Genesis Publishing Group
They called it the “grinder.” When my academy experience began, I had no idea what that meant. I would learn soon enough. Though technically the “grinder” was a place, its significance was not its location as much as it was what happened to an unsuspecting soul (like me) once he or she got there. The “grinder” was a section of the academy parking lot where drill instructors applied the unique skills of their vocation as they ground recruits—like a butcher grinds hamburger out of a chunk of beef—into remnants of their former selves. The goal was to shatter each recruit’s self-absorbed sense of individuality in order to mold them collectively into a cohesive unit.
The uniform of the day, and for the first few weeks of training, was business attire (suits). Though already hired by the department, recruits had to earn the right to wear the uniform of a Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff. That was achieved by successfully completing the various phases of physical, academic, and tactical training—and by surviving the “grinder.”
The most dreaded assignment for the recruit was that of class sergeant, who was given the responsibility of marching the class to and from the various locations, calling cadence, and taking roll. This was not a coveted position among recruits, at least not during the first several weeks of training. Those selected to be class sergeant early in the academy were not chosen for their natural abilities or military bearing. On the contrary, the class sergeant was often the recruit who caught the predatory eye of one or more of the drill instructors. Deficiencies in performance, bearing, or attitude were some of the indicators that drill instructors looked for in recruits when determining who should be the next class sergeant.
If a recruit survived the stint as class sergeant—which could last from a day to a week (or longer)—he or she would be summarily dismissed back to the platoon. The march back to the ranks was often accompanied by the drill instructors’ personal critiques, which were often laced with expletives and other insulting jargon. These were the days before the term “political correctness” was on the radar of society’s consciousness.
One of the drill instructors would then bark the question we recruits quickly learned to dread: Who wants to be class sergeant? Every recruit’s right hand would shoot into the air, hoping against hope that his or her name would not be called. Not raising your hand guaranteed your immediate recruitment into the position.
“Who wants to be class sergeant?” one of the drill instructors yelled. My right hand, along with a hundred other right hands, shot skyward. The drill instructor who asked the question called out the name of the unfortunate individual chosen to serve as our next class sergeant. “Recruit Mitchell, get up here!”
Our platoons were organized in alphabetical order. Art Mitchell was in my platoon, and he stood immediately to my right. Art sighed (not loud enough for a drill instructor to hear, however) as he picked up his briefcase (containing our training manuals, which we carried with us at all times) and began to make his way to the front of the class. Relieved, the rest of us put our hands down and stood at attention. Inwardly, every recruit’s emotions were mixed. I know mine were. While we felt for Art because of the pain he was about to endure, each of us was thinking, Better you than me, buddy.
Art made it about halfway to the front of the class when the air was pierced by the thundering voice of our “Ramrod” (the lead drill instructor), Deputy Johnson. “No! No! No!” he yelled. “I want recruit Miano up here!”
I couldn’t believe my ears. The Ramrod had just personally picked me to be the next class sergeant. My mind raced as I tried to figure out what I had done to raise the hackles of the Ramrod. I was ranked in the top half of the class in every discipline, and I tried my best not to draw too much negative attention to myself.
I picked up my briefcase and made my way around the class to the front. I could feel every eye upon me. Some people would have considered this a good time to pray—but the thought never crossed my mind. At that point in my life, as I stood on the hot blacktop, wondering if the health spa where I worked prior to being hired by the Sheriff’s Department would take me back, I didn’t care about God. As far as I was concerned, God hadn’t helped me before, and I wasn’t expecting Him to help me now. I figured I was alone, and I could find a way out of the mess in which I found myself. I was wrong.
All the drill instructors were huddled off to one side of the class. I could feel their sinister smiles on the back of my neck as I passed them, being sure not to make even peripheral eye contact with them. They were like a school of sharks, and they could smell blood in the water—my blood. I centered myself in front of the class, stood at attention, and waited for my first set of instructions. I was nervous. I was scared. And I didn’t have a clue. The only thing I knew about military close-order drill was what I learned from some of my favorite John Wayne movies. Again, let me reiterate, I didn’t have a clue.
Deputy Arviso, a short and stocky street cop, a veteran of the streets of East Los Angeles, was the drill instructor who now stood in front of me. After a few excruciating moments of silence, Deputy Arviso spoke. “Recruit Miano,” he said, “we don’t know if you’re overly enthusiastic or just stressed out, but we’re going to find out this week.”
Overly enthusiastic or stressed out? I thought. Why do they think I’m stressed out? I was stressed out, but I couldn’t figure out what I had done to show it.
Deputy Arviso then very quietly gave me a piece of sage advice that shed some light on why I found myself in such an unenviable position. He said, “When an instructor addresses you, it is not necessary for you to yell your response at the top of your lungs.” I immediately knew what he was talking about. With Hollywood providing my only “military training,” I thought that any time someone in authority spoke to me, I should respond very firmly—and even louder still. So, that’s exactly what I did. Although I looked at my actions as a show of commitment and enthusiasm, I could certainly see why someone on the receiving end of my enthusiasm might mistake it for stress. The truth is, I did use my enthusiasm to mask my stress, or so I thought.
Deputy Arviso stepped away, beyond the range of my peripheral vision, only to be quickly replaced by the Ramrod, Deputy Johnson. “Recruit Miano,” he began, “do you have any military experience?”
He knew full well that I didn’t have any military experience. Every recruit was required to write a short autobiography prior to the start of the academy. I couldn’t lie. That would have been a breach of integrity and the end of my career, before it ever got started. But simply saying “no” wasn’t an option either. That was the answer he wanted, and it would have given him one more reason (not that he needed one) to read me the riot act.
Looking straight ahead, without making eye contact with the Ramrod, I said the first thing that came to mind. This is a manner of response—both before that particular day and since—that has not always brought me the desired positive reaction from the person with whom I’m speaking.
“Sir, no, sir!” I yelled. “But I was a high-ranking Webelos Scout!”
“My Life is Over!”
I couldn’t believe what had just come out of my mouth. For those of you unfamiliar with the rank structure of the Cub Scouts of America, a Webelos Scout is the highest Cub Scout rank before a youngster enters the Boy Scouts. Recalling the achievement of my youth, and doing so loud enough for every recruit and instructor to hear, had a noticeable impact on all who were present. It was not the impact I had hoped for, but certainly the kind I should have expected—had I been thinking.
As soon as the words left my mouth, the Ramrod’s cheeks filled with air, in an obvious attempt to keep from laughing and losing his military bearing. He quickly turned and marched to where the rest of the instructors were gathered. I could hear the sharks laughing. And then I noticed the demeanor of the entire class of recruits. My classmates, like the Ramrod, were fighting to keep from breaking into uproarious laughter. They looked like stalks of wheat, swaying back and forth in a swirling breeze, all of them holding their breath until their faces began to turn red.
As I recall that miserable day, all those years ago, I can’t help but think of a scene from one of my favorite baseball movies, The Sandlot. The movie’s main character, Scotty Smalls, heads for the sandlot, hoping to fit in with the other kids by taking up the game of baseball. His hat, which featured a picture of a trout on the front, had a brim that was way too big. His glove was made of plastic. He had a better chance of catching the plague than catching a baseball.
Scotty makes his way through the bushes and finds himself standing in left field, awestruck by the prowess with which the other kids were playing the game. He hears a large dog growl behind him and turns his head just as Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez rips a long fly ball to left field. Scotty hears the other kids yell, “Watch out!” He turns back just in time to see the white, round missile heading straight for his face. Scotty throws his arms in front of his face, screams, and falls to the ground just before the ball glances off his glove.
As to be expected, the other kids laugh at Scotty’s miscue. In an attempt to redeem himself, Scotty chases after the ball, which, by now, has rolled into the bushes. He tries to discipline and motivate himself by repeatedly muttering under his breath, “Don’t be a goofus!” He picks up the ball after being startled yet again by “the beast”—a very large, junkyard dog. Scotty pulls himself out of the bushes with ball in hand, only to realize that he doesn’t know how to throw.
After a few awkward seconds of trying to figure out the mechanics of throwing a ball, Scotty does his best to get the ball back into the infield. The ball travels all of three feet, bouncing on the ground in front of him. The other kids are now on the ground, holding their stomachs, and laughing uncontrollably. Scotty puts his head down and mumbles to himself, “My life is over.” Then he turns and runs home.
Scotty Smalls, the goofus, I would like you to meet Tony Miano, the high-ranking Webelos Scout.
Scotty and I shared so much that day. As I made my way to the front of the class, I’m sure I mumbled something like, “Don’t be a goofus! Don’t be a goofus!” Not yet a Christian, I probably added a few very colorful adjectives here and there. And, after I confessed my position in the Cub Scouts to the Ramrod and saw my peers fighting back the laughter, I, like Scotty Smalls, thought, My life is over!
I was completely convinced that I would never wear the uniform of a deputy sheriff. My verbal faux pas surely all but guaranteed my early dismissal from the academy. It was just a matter of time. And what would I tell Mahria? How do you tell your wife and mother of your two-month-old daughter that you just lost your job because you bragged about being a high-ranking Webelos Scout?
My sincere, but ridiculous answer to the Ramrod’s question was certainly enough cause to warrant the sharks’ relentless verbal and non-verbal persecution. I had provided them with ample ammunition. It was just a matter of time until they buried me in disciplinary research papers, broke me down with extra physical conditioning, and wore me out with psychological harassment. I saw it happen to others, and it was about to happen to me. I was sure of it.
Much to my surprise, not only did I survive to graduate from the academy, but the drill instructors left me alone the entire week I served as class sergeant. They must have considered what I said to be confident sarcasm. Over the years, it’s the only conclusion that I’ve drawn that makes any sense. The drill instructors were wrong, but I wasn’t about to challenge their thinking. So, I’m probably the only self-admitted high-ranking Webelos Scout to graduate from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Academy. If there are others out there, they probably have not admitted it. Smart.
Eventually, those who survived the “grinder” and their stints as class sergeant were allowed to put on the uniform of a deputy sheriff. I remember the first time I ever put mine on, complete with all the necessary equipment. My emotions were mixed. There was certainly a sense of pride, and a sense of accomplishment. There was also a little apprehension. Would I be able to live up to everything the uniform represented? Although I would graduate from the academy, I still had many questions about the extent of my responsibilities to the department, my fellow deputies, and the communities I would serve. And I was pretty clueless about the stigma and animosity that would come from those who had little or no regard, nor any respect, for the uniform and what it represented. I still had much to learn.
And, as good as it felt to be in uniform, it wasn’t very comfortable at first. It was cumbersome. It itched. The equipment was heavy. Even though it was a custom fit, it didn’t feel natural. What I learned was that I had to grow into my uniform. I had to adjust to the uniform, not the other way around. It didn’t take long for the uniform to become comfortable, because I wore it every day. Over time, it became so comfortable, in fact, that it was no more of an encumbrance than a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. And, since 1987, I’ve probably worn my uniform more than any other suit of clothes in my wardrobe (such as it is).
As I’m sure is the case with most, if not all, members of the law enforcement community, the thought of working regular patrol out of uniform is unacceptable. You don’t have to work the streets very long to realize how important each piece of equipment is to your effectiveness, and to your ability to protect yourself and the people you serve. Although newer officers have a tendency to carry more equipment than they probably need—we like to refer to them as “Deputy or Officer Gadget”—it is also true that the “old salts” will sometimes stop carrying necessary equipment for convenience’ sake, leaving important pieces of equipment out of their “war bags” and in their lockers.
I have been privileged to wear my uniform for many years, and I’ve come to realize that the various pieces of equipment that I carry, and so often use as I work the streets, make all the difference in my ability to do my job. I’ve also seen the consequences faced by far too many who either haven’t possessed the right equipment, or who have used the right equipment in the wrong way. Moreover, I’ve come to recognize the similarities between the uniform of the police officer and the believer’s armor—the spiritual and practical equipment God gives to those who know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. In Ephesians chapter 6, the apostle Paul lists the armor and explains that it is given for the purpose of serving God and protecting against Satan’s attacks. The similarities between the uniform of the police officer and God’s armor go beyond the pieces of equipment themselves, however. They extend to the importance of preparation for duty and the cost when we fail to use the right equipment in the right way. We must understand how to “wear” and “use” this armor as God’s peace officer, if you will.
The important thing to note here, however, is that it is faith in Jesus Christ that allows an individual to wear the spiritual armor of God. More specifically, it is my faith in Jesus Christ that allows me to be one of God’s peace officers. So that is where I will start.