Q&A: Evy Poumpouras

The author reflects on her years in the Secret Service, when she often rode on the ultimate business aircraft.

Having served as a special agent with the U.S. Secret Service for 12 years, Evy Poumpouras has spent lots of time flying on the ultimate business aircraft: Air Force One and Marine One. Her responsibilities included providing protection for Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama as well as for First Lady Michelle Obama. 

Evy Poumpouras
Evy Poumpouras (Photo: Peter Hurley)

Poumpouras has also worked on complicated criminal investigations, sometimes undercover, and she served as an interrogator for the Secret Service’s polygraph unit. She received the Secret Service’s Valor Award for her actions as a first responder at the World Trade Center on 9/11. 

Now retired from government service, Poumpouras co-hosts Bravo TV’s Spy Games and appears on NBC network programs to discuss national security, crime, and law enforcement. She is also an adjunct professor at the City University of New York, where she lectures on criminal justice, criminology, and policing, and is the author of a book called Becoming Bulletproof, which promises to teach readers how to “protect yourself, read people, influence situations, [and] live fearlessly.”

You trained to become a police officer before you joined the Secret Service. Is that something you’d always wanted to do?

I didn't even like police growing up. I was that brat that they pulled over. When I graduated from Hofstra University, I couldn't find a job in my field in government, so I ended up working for an insurance company. One day I was in the subway and saw a police officer hanging out by the rails. I'm thinking, "I can do that." And that night I called 212-RECRUIT and that's how it started.

You’ve described your days in the police academy as hellish. How did you get through it?

I began to focus on the present—what do I need to do now?—rather than on whether I'm going to succeed. Now I use that [mindset] in everything I do.

What made you want to join the Secret Service? 

I had interned for [then] Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy [D-New York] and at one point they asked if I’d ever thought about the Secret Service or FBI. They specifically pushed the Secret Service because the congresswoman would take meetings with First Lady Hillary Clinton. I applied to the Secret Service as I was going into the New York Police Academy.

What was the toughest part of learning to be an agent?

Every day is a grind. You wake up at 5 a.m., you go for a run or workout, then you go to combat training, then you take a law exam, then you shoot at a driving range. You're exhausted. It’s a lot on the body. I was bruised everywhere. But I thought, "Wow, I'm doing this. I'm succeeding."  

Evy Poumpouras USSS White House, State Floor.
Evy Poumpouras USSS White House, State Floor.

When you were in the Secret Service's Presidential Protective Division, what was your biggest challenge?

The shift keeps changing: two weeks early mornings, two weeks afternoons, two weeks at midnight. Then, two weeks, you'll be training or traveling, and it starts all over again. It's very difficult going from a morning to a night shift. The body can't find its rhythm.

How did you keep presidents safe? 

When you go to events, you're looking for weapons. If someone has their hands in their pockets, we pull them out. If someone is not cooperating, we'll lock their hands to their sides. You're pushing people back. You look at their hands. The harm will come from the hands.

What is the most stressful thing about protecting a president?

You're always on high alert, you can never stop. If you're doing that 12 or 16 hours a day, it takes a great deal out of you.

What was your impression of Bill and Hillary Clinton?

Bill Clinton really liked people and was great connecting with them. When he was speaking to you, he really was speaking to you. Hillary is one of the strongest, most resilient people. There are not a lot of people who could have done what Hillary did. 

What about George H.W. Bush?

He was very appreciative. He’d thank people and write handwritten notes or cards. 

How about George W. and Laura Bush?

Who you saw on camera was who President Bush was behind the scenes. He would go to the ranch, cut wood, blaze trails, do things an ordinary person would do. His Secret Service code name was “Trailblazer.” His wife is one of the most graceful people I've ever seen. It was such a pleasure to be around her.

And the Obamas?

He was gracious to his enemies, and he held himself to a different standard. When individuals behaved with hate, he always extended professionalism. It takes magnanimity to do that. Michelle Obama put value in who she was by eating healthy and creating the Let's Move! campaign. That was quite different from what you've seen with previous first ladies. 

Evy Poumpouras preparing to sky dive.
Evy Poumpouras preparing to sky dive.

I understand that your Secret Service training involved a simulated helicopter crash. What was the reason for that?

That was the result of a 1973 incident where a Secret Service special agent drowned after the twin-engine Sikorsky VH3A helicopter he was a passenger in crashed off the coast of Florida. The agent, who was part of the protective detail for President Nixon, was on his way to the Bahamas to begin his overnight assignment.

It was hypothesized that a likely factor in the agent’s death was the onset of panic, which prevented him from unbuckling his seatbelt once the helicopter submerged. The training was designed to teach Secret Service recruits how to think through highly volatile situations. 

Under extreme stress, our ability to logically work through a problem rapidly deteriorates as panic takes over. But when you’re repeatedly exposed to fast-moving, chaotic scenarios like a helicopter crash, you become accustomed to the stressors and learn how to effectively think and function through them. The more stress you’re exposed to, the better and faster you can adapt and react. Practicing the evacuation process in a helicopter crash would help me respond optimally, both mentally and physically, were it to ever happen in real life.

How did the simulation work?

We were strapped into a helicopter-like contraption, disoriented, and submerged upside down in a massive swimming pool. The goal of the exercise was to unstrap yourself, exit the helicopter through a specific route, and swim upward to safety—all this while blindfolded. Although you knew the instructors were not going to let you drown, you couldn’t help but feel fear and anxiety—those emotional triggers that can wreak havoc in our minds while trying to survive.

Turning to what must have been a much more pleasant aviation experience, what are your memories of flying on Air Force One?

You had moments when you felt like you were flying with your family because you knew everyone, and you could move around and speak to people. Nobody was saying, "Put your seat belt on." It was like an airborne living quarters. You didn’t feel you were on a plane.

Were you able to relax onboard?

As a member of the Secret Service, you are always in work mode. Planning, prepping, and briefing for your next movement. It was only on longer flights where you might be able to catch your breath, have a meal, and take a moment. 

What were your impressions of the aircraft?

It’s always a stunning sight, almost surreal—always polished, clean, bright. The plane itself is simple. It’s practical rather than extravagant. Mainly because it’s meant to function like a White House in the air. The seats are spacious and comfortable, not that different from first-class seats on a commercial flight. It is maintained by the Air Force, which handles everything, from piloting to loading to security to even the meal prep and service. I have flown first and business class, yet the caliber of service on Air Force One is unmatched. It’s not like flying on anything else.

And yet you say the airplanes that serve as Air Force One are simple rather than extravagant.

What makes it exceptional is not its design and features, but rather that it is meant to transport one of the most significant people in the world—the President of the United States. Also, there is a sense of camaraderie on the aircraft. Everyone on it—from the military to the staff to the Secret Service and even the press pool—is in service of something greater than themselves. So, it is not the object itself that people find fascinating. It is what it symbolizes. 

Your book, Bulletproof, is billed as a guide to living courageously. What’s the most important thing people can do to achieve that goal?

Take risks and not fear the consequences. People are risk-averse, and we plan things out so meticulously that we sabotage ourselves from taking chances that could lead to greatness. We all are afraid of something, but sometimes if we don't check that fear, it will manifest and grow and spill into other areas of our lives.

How do you overcome your fear?

By doing what I am afraid of.

This interview has been edited and condensed.