“Don’t put that away too quickly. I’ll be back,” I said.
I had just handed over my service weapon to Renee Porter, The US Secret Service’s Washington Field Office manager. She ticked off a box on her list and passed it back to me for my initials. I initialed. “I’ll be back,” I said again. Renee passed the form back to me for my signature and smiled. “I hope so, Agent Wilkas” she said.
It was May 1992 and up until this point, I had been carving out a successful career for myself within the United States Secret Service (USSS). My most recent protection detail was keeping watch over the grandchildren of President George H. W. Bush. Of 2,000 agents, I was one of 180 women working in the USSS at that time, and I was nailing the job. I had not just been a standout in training, I had become a well-respected and well-liked agent in just over one year on the job in the largest and most influential field office of the Secret Service.
The USSS was my second career choice, behind working for the FBI. That didn’t work out due to an unfortunate technicality. When I studied in Seville, Spain my junior year of college, I experimented with a very small amount of hash, mixed in with tobacco, and rolled into a cigarette. Hash was decriminalized (i.e. considered legal) in Spain and, thus, I felt I was not doing anything wrong or illegal. When I filled out my application form honestly, I learned that the FBI felt differently.
Now, that issue came back to haunt me and the USSS let me go because of it. Almost a year into being a Secret Service Agent, the FBI notified the USSS about my file and the hash admission. I wound up involved in an Internal Affairs investigation with the USSS. I was interviewed for hours on two separate occasions by two male Internal Affairs agents who, from the get go, seemed to have presumed my guilt vs. my innocence. Several months later, I was called into the office of the Special Agent in Charge of the Washington Field Office and told that the Secret Service has decided not to renew my contract, effective two weeks from that day.
I was devastated to lose my dream job, but I wasn’t ready to give up that easily. I didn’t feel like I had any choice but to pursue this case, all the way to the end. I had done nothing illegal, I’d passed my polygraph, and after internal affairs spent hours grilling me, they had come up with nothing that would justify letting me go as an agent. If nothing else, I was not going to let the government intimidate me into backing down, crawling away, or giving up on myself or my dream.
The trouble was, once I started discussing the case with lawyers, USSS Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) counselors, other agents, and the head of the USSS Women Agents Association, I was blatantly told the same thing: to win my job back, I should claim sexual discrimination. It was the only clear path to victory.
I did not feel that I had been treated unjustly nor was I currently being treated adversely because I was a woman. It was unnerving that, for almost everyone I talked to, gender discrimination seemed to be the automatic, go-to claim. Gender discrimination is a serious issue many women in the workforce face — I won’t discredit that. And still, it’s one thing to ask whether I had experienced any disparate treatment that I would attribute to me being a female. It’s another thing to outright push this serious allegation and make major assumptions without asking the appropriate questions. I didn’t want to back the USSS into a corner, forcing them to look the other way and just let this go. And I didn’t want to accumulate a bad wrap as “that kind” of sue-happy agent. I simply wanted the Service to do what was right.
On October 29, 1992, I followed my attorney, Peter Carre, into a Washington, DC conference room in USSS headquarters. It all felt so surreal. I almost couldn’t believe it was actually happening. The day had finally arrived—my chance to have my say, to make my appeal for my job directly to the director of the USSS, Peter Mick. After an hour of fighting valiantly and presenting an incredibly well-researched defense, including having me speak candidly to the director, Peter rested his case. I returned to my protection mission in Lima, Peru and, in early December, I received a phone call from my attorney. The Director had decided to uphold the Service’s decision to not renew my contract. In other words, I was not going back to work as a Special Agent with the United States Secret Service.
It was hard to break it to my parents, who had always rooted for me and supported me in this line of work. It was hard to get used to it myself: the fight was over and I had lost. I was no longer Mary Beth Wilkas, US Secret Service Agent.
In the wake of this devastating news, I went on one of my customary 10-mile runs and took stock of what I held onto amid this massive shift: my reputation, for one. I was remembered as a good and solid agent who sought the truth. The dozens of phone calls I received once my colleagues realized I was no longer present in the Washington Field Office confirmed that. I still had my integrity and the ability to hold my head up. I was able to face my parents and not cringe at the thought that I’d lied and violated what they’d taught me about right and wrong. That’s what mattered to me most.
As I continued on my run, I realized that, while I took this fight as far as I could, there were things much more important to me than the United States Secret Service. This was one of my most pivotal realizations. Yes, the Secret Service meant a lot to me. But being a USSS Agent was not who I was; it was what I did for a living. If things did not work out, I would still be the same person, just one that had experienced a major redirection that sent me down a totally unforeseen fork in the road.
I’m glad I took that fork. Had I not, I don’t think I would have ever gone back to graduate school, let alone twice, to obtain a Masters Degree in Forensic Psychology and a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. I would never have been exposed to the consistent challenges and varied levels of missions I took part in out there in the world of international executive protection. I would likely not have met the man I married, moved to the east coast, and started teaching psychology at the university level, which is where I am now in my career.
All workplace sexual discrimination should be summarily snuffed out. As for me, I’m glad I defied the lawyers, career advisers and bosses who suggested I use that serious accusation to the ends of keeping myself employed. I wouldn’t be Mary Beth Wilkas Janke, former United States Secret Service Agent, consultant in the fields of forensic and clinical psychology and professor at George Washington University, if not for telling the truth.