On a quiet Thursday morning during the pre-election Congressional recess, Capitol Police officers John Cheatham and Carmen Portorreal are kidding around and having coffee.
Seated side by side in one of the cushioned booths in the Dirksen Cafeteria, they draw stark contrasts to one another, physically and in temperament.
Cheatham appears bigger than he actually is in the bulky and well-stocked utility vest he wears over his chest. Portorreal is compact and petite, with her hair slicked back in a tight ponytail.
He talks in a low voice, amiable and sincere; she speaks with more volume, in sentences punctuated by staccatos.
Cheatham is a CERT, or SWAT, operator, part of a tactical team on the Capitol Police force that travels with Congressional delegations. Portorreal is typically in civilian clothes on duty with the House chamber security team.
One thing they have in common: They’re both veterans.
The Capitol Police has about 2,145 employees, both sworn and civilian. Of that number, 477 are either active or former members of the military.
As the nation honors its service members on Veterans Day, Cheatham and Portorreal spoke to Roll Call about life in the military, work on Capitol Hill and army grub.
Cheatham’s decision to enter the law enforcement field was a long time coming, he said.
“I always wanted to be an officer,” he recalled. “My dad died when I was young. … That made me want to be on the right side of things.”
He enlisted in the army at the urging of his mother, who said it would provide him with opportunities he wouldn’t be able to have otherwise, such as a financed education.
He spent nine years with the Maryland National Guard and two years in the Army Reserve.
He completed two years of college, studying sociology and criminal justice. Because he continues to be on active service, he is still required to report for duty one weekend a month and two weeks out of the year. He has also been called away for longer deployments that have included stints at the U.S. military facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Now with two young children of his own, Cheatham said his experiences in the Army have helped him be a better father.
“It taught me a kind of discipline that I can teach them,” he said.
Portorreal was also stationed at Guantánamo Bay with the military police as one of just a handful of women.
“I was always honest with the detainees and respectful. … I always made sure my people stayed outside while they prayed,” she said.
At the same time, she needed to always be on guard: “They can make a weapon out of anything.”
Portorreal’s foray into military service differed from Cheatham’s. Arriving in the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1984, she entered basic training in 1998. Like Cheatham, she saw opportunities in the Army, and her father served as a role model with his time in the Dominican Republic military.
Portorreal’s seven years of service led her to pursue a full-time career in law enforcement, a path she said she hadn’t necessarily seen for herself before the military.
But when asked whether she would re-enlist, she said no. She was tired of moving around so much; when she finally settled into a house in the D.C. area, she said it took her years to finally buy furniture.
She’s happy with her job and the unique nature of the work: She speaks Spanish with Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and got to staff the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., this year.
Plus, she said — and Cheatham agreed — that the military has changed since they both signed up, with superiors now becoming more lenient and subordinates expecting more compassion.
“The Army’s gotten soft,” Portorreal said, “catering too much to people’s needs. … You always have to say ‘please’ now, and in real life, you don’t have time for that.”
“It’s been watered-down,” Cheatham agreed, adding that the rigor of his military training helped him “from the standpoint of my own discipline.”
They’re glad for what the military’s culture was able to do for them, though, personally as well as professionally.
For one thing, it has given them an edge in the workplace.
“Teaching soldiers, leading classes, I’ve done those things,” Cheatham said of how he could leverage himself if he one day sought a promotion with the Capitol Police.
“We look at the big picture,” Portorreal added, giving inauguration planning as an example of where that skill could come in handy.
The shared experience of military service binds them to their fellow veterans on the force, adding another dimension of camaraderie to what already might exist just by virtue of the field.
“We do stick together,” Portorreal said. “It’s fun. We talk about the good old times, the training.”
“The blisters,” Cheatham joked.
“Those nasty MREs?” Portorreal countered, referring to the less-than-gourmet Meals Ready to Eat that are par for the course on military bases.
“I liked the peanut butter!” Cheatham objected.
“The lemon pound cake was OK,” Portorreal conceded.
After a moment’s thought, she added, “The coffee was horrible.”