Story by Danielle Breteau • Photographs by John Oliver
There are thousands of security contractors operating in high-threat environments and within that group there are a handful of women. They sport the same body armor and equipment, have to uphold the same physical requirements and are expected, by their male peers, to do the exact same work – protect people from danger, up to and including losing their own life.
On the subject of whether women should be in elite military forces, the jury is still out; however females in high-level close protection who cover a range of clients from foreign dignitaries and ambassadors to government and corporate employees and their international guests are holding their own. They are widely accepted within the elite cadre of close-protection specialists and have a significant role to play. The average current ratio is one woman to one hundred men, but it is growing.
Women in high-threat security is not a myth, and they can be found in some of the most austere environments. They are expected to protect their charges with the same strength, stamina and tactical capabilities as their male counterparts.
In high-threat protection, the primary role is to avoid conflict. This requires a thinking approach. Forethought, flexibility, contingency planning and the ability to seamlessly make changes on the move are paramount. One cannot passively wait for an event to occur and then try to come up with a solution – not well, anyway. This proactive form of protection is all in the training and preparation. Male or female, everyone must be on constant alertand in top physical condition.
“That’s not a girl, that’s Dani, she doesn’t count.”
While there aren’t many women in these roles, they are around and they are awesome in their own right. You’ll find an array of backgrounds as equally diverse as with the men. What sets these women apart is obvious: they stand out in the crowd amongst their peers; they don’t blindly follow expectations; and have taken their own paths. This alone says a great deal for the personality, composure and perseverance of the ladies in these roles.
The experiences, traumas and tribulations a team will go through together, bonds them. People who have been in the military or high-stress situations together are very familiar with this connection.
Areas such as Kuwait are still considered high-threat areas although this country has stabilized considerably since the Gulf War.
OTHER SECURITY ROLES WOMEN CAN PLAY
While high-threat protection is its own category of security, and is often titled as such based on the austere locations and level of threat in an area, there are many other possibilities where women can and do excel in protective security roles. Positions such as executive and family protection are at the top of the list, especially for clients looking for a low-profile signature. Most executives and dignitaries comport themselves in a low-key, quiet manner and prefer to remain under the radar. In contrast, these people differ from, say, music celebrities, whose requirement is to be seen and recognized, as well as protected. The protection professional in this case is up front, easily identifiable, often physically large and may even wear a shirt that says security.
The term ‘high-threat’ is an allocation for areas in the world set by the United States. This designation determines all sorts of factors from the type of gear one might be issued, to protocol and even pay rate.
Protection is not only about physical protection, but also about avoiding unpleasant issues or any number of troubling matters one can encounter throughout the day. Women can offer not only a security element, but the appearance of an assistant or administrator who can blend easily into the background, allowing for an excellent vantage point to watch over the client. Oftentimes, women readily offer the ability to deftly mitigate a negative situation simply via, potentially, a naturally disarming presence.
High-income families commonly need a discrete signature. A large male bodybuilder-type following a woman and her children around may not be desirable. In this instance it would be much easier for a woman the blend in.
POSSIBILITIES FOR WOMEN IN PROTECTIVE SECURITY
Often when considering protective personnel, the preference is that the candidate comes from either a law-enforcement or military background; however that isn’t always necessary. There are quite a few reputable companies, like Gavin de Becker or government agencies such as the US State Department and Department of Homeland Security that train and hire their own candidates. This is not a comprehensive list and research on your own will open up all sorts of possibilities.
Major corporations, the entertainment industry, government subcontractors and the United Nations usually require previous and extensive background in protective services, which can be obtained by some of the examples above, but there are schools specifically designed to certify people for personal protection. The level of threat will dictate the requirement.
I have been in protective security and dispatched to numerous locations in the Middle East, Southwest Asia and South America over the last 14 years.My initial background was founded in law enforcement where I was on a SWAT team. In each location I worked with all facets of former military personnel to include Special Forces, Army Rangers, Navy SEALS, Marine Recon and others. Once integrated into a team, I found that teamates, after their initial discomfort, accept me as one of their own. I have always taken this as the ultimate compliment. I also made a point to never complain, make sure I was squared away and helped anyone I could.
As the designatedM249 SAW gunner, I was expected to handle, keep and maintain the SAW along with my other weapons. There is no special treatment for women in high threat nor should there be.
A teammate once told me a story of his wife’s jealous reaction when she saw a photo of his team in Baghdad. She noticed and was upset that there was a female amongst the men. My colleague, immediately confused, asked “Where?” When his wife pointed at my image, he laughed and said, “That’s not a girl, that’s Dani, she doesn’t count.” I saw this comment as his acceptance of me in the team. I have always been proud of working with these men and have remained bonded buddies with almost all of them over the years.
Once a capable woman has established herself within a team that functions cohesively, the gender lines blur.
complete honesty, I tend to judge females coming into these roles possibly more harshly than men do. The last thing I want is the wrong type of woman stepping into these roles with their high mental and physical requirements. A female, or anyone for that matter, who cannot handle critical-thinking situations, is a whiner, cannot tough it out and make the mission work by putting aside their needs for the benefit of the team does not deserve to be there, in my opinion. Women are expected to be a burden to these teams, therefore, it is imperative that they aren’t. I am proud to say that I was the first female qualified as a tactical commander on a world-renowned high-threat contract and followed it up by becoming the first female shift leader to lead a team of men on a high-threat contract. I have no tolerance for someone who plays in a role they are not qualified to handle. That may sound harsh, but I feel that any woman who works in these positions needs to be a role model to their team and future women.
I hold on strongly to my femininity, take great pleasure in being a proper girl and have the bows and dresses to prove it – my husband approves – however, working in austere and dangerous locations requires constant focus and clear thinking. Not only are the lives of our clients in our hands, but also those of our teammates. All the women I have had the honor to work with are a different breed. We take our roles seriously and often work harder than our male peers just to be accepted, yet we still manage to remain feminine– and bake a mean batch of cookies.♠
Gear, clothing, weapon options and appearance can change daily depending on the client, the venue and the mission.