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Nation's invisible soldiers

Until Wednesday afternoon, many of us probably thought of security guards as annoyances. That's if we thought of them at all.

They're ubiquitous in Washington — checking our IDs, telling us to empty our pockets, directing us through the magnetometer — such a constant presence that they can become invisible, just another extension of the security apparatus that's attached to nearly every aspect of public life these days.

And then suddenly something happens. A man tries to get into a museum. He has a weapon. There's shooting.

On Wednesday, Stephen Johns, of Temple Hills, Md., died. He was shot at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He was a security guard.

We'll no doubt find out more in the coming days about exactly what happened there, but what seems clear is that a job that might strike many of us as boring can, in a heartbeat, become anything but.

We tend to lump all security guards together. The industry prefers the title security officer, actually, and the jobs these officers do are varied. Some officers are uniformed receptionists — armed with a badge but no gun, calling up to tell us our meeting participant has arrived. Some poke through our purses with a wooden stick before allowing us into the gallery. Some have guns as deadly-looking as anything you'd see on an Army post. Some guard Army posts.

Some of the jobs pay well. Others, not so much. But no matter the pay, there's a certain risk that comes with the gig: You have a uniform and some authority. One day at work, you might find yourself standing between a bad person and what that bad person wants.

Forgotten soldiers of an invisible empire — that's what Chris Hertig, who teaches criminal justice at York College in Pennsylvania, calls them.

"You wouldn't think of them as being in a dangerous position, but they can be the first line, if you will, between people with bad intentions and other folks," Kevin Sandkuhler told me Wednesday. He's president and chief executive of Pinkerton Government Services in Springfield, Va., which provides guards for places such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon.

Said Sandkuhler: "In Washington, D.C., I think we're all numb to the presence of security officers. You see them in every building. You see them on the street corner. You see them in parking facilities. … I think most of the time people are quick to complain about a security officer not being as quick or efficient as they want them to be, rather than thinking of the purpose they serve or the part they play in protecting (us)."

The last year has seen two movies about security officers, neither film what you'd call an homage to an honorable profession. There was Paul Blart: Mall Cop and then Observe and Report"

"A tumbling, bumbling overweight guy," Sandkuhler says of Hollywood's depiction. "That's the conception people have — except when they're trained to do CPR and save somebody's life or do the Heimlich maneuver and save somebody's life, then there's a different perspective."

Douglas Hall is the chair of the Council for Museums, Libraries and Cultural Properties at ASIS, an association of security professionals based in Alexandria, Va. He's also the associate director of protection services at the Smithsonian. Every museum in town is filled with guards, from the entrances to the galleries. They're in a different category than other security officers, he said. They interact with the public more.

"Occasionally you'll find they understand the art or the nature of the exhibit," Douglas said. That's probably inevitable when you're surrounded by culture.

As awful as what happened Wednesday was — a man is dead — it sounds like the security officers did their job.

It's a job that might have annoyed you in the past. The next time a security guard slows you down, don't fume. Say thanks.

Nation's invisible soldiers 06/12/09 [Last modified: Friday, June 12, 2009 7:24pm]
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