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Life in the Secret Service

A tale of risk, bravery, and sacrifice

Created date

November 26th, 2013
A limousine racing through the street

The afternoon of March 30, 1981, seemed another uneventful day on the job for Secret Service Agent Jerry Parr.

President Ronald Reagan was leaving the Washington Hilton in Washington, D.C., after delivering a speech to members of the AFL-CIO. As always, Parr, who was head of the Presidential Protective Division, was by his side.

Reagan emerged from the hotel waving to the press when, just steps from his limo, six gunshots rang out. Parr, a 22-year veteran of the Service, instantly seized the president’s collar and shoved him into the limo.

The tires screeched, and the car sped off.

Through the rear window, Parr caught a glimpse of the carnage. In a fleeting three seconds, several bodies lay sprawled on the sidewalk—all victims of John Hinkley, Jr.’s, .22 revolver.

He then turned his attention to the president, asking him if he was injured. “I don’t think so,” answered Reagan. “I think you hurt my chest when you landed on top of me.”

Parr wasn’t to blame, though. Unknown to everyone, including the president, Reagan had taken a small bullet fragment to the lung near the pulmonary artery and was bleeding internally.

The wound was serious, requiring surgery to remove the bullet and stop the bleeding. Still, Parr’s quick reflexes and, more importantly, his precautionary decision to bypass the White House and take Reagan to the hospital saved the president.

In the line of fire

This seminal moment is one of many dramatic memories that Parr recounts from his long career in the line of fire. His new book In the Secret Service (Tyndale, 2013) offers a vivid, behind-the-scenes look at a life spent protecting the world’s most powerful man.

“When you think about it, there aren’t many professions in which stepping in front of a bullet to save someone else is part of the job description,” he says. “I think it’s almost needless to say, this ever-present danger affects you and your family.”

For this reason, Parr coauthored his memoir with his wife Carolyn, who can tell just as many stories as her husband. Indeed, she had witnessed Hinkley’s assassination attempt while standing outside of her office across the street from the Hilton.

“I saw Jerry and the president come out of the hotel,” says Carolyn, who worked as an attorney for the IRS. “As Hinkley fired, the two of them disappeared behind the limo door. The car took off, and there were three bodies on the ground.

“When I ran over to see if Jerry was among the wounded, I remember an agent pointing an Uzi at me. The scene was chaotic, but it only took them a few seconds to get the president out of there.”

So how did this couple manage to cope with such incredible stress, raise three children, and pursue their demanding careers at the same time? Both agree that it came down to flexibility.

As an agent, Parr had to tailor his protective services to the quirks and, in some cases, eccentricities of each president and vice president that he guarded.

“Carter was particularly difficult,” he recalls. “In a parade, he would want to ride on the roof of the car or work the crowds; he even took a 1,500-mile boat trip down the Mississippi River, which meant that we had to secure 3,000 miles of shoreline.”

As his wife, Carolyn had to put her professional endeavors on hold until their children were teenagers. Furthermore, daily life was far from normal: holidays depended on Secret Service shifts; attendance at parties and weddings hinged more on the president’s calendar than it did on their own; and worry over her husband’s safety proved a constant challenge.

“Jerry’s safety was always in the back of my mind, which meant that I had to compartmentalize if I was going to function as a rational person,” she says. “You try to push those thoughts aside. To do that, I borrowed from Scarlet O’Hara, who said, ‘I’ll think about that tomorrow.’”

Though unusual in many respects, the Parrs’ story is one to which millions of people can relate, especially the husbands and wives of soldiers, first responders, and law enforcement officers.

It is a tale of risk, bravery, and sacrifice set against a rich backdrop of contemporary American history.

Of course, Jerry Parr would tell you that it was just part of his job and, Carolyn, part of the life they had chosen.