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Gainesville native helped protect 3 presidents while in Secret Service
Emmett was on duty during 9/11 attacks
Secret Service agent Dan Emmett, at right, serves on the protection detail as former President Bill Clinton greets the crowd at a public event.

There are people who are overwhelmed by tragedies. No matter how hard they try, they can’t seem to rise above the misery of it all.

Dan Emmett isn’t one of those people. From the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, those tragic situations are the ones that brought his purpose into focus.

And each of those key dates ultimately led him to his career in the Secret Service.

Nov. 22, 1963

"I was 8 years old when President Kennedy was assassinated. I recall it very well," said Emmett, a Gainesville native.

"I was coming out of school, walking down the sidewalk and someone said the president had been shot and was dead. I didn’t believe them at first. I thought it was something a kid made up."

After watching news coverage with his family, Emmett realized it wasn’t a playground rumor. The president was dead.

While television reports broke the news to Emmett, it was a newspaper article showing Secret Service Agent Clint Hill sprawled on the back of the Kennedy limousine that really got Emmett’s attention. In the photo, Hill is seen attempting to shield the president and first lady with his body.

"When I saw the photograph, I asked my father why (the agent) was doing that. Dad explained to me that it was the Secret Service agent’s job to get between an assassin and the president and to take a bullet, if necessary," Emmett said.

"When I saw that photograph, it made quite an impression. I thought, ‘Gosh, that sounds like a really

important and really dangerous job. That’s exactly what I want to do some day.’"

His sentiments back then as an Enota Elementary School student weren’t a fleeting childhood fantasy.

"Throughout my young life different ambitions came and went as they do with young people, but that ambition always came back," Emmett said.

March 30, 1981

After graduating from what is now North Georgia College & State University, Emmett joined the U.S. Marine Corps. He served from 1977 to 1981 and reached the rank of captain.

With less than a year left to fulfill his military commitments, it was another president’s encounter with a shooter that reminded Emmett of his childhood goal.

"When (former President Ronald Reagan) was shot in March of 1981, that’s when I made the firm decision to become a Secret Service agent," Emmett said.

"That shooting brought that goal back to the front of my mind. I was always a very adventurous child and young person, that’s why I joined the Marine Corps. Being an infantry officer, which I was, was a very hazardous profession."

Aside from feeding his adventurous spirit, Emmett says he saw becoming a Secret Service agent as a continuation of his service to his country.

"My father was a World War II veteran. Providing service to country was instilled in me almost from birth," Emmett said.

"It was a natural progression from Marine Corps to Secret Service. It was the patriotic thing to do."

After being accepted into the Secret Service training program, Emmett worked up the ranks of service to presidential detail.

"I remember my first day (on presidential detail in 1989) very well. I reported to the west wing of the White House, which is where the Secret Service command post was located," Emmett said.

"My first day, I worked the 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift. I remember it was a very hectic day. Very little of the procedure is written down. Almost everything someone shows you how to do it and then you have to remember it.

"It was a hectic day, but I was very happy that I was there. I was happy that I finally made it to what I wanted to do with my career: provide direct, arms-length protection to the president."

In his 21-year career as a Secret Service agent, Emmett provided direct protection to three sitting presidents: George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

"Secret Service agents are totally apolitical. We don’t care who is in the White House. We provide everyone with the exact same level of protection," Emmett said.

"In terms of the ones I enjoyed working with the most, it was probably (Clinton). He was the most personable of the three that I worked directly for.

"He was very outgoing and a people person. Whereas (both presidents Bush) kept things more on a business level, (Clinton) enjoyed engaging in conversations with the agents when the situation allowed."

Of all his duties over the years, the now retired agent says one of his most enjoyable was Clinton’s morning jogs.

"That’s what I would call real protection. We would run through downtown Washington in the middle of morning rush hour. No one had been swept for explosives or weapons, it was just the man on the street. Anyone could’ve been there," Emmett said.

"He did not like to run at secure facilities like the military bases around Washington. He wanted to go out and run with the public. You would have morning joggers who would see him, come over and ask if they could run with him for a while.

"He usually would agree. It made us cringe because we had no idea who this person was, but we were running within two steps of him, keeping a very close eye on that person."

Sept. 11, 2001

In 1994, Emmett settled into his role as instructor at the U.S. Secret Service Academy.

Initially, he was only planning to stay for a few years before retiring. He ultimately enjoyed teaching so much he decided to stay on and scrapped plans for retirement.

If it wasn’t for the events that occurred on 9/11, he could possibly still be teaching.

"I was busy teaching a class when someone said an airplane had flown into one of the World Trade Center towers. I’m a private pilot, so I know things about flying and I knew that the East Coast was experiencing good weather that day, so that just didn’t sound right," Emmett said.

"It didn’t sound like an accident to me. About a half hour later, another instructor came by and said another plane had flown into the other World Trade tower. At that point, I knew we were definitely under attack."

Immediately following the terrorist attacks, Emmett says things changed quickly at the academy.

"We changed from a five-day training week to six days. The instructors never got to go home," Emmett said.

"We were constantly shoveling new agents through the pipeline."

The attacks also changed something inside of Emmett.

"At that point, I decided I needed to go back to the presidential detail as soon as I could," Emmett said.

"Had it not been for 9/11, I probably would’ve retired from service directly from the training academy."

After completing his final year on presidential detail in 2004, Emmett joined the Central Intelligence Agency, a move he also says was inspired by 9/11.

"The CIA offered me a really good job in the counterterrorism center. That allowed me to be right where I wanted to be," Emmett said.

"In the Secret Service, you’re always on the defense, trying to stop an attack. But at the (CIA), you’re on the offense. Had it not been for 9/11, I never would’ve gone into the (CIA). Sept. 11 changed everything."

Emmett now resides in Alabama, but visits his Gainesville family monthly. He recently finished a book about his career in the Secret Service. It is tentatively titled "Worthy of Trust and Confidence" and should be released by the beginning of next year.

"‘Worthy of trust and confidence’ is the Secret Service motto. People always ask me if we agents take an oath promising to take a bullet (for the people under our protection)," Emmett said.

"There’s no such oath. Secret Service agents do not want to take a bullet for anyone. We’re not martyrs looking to die. It’s just understood that you may be called upon to place your life in jeopardy, so that the office of the presidency can survive.

"Taking a bullet is not something you want to do, but something you would do if the situation presented itself."