By Crystal Lewis Brown, Fort Jackson LeaderFebruary 12, 2009
On days he has to work, Derek Miller wakes up at 3:30 a.m. Depending on the weather, he may put extra layers underneath his regulation light blue dress shirt and dark blue slacks - both of which look freshly pressed.
By 4:30 a.m., he is being issued his orders for the day, along with the standard 9 mm handgun he and his colleagues carry. And by 5 a.m., he has already relieved his predecessor and is waiting with a smile to greet his first visitor with a hearty, "Welcome to Fort Jackson, victory starts here!"
Miller is one of approximately 70 Wackenhut security guards contracted to protect Fort Jackson's gates.
Chief Vicky LaPointe, who is in charge of Fort Jackson's Wackenhut staff, said the contract guards work with DA civilian officers and military police to keep the post safe.
"Contract security guards are actually the first line of defense for Fort Jackson, so they're really an integral part of the security here," said LaPointe, an Air Force retiree who has worked on Fort Jackson for five years.
The guards are responsible for observing and reporting incidents, and if necessary, can detain visitors. If an incident occurs, they then turn the matter over to DA or military police officers.
The guards work one of three shifts: day shift, swing shift and night shift. And though they work the same shift each day, they avoid monotony by rotating which gates they work. They work a schedule of four days on and three days off. Miller works the day shift.
The Baton Rouge, La. native, who served four years in the Marines and eight years in the Army, has worked for Wackenhut for a little more than a year. After leaving the military, he decided to move to Columbia. A job in security, he thought, would suit him well.
"I always wanted to do it," he said. "I just thought with my prior experience, it was something I would be good at."
So far, he said, he enjoys it. Much of his work involves helping those who are first-time visitors to the post.
"On graduation days and family days, a lot of people don't know where they're going," he said. "This is their first experience on a military installation."
Miller and his colleagues know it is important to remain upbeat in order to provide the best first impression to the fort's visitors. For Miller, his relationship with his co-workers is a key aspect of that.
"A lot of it is working with other good officers," he said. "We build a lot of friendships around here. We basically lean on each other, so we keep each other upbeat."
Another way the guards stay positive'
"Coffee, lots of coffee," Miller said, laughing.
Fellow security guard Pamela Thompson agrees that it is important to exhibit a positive and pleasant demeanor, regardless of how the day has gone.
"There are times when you don't feel like being bothered, but I know that they're depending on me, and that's enough for me," she said. "The public doesn't need to see a person who seems like (he or she) doesn't want to be here."
Thompson flashes a bright smile to those who come through her line, greeting them as though speaking to an old friend. Though each exchange may last only a minute or less, she is diligent in asking the drivers how they are doing.
Like Miller, Thompson has also worked at Fort Jackson for a year, but has worked in security since 2004. Thompson works the swing-shift, which means her day starts after noon. She enjoys the constant stream of cars and pedestrians that come through Fort Jackson's gates each day, and for her, the busier, the better.
"As long as I'm doing something, I'm good," she said.
She added, "My favorite part of the job is getting to meet very different people," she said. "I enjoy meeting different people in different walks of life."
Sometimes, Thompson said, she and her colleagues have to play the bad guy. Attempting to enter post without proper identification, updated insurance, an overly full vehicle or without proper safety restraints are all reasons the guards might use to detain a vehicle until other officers arrive.
But visitors have to remember that the guards are only doing their jobs, she said.
"It's not just a Fort Jackson law, those are the laws of South Carolina (and) we have a hand in enforcing those laws," she said. "It's not that we're being mean, we're just trying to keep everyone safe. We really care about the people coming through here."
Thompson and Miller both said they enjoy their jobs, with one caveat: the weather. But they are provided uniforms and accessories to take them through heat, cold and rain. The company also provides outside heaters to keep them warm, and they are allowed several breaks throughout a shift to escape the elements. Even so, the unpredictability of Columbia's weather can be jarring.
"It will be sunny today at Gate 5, then it will be freezing the next day," Miller said. "But we have to give access to the gates. We let the good guys in and keep the bad guys out."