Academies Closed, but Learning Continues
Trainees and instructors at CBP’s training academies get lessons on patience and perseverance during COVID-19 pandemic
For millions of students and teachers across the country, schools are closed due to the coronavirus. U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s academies where new CBP officers and Border Patrol agents are trained to defend America’s front line are no different, but the trainees – and the instructors – are still learning.
Thomas Gursky, a Border Patrol academy trainee, was just partially through the 24-week U.S. Border Patrol Academy course in Artesia, New Mexico, when he – and about 620 other trainees – were sent home in late March due to COVID-19.
“We were pretty confused in the beginning with everything else going on,” Gursky said. “But we got all our gear together, and it pretty much hit us this was a pretty big situation, and we just needed to keep calm ourselves.”
Just as the academies were carrying out the initial order to suspend training and send trainees home, they received another order to send instructors to the northern border to help Border Patrol there and allow trainees, where possible, to report to local CBP offices and Border Patrol stations near their homes of record to help out in non-law enforcement duties.
So Gursky hasn’t been spending his time at home in Orlando, Florida, doing nothing while awaiting to rejoin his class and eventually make it to his first duty station along the Rio Grande in South Texas. Like many of the other Border Patrol Academy trainees who had to leave with just a couple of days’ notice, he’s been reporting for administrative duties at the Orlando Border Patrol station near his home.
“I’m a really ‘hands-on’ kind of guy, and it’s a good opportunity to come out here and see the work being done in my hometown. It keeps your head in the game,” he said.
“We were able to find some creative ways for these trainees – even though they’re not full-fledged, sworn Border Patrol agents yet – to help and contribute to the mission,” said Chief Patrol Agent Jason Owens, in charge of the U.S. Border Patrol Academy. “We have them at sectors now doing everything from helping provide personal protective equipment (face masks, gloves, etc.) for agents and detainees to helping disinfect vehicles and areas that are commonly used, monitoring surveillance systems along the border, and helping agents whenever traffic is crossing. So anything and everything that these agents can contribute not just in the fight against COVID-19, but also the border security mission.”
The same is true for the new CBP officers – those who wear the blue uniforms– who were at the Field Operations Academy in southeast Georgia. About 1,000 of those trainees also had to head home partway through their four-month training program, with many of those also going to local CBP offices to help out where they can.
“The ports are keeping them engaged with learning and contributing to the mission, mostly through administrative duties since they’ve not successfully graduated as certified CBP officers,” said Andrew Garcia, acting deputy director of the Field Operations Academy. This frees up the veteran officers at the ports of entry for their law enforcement work.
In addition, the Field Operations Academy sent trainees their iPads so they could keep up on their lessons plans, and instructors could teach them virtually, where possible. Garcia said the whole situation reinforces what they teach new CBP officers: be ready for the unexpected. “Everything has to be fluid when you’re in a law enforcement position, because today is not going to be the same as tomorrow, and routine is never routine.”
While the trainees have been picking up what non-law enforcement duties they can at their local Field Operations and Border Patrol offices, the instructors at both academies went to the northern border to help Border Patrol Agents there.
“We’re learning a lot from the agents here,” said Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Isaac Villegas, who was serving as Owens’ adjutant and has taught trainees in the past. Villegas, who has spent most of his career in southern Texas, was sent to a much chillier – and snowier – Wellesley Island Station in Upstate New York, where he’s working on a northern river border with Canada, as opposed to the ranchlands and Rio Grande where he grew up and usually worked. “This is another learning experience for me, to be able to see the difference between how northern border agents work traffic versus southern border agents and be able to speak from firsthand knowledge and let the trainees know that when they get to the field, these are some of the things you can expect. But no matter what station you go to, it’s always about securing our borders and getting home safe at the end of the shift.”
He said trainees and instructors will get a lot out of this experience.
“It’s something we’ll be able to take back to the academy and apply it when we do talk to our trainees,” Villegas said. “[The trainees are] learning that, we are agents and because of our training, no matter what task we are given, we’re going to be able to accomplish it with confidence.”
His counterpart in blue, Sid Lagos, a branch chief at the Field Operations Academy, echoed those sentiments. For Lagos – who went from southeast Georgia to northern Vermont – and his CBP officer colleagues, they are getting a unique opportunity to see what Border Patrol agents do every day, a job that differs greatly from a typical day for CBP officers.
“It’s not traditional CBP officer duty,” Lagos said, but he believes it will pay off down the road. “We are one family. I think this goes a long way to building relationships, so we understand each other and each other’s missions, and we can work more together.”
Garcia agreed the mixing of the two components will reap dividends later on.
“They’re working hand-in-hand with their Border Patrol counterparts,” he said. “I think it will give Border Patrol a little more confidence in their blue partners. Maybe it will allow Border Patrol to say, ‘We’ve had CBP officers up here, and they can do the job just as well as we can. Let’s call blue, because blue is there to help us.’”
Owens recognized the sacrifice his trainees and instructors have made through all of this. While not knowing when they could return, he said this is invaluable experience for both groups, and he looks forward to the day when they all come back to Artesia, New Mexico.
“It can be an interruption, it can be a pain, but it’s also a once-in-a-lifetime experience they’ll probably talk about for the rest of their lives,” he said, adding the response by both academies – and CBP as a whole – is in the finest tradition of the agency protecting the U.S. “The border security mission is always there. This is about the health and safety of the American people.”
As for Gursky, he admitted that at the beginning, this whole process of suspending his Border Patrol academy training, going back home and then trying to help at the Border Patrol station in Orlando was confusing. But it fit with what his instructors were telling him about working through the “tactical fog” of a high-stress situation.
“They tell us to take a quick step back to [look again] at the situation of what’s going on, and then to push forward immediately after that short pause,” Gursky said, adding that while he’s still learning in Orlando, he wants to return to New Mexico and finish what he started. “It’s nice being home, but we all are anxious to get back to the academy.”