Working at an elite level of protection for some of the country’s most prominent officials, including former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Kevin Vermillion ’94 spent 17 years as a U.S. Secret Service special agent. When he reflects upon the sense of duty and leadership required of his job, Vermillion credits his capabilities to the lessons he first learned at the Institute.
Matriculating from Fairfax, Virginia, Vermillion did not yet know he wanted to be a special agent, but he did know he wanted a challenge. He grew up interested in the Spartan system and lasting friendships characterizing the VMI experience. “It seemed like I always heard more stories of people that didn’t make it,” said Vermillion. “I was intrigued by it and decided I would apply early admission.”
For Vermillion, his bonds with his brother rats were instant, enduring, and an anchor for him throughout his cadetship.
“I found myself at Christmas break of my rat year, home for a month, enjoying freedom and a little bit of regrowth in my hair. But at the end of that break, I wanted to get back to my BRs and to break out together. I was committed.”
Approaching graduation with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, Vermillion knew he wanted to serve in some capacity and began applying to be a special agent. At that time, he interviewed with Secret Service but was turned down and told to apply again after gaining more experience.
Vermillion redirected his course but didn’t give up on his goal. Instead, he served as a police officer in Raleigh, North Carolina, before being picked up by the Secret Service only two years later. During that time, he proposed to his VMI Ring Figure date, and shortly after, the couple got married and moved to the Secret Service’s Houston field office for training.
First established in 1865, the Secret Service began as an anti-counterfeiting bureau in the Treasury Department before adding its present role in protecting the safety and security of protectees, critical locations, and events of national significance.
Life as a special agent demanded travel and time. While performing criminal investigations, Vermillion also provided protection for former presidents, traveling frequently.
“Regardless of what their assignment is in the field office, all Secret Service agents will be called from time to time to do protection,” said Vermillion. “I was able to support the travel of the president, who at the time was President Clinton, and I traveled to probably 15 countries in those four years. Then, I ultimately participated in the 2000 campaign where President Bush was running against Vice President Gore.”
Vermillion was then called to move to headquarters in Washington, D.C., for a special projects position which he held for two years before choosing a protection assignment for Vice President Dick Cheney. While in this position, Vermillion also worked in air defense and White House operations.
Eventually, Vermillion and his family decided to move back to Texas, where he became the leader of a criminal task force before being promoted as the assistant special agent in charge of former President Bush’s protective detail. Vermillion remained in this position for a few years, providing protection for Bush after he left office and moved back to Texas.
“The cadet experience exists just as it existed when I was a cadet. ... The things that made VMI unique are still there. There’s no other school in the nation that puts kids, 18-year-old kids, in such a Spartan atmosphere, an adversarial atmosphere that builds them into what ultimately becomes a full-functioning cadet and adult.”Kevin Vermillion ’94
Though public officials like a president always have an entourage of protection agents around them, there is always one person who is closest: This person is the detail leader.
“If you’re looking at the Secret Service from the outside, and you see the president on TV, you have many agents who are around him. There is usually one guy that is right behind him who will also get into the limo with him: That’s the detail leader,” he explained. “Anytime the president leaves the house or does anything, there is always a detail leader with him. You have other agents, but there is the one guy who he is closest to.”
As Bush’s detail leader, Vermillion spent ample time with the former president, often one-on-one, whether at his Texas ranch or at an event.
“When you lose all the people that were involved in the White House, sometimes you’ll find it’s even just you and the president as far as communications,” said Vermillion. “He’s telling you what to do for the day and so forth. It was great working with him. We did everything from the World Series to speeches to working on the ranch, golf, you name it.”
Beyond the requisite training, being an effective detail requires a level of confidence—not only the confidence one has in themselves, but also the confidence the protectee has in their agent. He credits lessons learned at VMI for his success in this role.
“With someone that is as busy as a former president, they want to know what they need to be accomplished will be accomplished,” Vermillion explained. “They need to have trust in you and clarity. I felt like this is something that I have done and that I’ve applied throughout my professional life from VMI.”
“It instilled a sense of duty, which I don’t think any school gives you a better sense of duty than VMI,” said Vermillion. “At VMI, you’re always doing the right thing. You have this great, ethical sense, and you feel it’s your duty to always do your job as effectively as possible. As you progress through the process, they entrust you to perform certain highly visible, important duties.”
His lessons in duty, ethical leadership, and perseverance were key to his effectiveness as a detail leader.
“You must do as good as you can at VMI, and you must, at the end of the day, be successful,” said Vermillion. “If you apply that to something like being a detail leader, I am not going to embarrass myself or the agency I work for by, for example, communicating something that’s not true.”
“Or, if something doesn’t go the way it should, despite our best efforts, I would try to make it clear that, yes, I’ve had this hiccup and this has changed,” Vermillion continued. “I’m fixing it, and it’s going to be done. [Protectees] want that level of confidence … VMI is good at teaching you that despite obstacles and challenges, you have the capability to come up with a solution.”
The exciting demands of being a special agent did not come without a cost at times though. “Secret Service can be tough on a family, especially when you’re doing protection: You’re missing birthdays, holidays, et cetera,” said Vermillion. Still, after 17 years in the Secret Service, Vermillion said he had no intention of leaving.
Yet, nine years ago, when a private, Texas-based company approached him with a job offer, he realized the change would prove to be a positive career direction and decision for his family. He also happened to cross paths again with the Institute, as one of the previous owners of this company attended VMI in the 19th century.
Today, Vermillion’s son, Cadet Carter Vermillion, member of the Rat Mass of 2023+3, also attends VMI, embarking on his own challenge at the Institute. Asked what advice he gave his son before matriculation this August, Vermillion said he told him to focus on succeeding in responsibilities and challenges moment by moment and day by day. He also stressed the value of relationships made and how those will carry him through.
As he witnesses his son’s Rat Line experience, Vermillion said it has assured him the VMI experience and system have not changed. He feels the core tenets of the VMI experience—those that have impacted him throughout his life and career—remain intact.
“In this time, there has been a lot of talk about if VMI has changed, and with all that’s going on in the world, if VMI can survive in this new world,” Vermillion reflected. “I don’t live in Virginia, so I am only around VMI during reunions. But I can tell you as a parent and from what I’ve heard talking to my son and what I’ve seen visiting him, the core critical tenants of the Rat Line have not changed.”
Vermillion feels present-day cadets will experience the same character and leadership growth he saw in himself while at the Institute. “The cadet experience exists just as it existed when I was a cadet. … The things that made VMI unique are still there. There’s no other school in the nation that puts kids, 18-year-old kids, in such a Spartan atmosphere, an adversarial atmosphere that builds them into what ultimately becomes a full-functioning cadet and adult.”
Mattie Montgomery Assistant Editor
The assistant editor assists the editor-in-chief in various tasks relating to the production of quarterly and monthly publications, as well as prepares written materials for publication. The assistant editor serves as liaison between class agents and chapter presidents and the Agencies’ publications, as well as provides backup photography for events.