The Woman in the Tan Dress
The year was 2002, and my son Van had applied for a job with the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service. The background check alone took eight months, and DSS agents checked out every line of his resume, including contacting every name mentioned. Once Van passed that, he spent six+ months in intensive law enforcement training. His “final exam” consisted of three days on a protection detail guarding a protectee in all kinds of venues around Washington, D.C. His instructors followed the detail and graded them on their job performance.
My parents, my husband Jack and I visited DC for a week with plans to attend Van's DSS ‘graduation’. During the days Van was taking his final test, we visited the museums and historical sites around the Washington Mall. Van said if we wanted to see him in action, the protective detail would be visiting the Lincoln Memorial at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday morning. We were thrilled to get to see what part of his protective work would entail.
Van warned his father to not wear his cowboy hat, saying that somebody would put two and two together and figure out he was probably kin to Van. So Jack wore his Texas A&M cap, like that would be less obvious.
The closest the Metro (DC’s subway system) could get us was the Arlington Cemetery station, which was just under a mile from the Lincoln Memorial across the Potomac River. According to its schedule, it would drop us off with plenty of time to walk to the monument before Van’s detail arrived. Of all days, though, the Metro ran late on Thursday, so it arrived about the time Van’s detail was to arrive.
My parents had to wait for a trolley bus, but Jack and I took off running. About halfway across the Potomac River bridge, I ran out of gas. Jack grabbed my purse, thinking that would help me keep going, but I waved him on and grinned as I watched him run ahead with my purse hanging off his shoulder.
I walked quickly up the shaded road beside the memorial and spotted a tall man in a black suit and sunglasses standing in the middle of the road. His finger pressed against his ear and the spiral cord coming out of it told me he was a g-man, a government security agent. I realized that Van’s detail must’ve been running late, too. I looked ahead for Jack and saw him scouring the area for the detail as he ran up the steps to the giant, seated statue of Lincoln. I found a bench and sat down to wait for the show.
Several minutes later, three black vehicles pulled up to the curb not far from me, and men in black (sorry, couldn’t resist that) piled out of the first and last vehicles to surround the protectee’s car. They scanned the area as a petite woman, a former ambassador we were told, exited the vehicle. I felt just a tad envious towards her having such strong and capable young men guarding her every step. The detail began walking up the sidewalk towards me. I had my camera ready, and as the detail passed in front of me, I covertly snapped several pictures of my son and dropped my camera to my lap. He had his game face on— a serious, “I mean business" expression I don’t ever remember seeing before, but I noticed one side of his mouth turned up a fraction, acknowledging that he saw me. This was so exciting!
I stayed seated for a moment, then I stood up and followed, watching from a distance. My parents had even made it by then, so they got to see Van in action. As the detail started up the steps to the Memorial, I was horrified to see Jack hopping all around them taking pictures. I just knew he was going to give himself away and cause problems for Van.
The detail finished visiting the Memorial and returned to the vehicles, loaded up, and drove away. We were so thrilled we had seen Van doing his job. We hopped on the next trolley, which continued around the Mall, and when we stopped at the Air & Space Museum, my father decided he needed a bathroom break. Mind you, we had visited the A&S Museum the day before, but since that was primary reason we were able to persuade Dad to come to DC in the first place, we gave in and everyone hopped off. Halfway up the steps to the museum, I saw the same tall man in the black suit I’d seen standing in the road earlier and realized this must also be one of the protective detail’s stops. We had no idea, but we were going to see Van in action twice that day!
We walked inside the museum and spread out in different spots to watch the impressive-looking group enter. I could not believe it, but there was Jack AGAIN jumping around snapping pictures of Van. I was convinced our son was going to fail because of his overly proud father.
Van had told us about the men in his training group— former military or police officers, and one of the men in front of the detail used to be an Army Ranger. I figured he could kill a person 37 different ways. As the group walked toward me, he gave me a look like he was ready to throw me on the ground. It unnerved me enough that I backed behind some exhibit. I’m not sure I remembered to take any pictures in there.
We hung around and watched them until they left, giddy that we were able to witness this side of our son. Then we hopped back on another trolley to visit our next site. After about five minutes, my phone rang. I was surprised to hear Van’s voice.
“Muh-ther, you’re in trouble!” he said.
I laughed, assuming he was joking. But he wasn’t. I asked him what was the matter and assumed his father had caused problems since he was the one taking so many photos.
He said, “No, Mom, Dad was acting normal. People assume whoever we are guarding is someone important or famous, so they take pictures or even ask for autographs, oftentimes not even knowing who the protectee is. EVERYONE, even our DRIVER, keyed on you at the Memorial because you weren’t acting normal. They noticed you took pictures, but dropped your camera like you didn’t want to be noticed. Then when they saw you a second time at the Air & Space Museum, they were convinced you were part of the test. They were burning up the radio talking about that woman in the tan dress! Since my instructors were listening in, I had to go off radio and tell the team, ‘Stand down, guys, that’s just my mother.’ They’ll never let me live this down.“
My stomach dropped. That Army Ranger WAS about to tackle me a few minutes ago. And now I probably caused my son to fail the training after all his hard work. I decided if they did allow him to graduate, I couldn’t show my face at the ceremony. No, that’s why we came up here. I would find a blonde wig to wear. No, they’d see through that. I felt sick.
Our son did graduate, and we attended the graduation ceremony early the next evening, thank heavens, but I kept a low profile. Van and his teammates celebrated at a pub downtown, and later Van called and asked his dad if he could pick him up. Jack asked me to come along and help navigate, and we were both in our pajamas (t-shirts and stretchy pants). Did you know that DC’s freeways do not have access roads like we do in Texas? If you miss your exit (like we did that night), you don’t just get off the next one, turn around and stay on the access road until you get back to the right road. DC roads spit you out who knows where and good luck trying to find your way back. We missed our exit and were lost in no time at all.
If we hadn’t had cell phones, we would still be looking for that place. Van ended up being our GPS system and guided us there by phone, but he still had to stand out in the middle of the street for us to find him. Jack parked down the block.
Van came to the car and said, “The guys want to meet y’all.”
I told him, “Absolutely not!” since I was dressed in my pjs, but even more so because I was still embarrassed about the day before. So they went in without me.
A few minutes later, Van returned and said, “Momma, they’re going to come out here and carry you inside if you don’t come in and meet them.”
The thought of them trying to pick me up (and the greater humiliation it would cause when they developed hernias and dropped me) forced me to change my mind. I reluctantly got out of the car and followed Van. Shame upon shame.
I think the scary Army Ranger was the first person I met, and he laughed and gave me a big hug. I got to meet all of the team and their wives, and gone were the serious ‘I mean business’ body guard faces. They were wonderful, and I was so impressed with them all.
That was eighteen years ago, and Van’s job with the DSS has taken him all over the world and enabled him to guard some extraordinary people. He’s worked and lived in some of the most beautiful and some of the most dangerous places on the planet. And although that incident on the Washington Mall wasn’t the first time I embarrassed him, I’m sorry to report it also wasn’t the last.
Next incident… Benghazi.
Donna Van Cleve
Jack and the woman in the tan dress in front of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
Van is left front in this detail. I'm sure it's okay to use these top secret photos
Van, which is an alias only known to his family and friends prior to college, with his game face on.
I think they were playing musical cars here.
This is when the detail showed up at the Air & Space Museum, which we didn't know about, but we just happened to be there.
Jack & I at the Air & Space Museum the day before we saw Van's detail there. What is it with that tan skirt? Why didn't somebody check me before I walked out the door?
Van graduated, thank heavens, despite my covert failure.
I learned I would not make a good spy.