x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The human side of Hillary Clinton's guardian angels

Meet some of the women who protect the US secretary of state.

Brittany Cross, foreground, and other members of Hillary Clinton's security detail keep watch during a trip in the United Arab Emirates.
Brittany Cross, foreground, and other members of Hillary Clinton's security detail keep watch during a trip in the United Arab Emirates.

To be a woman on the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton's security team, you have to be fast, smart and tough - and willing to take a bullet, even if you're in heels.

The number of women on Clinton's Protective Detail team has been increasing (there are now 13, about a fifth of the force guarding her), in part because three of the past four secretaries of state have been women.

I observed them over several months - in the gym, on the firing range, in the mat room decking each other. Their regimen is exhaustive, physically and mentally, with quarterly fitness and weapons proficiency tests. They rehearse until the choreography of a crisis is etched into their reflexes. They learn how to fire four kinds of guns upside down, do 45 push-ups in two minutes, and jog for blocks alongside rolling motorcades.

The women share a sisterhood of state secrets: the spandex in Banana Republic suits makes for easier scrambling out of SUVs; for holster abrasions, rub cocoa butter into the skin on your hips; if you're in Mexico and can't get to a StairMaster, run up and down the ancient stone steps at the Pyramid of the Sun. In Egypt, one agent explains, where there's no time for bathroom breaks (so you barely drink), you can soothe your parched throat by sucking on cough drops.

They are single, funny young women who wake up at 4.30am to meditate and 20 hours later fall asleep to the Food Network. They splurge on facials. They pack 100-calorie bags of apricots. And they can take down an assailant with one precise strike.

It's a job that can take some getting used to.

"I'm a piano player. I'm from St Louis. I'd never fired a weapon before. I was never in a fight. I'd never left North America," says Megan Mulherin, 29. "At first the gun feels like a brick on your right side, but I got used to the weight on my hip. When I take it off, it feels like something's missing."

And life on the road has its setbacks.

"When you're abroad, there's no time to eat until you're starving, and then you eat complete crap, fast," says Brittany Cross, 24. "In Egypt, I was awake for two days straight; I ate a whole pepperoni pizza and regretted it. At home, I like to look at a bowl of fresh fruit, even if I know I'll never be home long enough to eat it."