activities in order to determine where they must focus their investigative skills and resources. It’s here that local intelligence is vital to accelerate that learning curve.

Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you that I’m simply no good with respect to politics, whether it’s Congressional- or agency-generated. Raised in a hardcore Irish-Catholic family from New York, the “Roosevelt” Democrat work ethic and tradition was instilled in me from the time I was very young. Suffice it to say, political views are a strongly held tradition but I’m not here to preach one party vs. the other. I only raise it because the sheer politics relative to any particular locale’s spot on the map are also a deeply held tradition. In San Diego, many citizens believe in what we’re doing, but many don’t.

Things get complicated when calls to Congressmen are made because someone had to wait an extra 15 minutes — in an already hour long commute home — due to the presence of a checkpoint on a major southern California freeway. Some citizens don’t like it when marked patrol units are screaming down their street in pursuit of a smuggler with 100 pounds of Meth in the trunk, but think nothing of it when their local fire department barrels through at the same rate of speed. Sure, a fire is an immediate concern, but when you think about it, that Methamphetamine will most assuredly result in the further destruction of dozens of lives, just not on the same city block perhaps. Several phone calls to a Congressional official later, the operational tempo may be ‘scaled back.’

Of course, high profile pursuits that result in severe injuries and/or deaths can lead to years of restrictive policies designed to take agents out of the fight for the ‘greater good.’ I’m not saying anything that law enforcement officers from across the country don’t already know and/or struggle with — whether you patrol a large city with a population in the millions or a rural hamlet where everyone knows everyone else — the bottom line is that politics remain the same, only the names are changed to protect the incumbents.

Although the temporary details can wreak havoc on the home lives and can represent a real mental challenge, Border Patrol Agents successful in spite of the obstacles and /or issues raised here. This diversity hones their focus and permits me to say that regardless of the incident, when you absolutely, positively, have to assert operational control in any given area, due to any given disaster and/or public unrest... TDY Border Patrol!

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