Police Chief Wayne Nero on lessons he learned at Camp David
There aren’t many people who’ve gotten a plateful of cookies from the First Lady and knocked the president of the United States to the ground, but Police Chief Wayne Nero has done both. The circumstances that led to both events not only mark Wayne as one of a few select Marines. They also helped shape his philosophy as a police chief.
Part of the .7%
Growing up outside of Chicago, Wayne always knew his path in life. “Ever since I could remember, there were two things I wanted to do: serve my country as a Marine and be a cop,” he says. At eighteen, with the ink still wet on his high school diploma, Wayne enlisted in the Marines.
During basic training, Wayne’s instructors noticed something about him they only see in .7% of Marines. Beyond the steely determination and heart of service required of a Marine, Wayne demonstrated the leadership, intelligence, and focus to be selected for Presidential Support. The B Billet assignment encompasses Marines who serve at the White House and at Camp David and who accompany the National Security Council. Wayne was assigned to Camp David—but not just then.
In February 1990, after completing combat training and two months in the school of infantry, Wayne arrived in Washington, D.C., to wait for his security clearance. And wait. And wait.
As they do for anyone in Presidential Support, the FBI dug deep into Wayne’s background, looking for incidents, impressions, or irregularities that would disqualify a Marine from serving at Camp David. The background check went back twenty years—impressive, considering Wayne was still a teenager.
“Literally, [the FBI] goes back and speaks to T-ball coaches and grade school teachers. People called my family thinking I was an ax murderer—the FBI’s asking about me, and they don’t tell what it’s in reference to,” Wayne explains.
Wayne was given the “all clear” in November 1990. He packed his gear and drove sixty-six miles north toward Camp David and his future.
Nestled in Catoctin Mountain Park, the Naval Support Facility Thurmont, or Camp David, was built in the 1930s as a retreat for government agents and their families. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt converted it into a presidential retreat.
Rustic cabins, a skeet range, bowling alley, bar, pool, and a gym designed by Arnold Schwarzenegger are just some of Camp David’s amenities. For the classified numbers of Marines, Navy Seabees, Army and Air Force personnel who guard, maintain, and run communications within Camp David’s two-mile perimeter, it’s an around-the-clock job.
“At any given time, there are a number of places where they can relocate the president under exigent circumstances,” Wayne explains. “Other than the White House, Camp David was, at that time, one of a few places secured twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and that required very few advanced security measures prior to a visit.”
Wayne’s time at Camp David wasn’t all work. During his three years, he got a behind-the-scenes look at President George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush.
The Stories He Could Tell . . .
“You have an idea of the presidency and this position of power. And when you get up there, you see that they’re just people,” says Wayne.
Wayne was patrolling the perimeter one night when the Bushes drove up in a golf cart and handed him a plateful of cookies. “Barbara Bush was very personable. She would always bring us stuff at all the different posts. She’d ask, ‘How’s your girlfriend doing?’”
The president, a decorated naval pilot, was highly competitive. During his presidency, Bush instituted an annual Wallyball tournament at Camp David. Wallyball is volleyball played on a racquetball court, utilizing the walls as a playing surface. It’s also a Bush family tradition.
One December, Wayne was on the Marines’ Wallyball team. They were set to play the Bushes. It was understood that the president’s team would win. But the president was having none of that.
“He stops the game and explains to us that he’s competitive—it was hilarious—and that basically we were sandbagging him. The president said, ‘I don’t care what anybody told y’all. I’ve just watched y’all play, and you’re not playing as hard as you can play,’” Wayne remembers.
Two plays later, Wayne spiked a ball off the wall, and it hit the president in the face and knocked him “square to the ground.” Wayne’s life flashed before his eyes—there went his career. George W. Bush unleashed a verbal barrage on Wayne, but the president shook it off and the game continued. In the end, the Bushes beat the Marines.
But did the Marines let them win? Wayne smiles a bit. “Of course not—we got beat down fair and square. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”
Lessons for the Chief
Stories weren’t the only souvenirs Wayne took with him when he said goodbye to Camp David in 1993 and headed into law enforcement.
“I think I got a unique experience being [at Camp David] surrounded by a lot of great people, and [I] learned a lot of valuable lessons. The leadership lessons I learned in those four years of service have carried me to where I am today,” Wayne explains.
Collaboration. Maintaining security at Camp David involved state, federal, and military personnel working together as a unit. Wayne often worked with different agencies simultaneously. “When you’re put in those positions, especially with this type of mission that’s so critical, you have to learn to work with people and through people to make decisions and get things done,” Wayne says.
Scholar, Statesman, Warrior. Wayne wears this motto on a wristband and made it a department-wide motto when he became police chief. It encompasses key characteristics he found among the .7%. “You’ve got to be a scholar—to be knowledgeable and know your job, role, and responsibilities. The statesman deals with people effectively—that’s leadership,” Wayne explains. “Being a warrior means that sometimes none of that works out and there’s just evil in this world that needs to be dealt with. You have to have a skill set to deal with that, and it’s of equal importance.”
Wayne left Camp David with a wealth of knowledge and only one regret. Upon finishing Presidential Support duty, Marines were invited to Washington, D.C., to have a picture with the president in the Oval Office. But right before Wayne left, the Gulf War caused the suspension of the practice. “After three years of being there, that was heartbreaking,” Wayne remembers.
He flashes a smile. “I personally think it was just a vendetta because I knocked [President Bush] down in Wallyball and he was trying to get even.”