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The Cadet Chronicles

Six months of mud, sweat and Tears at the warden academy.

By Dan Morrison

The 38 men and two women gathered in the small classroom in a nondescript two-story building just off 51st Street in Austin now all have the same first name: Cadet. And if any of the new Texas Game Warden Academy recruits think the job is primarily going to be about saving cuddly furry animals, they are quickly disabused of that notion.

“This is a law-enforcement job,” Chief Randy Odom sternly tells the recruits. “This is not about protecting Bambi. We work with people. Your survival depends on knowing how to understand people. If there is one animal that is unpredictable, it is a person.”

This would be the last cadet class overseen by Colonel James Stinebaugh, who retired in January from his post as the director of law enforcement for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He is a compact man, fit and trim, friendly, but no-nonsense. An ex-marine, he keeps a framed image of Chesty Puller, the most famous and revered of all Marines, on his office wall. In 1969, Stinebaugh arrested the infamous Duke of Duval, George Parr, for hunting deer at night. Shortly thereafter, following a foiled attempt on his life, Stinebaugh was transferred (over his objection) for his own safety. He became a federal game warden and, in 1976 and 1977, he investigated the killing of bald eagles from helicopters in the Hill Country, ultimately charging a number of ranchers as well as several government officials. This case was described in detail in the 1991 book, Incident At Eagle Ranch, by Donald G. Schueler. Though polite to a fault, Stinebaugh is a man you do not want to cross. The fact that someone was willing to kill him to prevent him from doing his job does not seem to faze him much at all.

Stinebaugh went through the Game Warden Academy 37 years ago, and he is the first to admit things are different than when he was a cadet. “I think the mission has significantly changed because of the world we live in today,” he says. The world has become a more dangerous place, and Texas game wardens have had to adjust accordingly, which is reflected in the training they receive. “Our people catch bank robbers, and are occasionally involved with narcotics cases,” Stinebaugh explains. “I would like to think that the public would feel better knowing that the game wardens are well trained, and not just somebody who is out there walking around checking a fishing license.” They still learn how to check fishing licenses at the academy, of course, but these days they learn a lot more also.

It is a dreary and overcast day when the recruits for the 50th class of the Texas Game Warden Academy report in the first week of January. The academy barracks, the upper floor of the training building, will be home for the next six months for these cadets. Not surprisingly, many seem a bit confused as they listen carefully to instructions from Cadet Coordinator Lt. Gary Teeler and Health and Wellness Instructor Lt. Cinda Brooks on how to organize the gear handed out to them in large black duffel bags. The recruits wear their new uniforms, black BDU trousers and T-shirts, with black leather boots.

“Grab a bag and inventory everything in it,” Lt. Teeler instructs the cadets. “If you’re not sure about something on your list, just circle it and we’ll come by and clarify it for you.” Each recruit begins going through all the gear in his or her duffel bag and checks items off a list. Not everyone is sure what everything in the bag is for. One recruit holds up blousing bands, which are similar to large rubber bands and used to keep their trouser legs rolled up and tucked just above the top of their boots. “What are these?” he asks, to no one in particular.

The recruits seem relatively fit, with a couple of notable exceptions who don’t appear to have done any pushups or jogged any mileage in recent memory, and almost all have had the foresight to get a regulation military high-and-tight haircut before reporting to the academy. The youngest recruit is 23 years old; the oldest is 50, with the average age just over 29. A few have served in the military, and some are former law-enforcement officers. All have a college degree, a prerequisite for the job. In addition to their uniforms and gear, the recruits receive several books: among them the Wildlife Forensic Field Manual; the Texas Criminal Law Manual; the Motor Vehicle Handbook; Elements of a Crime; the Texas Saltwater Fish Identification Pocket Guide; and the Texas Freshwater Fish Identification Pocket Guide. After they inventory all the items, the recruits move upstairs to their assigned living quarters, two cadets per room.

The next morning, they assemble in the classroom, speaking quietly to each other. Lt. Teeler enters and instructs them on the proper protocol for addressing the instructors and all visiting game warden officers. “You will respond with a ‘Yes sir!’ or a ‘No sir!’”Lt. Teeler tells them. He then has them practice jumping to attention beside their desk, a move they will be required to make whenever an officer enters the room — like when Chief Randy Odom arrives to welcome the new class. As Chief Odom marches into the room, a recruit near the front yells, “Ten-hut!” and all 40 students jump upright, stand ramrod straight, with their arms held stiffly by their side. Some, veterans of the military, perform the maneuver crisply; others still need a little work. Chief Odom steps to the podium at the front of the class, looks over his new charges, and says with just a hint of a smile, “Good morning, class.”

“Good morning, sir!” the recruits shout in unison. “Be seated,” Odom replies.

In these first days at the academy, the recruits begin their initiation into the world of law enforcement, where they are no longer civilians yet not quite military personnel either. On the continuum, however, they are now definitely closer to the military end than the civilian end. “Your first name is now officially ‘Cadet,’” Odom tells them.

Over the course of their training, the cadets will spend a state-mandated 576 hours studying for the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Education (TCLEOSE) test, learning how to fingerprint people, memorizing all the laws pertaining to the use of force, learning and practicing use-of-force techniques, attending classes on problem solving and critical thinking, learning the correct methods of arrest, search and seizure. They will practice strategies of defense that may well save their lives, they will be sprayed in the face with pepper spray just so they know what it feels like if they have to use it on a belligerent subject, they will spend countless hours at the firing range and they will study how to control an unruly crowd. They will study criminal investigation, professionalism and ethics, and how to conduct themselves in a courtroom setting. They will make split-second decisions in a truck traveling at high speeds, and will similarly operate watercraft at high speed while approaching and, if necessary, boarding other boats. They will learn how to make swift-water rescues. And they will learn how to deal with the media.

For the next 90 minutes, Chief Odom gives a speech that is part motivation, part welcome and part warning. “The academy demands compliance to rules,” Chief Odom says sternly, “There will be no excuse for failure to comply with academy rules.” The cadets will live in the barracks Monday through Friday, with weekends off to be with their families. Beds made up at all times to military regulations. Boots and shoes shined at all times. No alcohol in the building. No tobacco products inside the building. “This is not your house,” Chief Odom tells the class. “There will be no noise from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. This is set aside as quiet time. No phone calls. No laundry. No showers. Quiet. Cadets must knock before entering a room. You have to knock and be invited in.” That rule only applies to cadets. “Instructors may enter when they want,” Chief Odom says. “Inspections will be made frequently and unannounced.” The chief believes in strict discipline, but he is not a heartless man. “Family photos are permissible on your desk in your room,” he tells the class.

There are a few cadets who are unprepared for the boot camp atmosphere of the academy. “We do get quite a few recruits who don’t know what they’re getting into,” explains Lt. Teeler. “There are a lot of people who walk in here and interview with us and have no idea what we do.” The instructors at the academy prefer to graduate all cadets who are accepted into the program, so it is not uncommon for cadets to submit multiple applications before being accepted. It is also not uncommon for cadets to have spent a fair amount of time with a game warden in the field prior to being accepted. “Generally when people become interested in applying to the academy, we recommend that they go work with their local game warden. We want people to know what they’re in for, so we don’t lose them along the way,” Lt. Teeler says. Cadet Anthony Todd considered becoming a game warden at the insistence of a friend. The 42-year-old Todd is one of the more qualified cadets in this class. With a degree in psychology from Texas A & M at Kingsville, Todd served as a radioman for six years in the Navy. During his military service, he pulled duty in Beirut and Grenada. Todd also worked for a brief spell as a police officer in California after successfully completing the California Police Academy. “I was in the Navy reserves for a little while after I got out of active duty, and I had a friend who was a game warden,” Todd explains. “He kept telling me that I should try this. And I always thought it was an unobtainable goal.” Todd was accepted into the academy on his first application.

Like Todd, Cadet Joann Garza, one of only two women in this class, also attended a police academy before applying to become a game warden. Garza, who has a master’s degree from the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, worked for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission in Brownsville. “With the TABC, I went through a private police academy, with the Brownsville Police Department,” she says. “I was going through their police academy so I could promote up in TABC to become an agent. And while I was there I was able to see all the other federal agencies, Customs, Immigration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife. And my initial interest was with U.S. Fish and Wildlife. And then I met a game warden and saw what they did.” Like many cadets, Garza rode with a game warden before applying to the academy. Like Todd, she was accepted on her first try. And like many of the cadets, Garza expresses her love for the outdoor life. “Growing up, my dad owned some property near a river. So we would always go out there to go camping and fishing.” She is not a hunter, but she doesn’t believe that will be a disadvantage. “I’ve never been hunting,” she admits. “I’ve never had an interest in hunting. The thing about this job is that hunting doesn’t have to interest you for you to be able to govern that sport.”

Jeff Hill, one of the older cadets, was also accepted on his first application. Hill, 47, was a successful businessman, but grew tired of the long hours and hassles of running his own pest-control business. While pursuing his degree at Purdue, Hill studied forestry, and as a lifelong avid outdoorsman, the midlife career change seemed natural. “Biology, forestry and horticulture were things I was always interested in,” he explains. “It was a good time for me to sell my business and go off on a second career.” The job description of a game warden holds no surprises to Cadet Hill. “I knew that fishing activities and overseeing hunting activities were what game wardens did. I also knew that they did water safety. I had been checked several times when I was in my canoe on the lake. So I was aware of the diversity of the job.”

Although working outdoors is clearly an integral part of being a game warden, the job, according to Chief Odom, is really about dealing with people. Game wardens are first and foremost law-enforcement officers. “Arrest, search and seizure is the cornerstone of a law-enforcement officer,” he tells the class. “You must know it because you will be restricting people’s rights. You will be a Texas Peace Officer and will have that authority.”

The normal day of a cadet begins early, at 5:45 a.m. Fifteen minutes later they all assemble outside to begin the daily regimen of physical exercise. Lt. Cinda Brooks leads the class each morning through their various exercises. A six-time World Police Biathlon Champion, Lt. Brooks soon has the cadets sweating and gasping for air. “We’re going to offer you the opportunity to challenge yourself,” she tells the class. Performance, she says, is driven by a positive mental attitude. “Don’t think about what you can do by what you’ve done. Life is ten percent what happens to you — ninety percent your attitude. If you think you can do it, or you think you can’t do it, you’re probably right.”

“The physical training is obviously difficult for a 42-year-old man,” laughs Cadet Todd. “It was hard to keep up with those youngsters. It’s one of those things that just takes willpower to survive.” Cadet Hill knew the physical demands of the academy would be difficult and he trained accordingly. “The running part was something I had never stressed in my own workout program. So I started training for that when I submitted my application last August.” His preparation paid off. “It wasn’t any problem because I was in training for three or four months prior to going into the academy. I even researched the different exercises that were necessary to tackle the obstacle course.”

The obstacle course, laid out in a field behind the main office, is a tricky bit of business. First the cadets must crawl over and under three large log poles about 2 feet off the ground, then scale a 10-foot-high wood wall, hop over a wire fence, get from one end of a horizontal 50-foot rope to the other without touching the ground, crawl under a simulated house foundation, swing through a set of monkey bars, scurry through a tunnel, maneuver down a set of parallel bars, walk the length of a thin timber several feet off the ground, do a football high-step through a dozen large tires on the ground, and finish off with a hand-over-hand rope climb to ring the cowbell at the top, 20 feet off the ground. The course record is 1 minute, 26 seconds. Cadet Garza has a bit of difficulty with the rope, but shows determination and grit. Cadet Hill turns in a respectable 3:15. And when everyone has completed the course, Lt. Brooks runs it in 2:27 to the cheers of the cadets. “Outstanding job,” she tells them when she has dropped from the top of the rope, after ringing the bell attached to the crossbar. “Outstanding job.”

Being in top physical condition is imperative in this career. Game wardens must be able to protect themselves during confrontations, which are unfortunately not uncommon. According to Lt. Brooks, game wardens are eight times more likely to be assaulted or killed in the line of duty than police officers. Occasionally an assault is fatal. A memorial in front of the cadets’ barracks reads, “In memory of those who gave their lives protecting and preserving the natural resources of the State of Texas.” It lists the names of 15 game wardens.

To address the more dangerous aspects of the job, and as part of the training, Lt. Brooks gives a lecture on being a member of the warrior class, those who live by the code of duty, honor, and loyalty. And occasionally fear. Lt. Brooks explains to the cadets, “Fear is a God-given, life-preserving emotion. Listen to it, analyze it, think about it.” Raised in Africa, Lt. Brooks calmly relates to the class how she once faced down a lion while out walking in the bush. She knows how to deal with fear.

Once they are game wardens, the cadets will have to confront belligerent hunters. “We’re handling mostly armed people,” Lt. Brooks lectures the class. “We’re often dealing with people under the influence of alcohol or drugs, some of whom will be pig-kissing drunk.” To be part of the warrior class, she says, is to accept danger. But self-preservation is rule number one. “You have failed in your mission if you are wounded or killed,” Lt. Brooks continues. “You must survive. You must win. And you will win.” To emphasize the seriousness of this lecture, Lt. Brooks tells the class, “Prepare your family in case you are killed.”

While in the field, game wardens wear body armor and are armed with both lethal and non-lethal weapons. If a situation spins out of control, and if the warden is physically threatened, and if the warden’s verbal warnings fail to produce the desired results, the next step is pepper spray. Not only do the cadets practice using the spray, but in order to know how powerful it is, they must endure being sprayed themselves in the face. It is the only day the media is barred from visiting the academy, not that anyone would really want to take photos of grown men and women gagging and vomiting with mucus running down their faces. “Getting sprayed in the face with pepper spray wasn’t very much fun,” says Cadet Hill in his normal understated way. “There’s no way to get ready for that. It was horrible. It was bad.” Cadet Todd is a bit more expressive on the subject. “That was the most excruciating pain I’ve ever experienced in my life. I did tear gas training in the Navy, and I did it again at the police academy, and I thought, well, I’ve done that, and I thought pepper spray wouldn’t be much different. I was surprised at how bad that was. The thing about it, it makes you want to panic, from hyperventilating. I really had to work to maintain calm, to get myself through it.”

In the worst-case scenarios, game wardens may have to resort to lethal force, and for that they pack a .40 caliber Glock Model 22 sidearm. They are drilled with the weapon on the firing range both during the day and at night. Part of the training at the firing range is weapon proficiency, but part of it is designed to mentally prepare the cadets for the possibility of having to resort to lethal force. “We always have a few in every class who really have to work hard on that,” explains Lt. Teeler. “Getting over that hump, trying to think, ‘You know, I may have to use a deadly weapon on someone.’ And that can be a real mental dilemma for some people that they have to get through.” While preparing himself for the academy, Cadet Hill bought a Glock and fired a few thousand rounds. “I was familiar with it,” he says, “but not at the level of training they gave us, which was great. I had to throw away some old bad habits. My overall shooting score was above 90. Night firing was fun, because you’re able to line your sights up and shoot a tighter pattern.”

In addition to the Glock, the game wardens’ standard mini-14 rifles will soon be replaced with M-16s. To those who might think packing an assault rifle seems a bit too paramilitary, Col. Stinebaugh argues that it simply makes good sense. “I would imagine if you talked to any director of any park service, and if you asked him why he is armed with an M-16, pepper spray and so forth, he would tell you it is because his officers are coming into contact with people who are not the type of person one thinks you check in the out-of-doors, or whom game wardens traditionally worked with thirty years ago.” Simply put, the world has become a more dangerous place, and game wardens have to deal with it.

The most likely situation in the field that may require a game warden to resort to the use of force is during a confrontation with a hunter who has had a drink or six. To prepare the cadets for this scenario, they are run through a training exercise called “Escalating Violence” in which one of the trainers plays the part of a stubborn hunter who is asked to accompany the game warden but refuses. The training is surprisingly physical. Protected from head to toe in thick padding, sitting on a bucket with a shotgun in their hand, the trainers play the part of the hunter, and the cadets must convince them to drop their shotgun and accompany the cadet back to the truck. But the exercise is rigged, the hunter isn’t going anywhere with the warden, and he is armed not only with a shotgun, but he also has a knife, and he is going to use it.

The exercise begins simply enough. Cadet Garza approaches the hunter — in her case trainer Lt. Howard, a powerfully built game warden who outweighs her by 60 or 70 pounds — and informs him he is illegally hunting on private property and must return with her to her truck. Lt. Howard replies that no, the land belongs to a friend of his and he has permission to be there. Garza keeps her distance and insists that Howard must leave his shotgun and come with her. She is insistent, and her force rises as Howard continues to challenge her. Eventually he becomes belligerent and begins yelling at Garza. From there the situation escalates quickly, and dangerously. Howard jumps up still yelling at Garza, when she retreats a few feet to maintain a safe distance, Howard seems to have a change of heart, and tells Garza he will cooperate. He sets his shotgun on the ground, but when he stands up, he suddenly lunges at Garza. Reacting quickly, she sprays his face with simulated pepper spray, a mixture of water and lemon juice. Howard falls to the ground and begins yelling as if in great pain. Now Garza must handcuff him, and as she approaches, Howard suddenly pulls his knife and lunges at her. She must shoot him with her Glock, which for this exercise is loaded with blanks. She fires a single shot. Howard drops and lies still. Garza handcuffs him.

It is a frightening exercise, especially when one considers that in reality Garza will almost undoubtedly be alone in the field if and when this kind of situation occurs. She handles the exercise well, but is cognizant of her physical disadvantage compared to a large man like Howard. “I have less upper body strength than the men,” Garza says, “but you have to learn how to supplement that. You have to be faster than other people, because you don’t want to be touched, you don’t want to be taken down, you don’t want someone to put their hands on your gun because they may be stronger than you, and you may have to resort to pulling your gun faster than someone else because you’re going to be overwhelmed by their strength. I know a lot of times you can avoid physical confrontation just by using your voice, using it in a loud manner, in a bold manner. I try to use that, because just like anyone else, I would like to avoid physical confrontation. But if I get in that situation, I’m prepared to handle it.”

When Cadet Hill takes his turn, it is a bit different. Lt. Davis plays the role of hunter for Hill, and the drill is the same. But Hill, himself a rather burly individual, not only is a bit larger than Davis, but also has studied martial arts for nearly three decades and holds advanced black-belt degrees. When Davis lunges at Hill, Hill uses his martial arts training and a rather one-sided fight involving Davis’s stomach and Hill’s feet ensues. Even when Davis pulls his knife, Hill is reluctant to pull his Glock, although as Davis seems intent to continue his attack, Hill eventually shoots him. He will be docked a couple of points for his hesitation to use his weapon. “I just don’t want to shoot someone if I can avoid it,” he says later. But it goes with the territory of being a law-enforcement officer.

As law enforcement officers, game wardens may be required to participate in high-speed chases. The high-speed exercise is done in a large asphalt parking lot. As Hill explains, “You’re driving straight and all of a sudden they signal you to either drive left or drive right or go straight right through the cones. So at the last moment they signal green, red or yellow. They said you’re supposed to let off the gas and pick the lane you wanted, and every time I just stomped on the gas. They told me I wasn’t supposed to do that, but it gave me better control of the vehicle.”

The cadets also train to pursue boaters at high speed. Cadet Hill spent much of his childhood on Lake Buchanan and Lake LBJ, so he is no stranger to boats. But pursuing and boarding another boat is not what you usually do on a lazy Saturday afternoon. “I had been skiing and docking boats for years,” he says. “So when it came to performing those exercises, it was a little bit different, because you have to pull up alongside somebody, and make sure you don’t damage their boat, and be able to make contact and communicate with them.” According to Cadet Todd, when on open water and enforcing the Water Safety Act, game wardens do not need probable cause to inspect a boat to ensure it has all required safety equipment. During his water safety training, Todd got a little more realistic training than the other cadets. “We got to actually stop folks out on the water,” he says. “I got to chase a couple of them down. One of the boats I had to pursue at full throttle for a pretty good ways.”

After six months of training, the 50th Texas Game Warden Academy class is ready to graduate. Cadet Todd says the most difficult part of the entire experience, to his surprise, was the separation from his wife and three sons. “I knew I was going to be living away from my family for six months, and only get to see them on weekends, but the separation was a real hardship.” Lt. Teeler says that is often the case. “The separation from loved ones is really tough,” Teeler admits. “We’ve had cadets whose spouses had babies while they were in this academy, and we always have people contemplating divorce while they’re in here. It is stressful — it will eat your lunch.”

Of the 40 original cadets, 36 have successfully completed the program, a failure rate that is a bit high. “Normally we only lose about one,” says Lt. Teeler. Dressed in their new game warden uniforms, the former cadets assemble in the Texas House of Representatives chamber in the capitol building. Several have family members sitting in the balcony, many having driven for hours to witness the graduation ceremony. Colonel Stinebaugh gives a brief congratulatory speech, and then Robert Cook, executive director of TPWD, addresses the class. “This morning when you woke up you were a student,” Cook tells them. “When you walk out of this chamber you will be a leader in your community, joining an elite and highly respected group. People will look to you and ask for guidance.” The academy has ended, but not their education, according to Cook. “It is critical that you understand your learning has just begun. If you’re worth your powder, you’ll still be learning the day you retire. The most important measure of your success is how many people learn from you the value of conservation.”

At the conclusion of Cook’s speech, the students are called individually to the front to receive their official papers. They are now Texas game wardens.

A few weeks later Warden Garza, who drew Caldwell County as her first assignment, admits some people are surprised to learn their game warden is a woman. When people refer to her, she says, “I’m not the game warden. I’m the female game warden.” She does not see this as a problem. “Even though people aren’t expecting to meet a female game warden,” Garza says, “they still have respect for the law and the law-enforcement community. They still have respect for the badge.” As far as her latest and probably final career choice, “It’s exactly what I expected so far,” she says. “And I love it.”

Warden Todd, who is now assigned to Presidio County, expresses similar feelings. “My county,” he says, “is four times the size of Rhode Island. I’ve got the whole thing by myself. I’m looking at the Davis Mountains. And I can see the McDonald Observatory through my binoculars. I can see a herd of antelope right now. It’s gorgeous.” His assessment of his new career? “I love this job. I knew I was going to like it, and I had an idea about how good it was going to be, but I just can’t believe how good it is. It’s the greatest job in the world.

For more information on the TPWD Game Warden Academy, go to www.tpwd.state.tx.us/enforce/ or call (877) 229-2733.

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