Mission Essential

With the return of the annual United Nations General Assembly in September, heads of state from 100 countries around the world descended upon New York City with their entourages, limousines and motorcades. The advent of the 77th delegation was the first time since before the pandemic that the assembly was meeting in person. The week of September 19 began in New York with security checkpoints, traffic delays, detours, street closures and gridlock alerts. As world leaders came together
to discuss some of the greatest global challenges, the Secret Service was faced with its own challenge— implementing and overseeing the colossal-scale operation necessary to keep those leaders safe. And yet, for the four Citadel graduates in the Secret Service who work in the Office of Protective Operations, it was just another assignment.

“I knew it was gonna be tough, and I knew it was gonna be a challenge. And I think that’s part of what drew me,” he said. “It’s unique. Not everybody can do it.”

Yates Gupton, ’97, may very well have been talking about his job as the assistant special agent in charge of staffing and logistics in the Office of Protective Operations, but instead he was describing his alma mater.

If you ask Gupton or any of his Citadel colleagues in OPO—Brent Daniels, Andrew Lempp or Ty Yount—what led them to the military college, the answers are almost interchangeable. They wanted to serve.

Yount was a middle school student in Morganton, North Carolina, when the Gulf War played out on the evening news and inspired in him a need to serve. He was a well- rounded student—an athlete, a member of the band and an Eagle Scout. In 1993, in the days before the internet explosion, it was from a bookshelf in his guidance counselor’s office that he discovered The Citadel.

“I was like a moth to a flame,” Yount said. “I went for a weekend visit, and then, of course, I was hooked.”

At The Citadel, Yount majored in physics and served as First Battalion commander. After graduating in 1999, he received a commission in the U.S. Marine Corps where he served for eight years, with deployments to Okinawa and Iraq before separating and applying to the Secret Service.

Lempp also accepted a military commission after graduation. In fact, 20% of the Secret Service’s 8,000 employees are veterans. A Kilo Company cadet, a political science major and a Summerall Guard, Lempp began his Air Force career in 1994 as a logistics officer working on deployment plans. He then accepted an assignment as a command and control officer coordinating airlift missions for the Army.

Similar to Yount and Lempp, Gupton and Daniels had careers in law enforcement before beginning the competitive application process to become a special agent. Gupton, a Tango Company cadet and a political science major, graduated in 1997 and worked for the North Carolina State Highway Patrol in Raleigh for six years before joining the Secret Service. Daniels, a freshman in Tango Company while Gupton served on cadre, began his law enforcement career with the Cobb County Police Department in the Atlanta metropolitan area after graduating in 1999 with a degree in English. From patrol, Daniels worked in a gang investigation unit. After that, he was promoted to detective and worked in counter terrorism with a joint terrorism task force. Four years later, he started as a Secret Service agent in the Atlanta field office.

The Secret Service was created in 1865 by the Treasury Department to combat the rampant counterfeiting wave threatening the nation’s financial stability after the Civil War. Thirty-six years later, after the assassination of President William McKinley, the agency took on the responsibility of presidential protection. In 2003, the Secret Service began operating under the Department of Homeland Security, and today the agency continues its integrated mission of investigation and protection. Investigation ranges from counterfeiting and identity theft to combatting transnational cyber criminals and organizations. Protection includes the current president and vice president as well as their immediate families, former presidents and their spouses, presidential candidates and their spouses, and visiting foreign heads of states, which is why the Secret Service is the lead agency in charge of the oversight and coordination of the General Assembly in New York.

Today, the Secret Service has an exhaustive hiring process. To qualify, applicants must be in excellent physical condition and pass a written aptitude test as well as a physical fitness test. They must qualify for top secret security clearance and undergo an extensive background check. Successful candidates must pass what the agency calls a “super interview” as well as polygraph screening that includes criminal screening and national security screening.

Secret Service training lasts a grueling eight months. Half of the training takes place at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia, and half in Beltsville, Maryland, at the Secret Service training facility, a 490-acre compound. The Beltsville training facility houses classrooms and firing ranges, an armorer’s workshop and a canine training facility. Two tactical villages let students practice simulated attacks on protectees. Recruits spend time in the classroom, learning essential investigative and protective procedures, and hands-on time learning skills like high-speed driving and advanced weapons techniques.

“You can’t walk in the door without running into somebody that is way better than you in the Secret Service,” said Yount. “There’s just all these unbelievable people who challenge you to be a better person every day, and that for me is the highlight.

It’s like I keep coming back for more. It challenges you to be a better person. It challenges you to think differently and work harder because you don’t want to let anybody down that’s around you. I think what is so amazingly interesting about the Secret Service is the quality of person who we seek out and find and hire.”

After completing their training, special agents are assigned to one of more than 150 field offices throughout the United States and abroad where they begin the first phase of their career, investigating financial crimes such as counterfeiting, credit card fraud, wire and bank fraud, and a host of other cyber financial criminal activity. In 2021 alone, the agency confiscated more than $51 million in counterfeit currency and charged 937 people with financial crimes.

The second phase in the career of a Secret Service special agent is protection. Daniels, however, took a detour. After four years in the Atlanta field office,h e entered into the selection process for the counter assault program, a specialized tactical division that provides support to the presidential protective division. Following a rigorous two-week selection process largely based on physical fitness and firearm proficiency, Daniels was off for more training—six weeks of the agency’s most rigorous training, which has an attrition rate of 50%.

“The purpose of the counter assault team,” said Daniels, who played football while at The Citadel and served as vice chairman of the Honor Court his senior year, “is to directly support and protect the president of the United States wherever he goes, 24/7, 365 days a year, against a state-sponsored or organized assault. We also support the president and vice president, as well as those directed by the president through executive order who are traveling to high-threat or critical-threat environments throughout the world.”

In 2008-2009 this meant supporting combat zone travel in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We were the entity designated to respond to a worst-case scenario,” said Daniels, “something kinetic, organized, well trained, fully funded, directed towards the office of the presidency—an awesome responsibility, but also an awesome capability because of the level of commitment of the people in that program. It felt like a homecoming to me to be surrounded again by driven and measured people, just as I was at The Citadel.”

Depending on the day’s assignment, members of the counter assault team might be outfitted in body armor and helmets, with long guns and automatic rifles. After three years on the counter assault team, Daniels left to work on the presidential protective detail. While the agency was founded to protect the nation’s financial infrastructure, protection detail has become the agency’s calling card. Work on protective detail means six years of long hours, nights, weekends and holidays.

Base during Vice President Al Gore’s visit to Seattle in 1995, was lured to the agency by the promise of worldwide travel combined with law enforcement. During his phase two assignment, he worked on the treasury secretary’s detail for one year and four and a half years on presidential detail. Before joining the Office of Protective Operations in July, he traveled worldwide and oversaw the protective details for heads of state—kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers.

“I always enjoyed history,” said Lempp, “and just seeing some of the things that we got to see. At 11:00 at night, being the only person standing on the south grounds of the White House, looking up at the house lit up is a neat thing. Or serving in an award ceremony for a Medal of Honor recipient or just being next to history as it occurs.”

For the Secret Service, presidential travel is a carefully choreographed undertaking. Normal planning for an event is called a standard advance. A security plan is mapped out. There’s an advance team with a lead agent who oversees individual agents covering various sites and plans (airport, residence, transportation, airspace). Agents work closely with local field offices and other law enforcement. Personnel, equipment and vehicles are flown to destination cities, and when the event is over, it’s all flown back.

“The vice president is going to LA tomorrow,” said Gupton in an interview at Secret Service headquarters in August, “so this morning, the vice president’s detail transportation section loaded her vehicles and other members of our special team. Counter assault or Uniform Division magnetometer support unit—transportation folks—loaded her vehicles and equipment onto a C-17 out at Andrews to fly to Los Angeles today, so they’ll land and get set up to be ready for her to get there tomorrow.”

Then there’s also the spontaneous trip. In Secret Service parlance, it’s an OTR or an off-the-record movement when, for example, the president has a craving for Italian.

“Our job is to provide them a secure environment to do that. Sometimes we have time to plan like we want,” said Gupton. “If we don’t let the restaurant know, if we don’t let everybody else know, then it’s not as big of a production. The chaos starts once we get there.”

Now in the third phase of his Secret Service career, Gupton is occupied in what is known as the “war room,” coordinating all Secret Service protective details to ensure that they have the personnel to carry out their protective missions.

For Gupton, the glamor and intrigue of faraway places and law enforcement began when he was a young boy. Growing up in Supply, North Carolina, a small coastal community 30 miles south of Wilmington, he and his younger brother, Joel, received packages from their beloved Aunt Pat.Postmarks from curious places all over the world sent them scurrying to atlases and encyclopedias to learn more about the countries where Pat, who had a mysterious job with the CIA, was working.

Gupton has been with the agency for 17 years now in an exciting career that’s landed him on the periphery of history and taken him all over the globe—Brussels, Bulgaria, Ethiopia, France, Great Britain, Ireland,

Japan, Laos, Senegal, Tanzania, Vietnam. He was in England for the queen’s 90th birthday in 2016,when President Obama joined her for lunch, and in France on President Trump’s 2019 visit to Normandy for the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion before a gravesite of almost 10,000 American service members.

Like Daniels, Lempp and Yount, Gupton has come a long way from the Southern boy who reported for matriculation, young and eager, ready for a challenge—ready to serve. Their mission, essential. Their hard work and their dedication, an inspiration to scores of Citadel cadets who hope one day to follow in their footsteps.