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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.”