Misty Waytes is an enigma for many reasons. She is a short, Black, female agent, who has to reiterate in the deep south, that her given name truly is Misty. All her life, she has had to fight stereotypes based on her race, gender and name. Her parents taught her however, that those are barriers society tried to place on her, but not limitations she could not overcome.
History in the Making
Misty grew up in Richmond, VA the product of two well-educated upper middle class African American parents who instilled in her a sense of ambition and self-awareness. She played sports in school and participated in extracurricular studies, eventually deciding on pursuing Criminal Justice. Her father, a strong influence in her life, advised her on career choices, guiding her to choose a career that not only fulfilled a passion, but that provided opportunity. The decision to choose law enforcement was not by accident, it was one borne from experiences, observations and a personal mission to serve. Although she initially had ambitions to be a lawyer, after taking a course in college on policing she was invited to a ride along with the Virginia Beach Police Department, which changed her mind. She was subsequently introduced to ATF by an agent, which changed the course of her career.
Joining an Elite Squad
Misty joined ATF as a special agent in 2009 at a time when the then current administration was pushing for increased law enforcement presence at the border between the United States and Mexico. Due to that initiative, her first posting was in Texas and her classmates were spread around to other border states. She joined the trafficking group, working closely with peers from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). She and fellow agent Meredith Davis were the only females in their unit, but they were defined as agents first, and although it wasn’t easy to always gain the respect that way, they both say that their first group wasn’t a bad experience and they both learned a lot. Meredith still speaks glowingly of her friend, about her composure, her determination and her commitment to the mission. Davis with a laugh told us a story of how someone had underestimated Misty as the ‘quiet and nice one’ and was shocked when she was assertive. She also spoke about the impact she has had on the program, and how her students would hug her upon graduation, and also how bad they feel when Misty disapproves of them.
Getting the Call
Misty’s commitment and dedication to her mission made her stand out and make an impact on those around her. Counted among them is Quo Carothers, another black female agent who put the word out that Misty would be the best person to serve as the first African American female firearms instructor. The director of the agency made a call to personally appeal to Misty to take the position. She pondered this for a while, weighing the pros and cons of moving to such a demanding position, back at FLETC, where her ATF career had started.
Making the Cut
Misty eventually chose to go back the ATF National Academy because she remembered her time there and realized that she could have a significant impact in that position, one that she didn’t really experience.
Challenges and Motivation
Upon the onset of the new position, Misty was attending graduate school at the University of Maryland, earning a degree in business. Her days were long, her days were hard, but she never wavered. She would rise early in the morning, prep for her classes, wait for the students to arrive, prep with them and have them on the firing line at 7:30 a.m. She would teach four to six hour classes, then go to the office to complete the admin portion of her job.
At 5:00 p.m. or so she would return home to study and take online courses to complete her masters, often studying late into the night. Just as she closed her eyes to rest, the alarm would blare to awaken her to a new day of teaching and studying. Her colleagues will tell you that Misty never let her long days affect the quality of her work. One is hard pressed to find anyone that can or will give anything but glowing reports about Misty.
We followed Misty when she was still the Firearms Instructor at the ATF National Academy at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in GA. She has since moved on to a new role within the agency, but her role at the academy made an impact, not only because her contributions as an agent, but also how she stepped into her role as a first, leading the way for many others.
Passion for Success
We start the day with a phone call. Misty is already ahead of us, she has checked in at the office before the sun has even risen and called to check in on us. She got up at 5:00 a.m. to get ready for her day. It was an understandable struggle as it was earlier than most people get up. She grabs something to eat and then packs up the gear she will need for the day. She arrived at the office by 6:30 a.m. and starts her prep.
She expects her students to be on the shooting range by 7:30 a.m. with their feet on the line by 7:15 a.m. Her goal is to set an example by being there even earlier. She even wears the same uniform has her students, as if to make a note to them that she is in it with them. She checks the lights, the boards, the pistols on hand; she checks all systems, who is in the tower from which the commands are monitored, she double checks her guns and sets up her speakers which are used to project her instructions. Her guest instructors and other coworkers begin to arrive and she greets them and provides with a quick debriefing on the objectives for the day.
By 7:15 a.m. the students begin to arrive and prepare for the day, she has to coral the 24 or so students who are eager to learn. Speaking with the students you hear echoes of the same sentiment, that Misty is genuine, kind and consistent. She stays at the line with then to ensure they each have the same amount of attention, and when remediation is needed, she is right there with them to make sure they get it right.
At 7:30 a.m. the FLETC observer signals he is ready and the students begin their training for the day. We see Misty form a semi-circle with the group and go over what they will be covering for the day. With her gun in hand, she provides clear visual demonstration of the objectives and expectations. Around 7:45 a.m. the students are briefed and ready to start the 4 hour class. For the lay observer, it appears the students are engaging in the same drills over and over. Misty notes that this repetition is for familiarity.
These techniques need to become second nature, as this will prove critical should these students have to face some of the most violent criminals, who are usually armed. When remediation is required, the corrections come in various forms including air squats, which Misty does alongside her students. By the end of the class, everyone is exhausted, but you get the sense the students are proud of their accomplishments and almost satisfied with their day. Despite the fatigue, Misty stays around to answer questions from the students, walking them through items they needed more help with.
She also prepares preparing their homework, which includes trigger control study videos tips and best practices. She does not want anyone to fail on her watch, and if they did, it was clear that it was not because she did not do her best. Misty has the agents for the majority of their time at the Special Agent Basic training (SABT), which was about 12 weeks. We heard from several students that they appreciated her style, which was hands on and extremely attentive. She made herself available to talk about not only the training, but also about issues, they may have had in their personal lives. She served not only as a teacher, but also as a mentor, which created a strong bond between student and teacher. A fact made evident when at the end of the day, Misty waited to see if one of her students made it through their final exam, because she was concerned this was final chance. She became, as she was called affectionately, a Mama Bear, frequently calling her students to check in on them to make sure they were able to handle both the physical and mental pressure.
At 12:15 p.m. we break quickly for lunch, and we find out later that Misty has lunch on the run. She went back to her office to work on the homework assignments as well as the mass amounts of paperwork that comes with any teaching job. She also had to deal with the administration portion of the job, emails from HQ, liaising with FLETC, which is overseen by Department of Homeland Security, learning new program mandates and designing her classes. As we interrupt her admin time, she cheerfully makes space for us while sending off several emails. We spy a card pinned to her wall, and ask about it.
A big smile spreads across her face as she tells us the story of a former student who wrote to tell her how grateful she as to have a teacher in this field who was not only as compassionate as Misty, but also looked like her. There aren’t many female firearms instructors and even fewer are African American, thus Misty made a big impact for those women, especially black women, who were in her classes. Knowing we are on limited time, we then conduct a series of rapid-fire questions and record her reponses.
We move from her office to a training trailer around 1:30 p.m. to the area where they conduct NICS verification exercises. Each new group has no idea what to expect when they knock on the trailer door. Misty and her partner make the exercise a fun one, but also a learning experience. They walk through what the new agents will have to look for in real life situations and what they could improve upon, what they did incorrectly. Each student realizes that in the worst of circumstances, one wrong decision could cost them their life. They understand the gravity of the situation, what lessons Misty, and her partners are trying to impart. We move onto another outdoor scenario that bring out Misty’s acting chops as ‘an angry wife’. As a spectator, watching the trainees react is entertaining; however, as with the trailer scenario, we see that one wrong move and situations could change drastically. We also see the power of partnerships in this exercise; we see how having an unwritten comradery can lend itself to ensuring safety for both agents.
Pay It Forward
We then head over to the shooting range, where Misty oversees the recertification of other ATF agents who are also instructors at the academy. We witness the comradery between the agents, a mixture of both men and women of all ages, races and ethnicities. Just as she was with her student, Misty is just as generous with her colleagues with on the spot trouble-shooting with the newly assigned weapons and gentle reminders on policy. As she grades their performance, they all joke with each other, as there is no resentment or animosity with the rating process; everyone accepts this as part of being a federal agent.
We pack up our gear and head back to the training classrooms where Misty packs up her gear and her car, prepping for the next day. We speak to her colleagues who, although shy to the camera, cannot say enough nice things about Misty. They speak of her commitment, her determination, her dedication and her reliability. Not one person, is not touched by Misty, in some unique way.
For the final event of the day is a tactical exercise on breaching an entrance when there is a suspect hostage situation.This was the final exam for the aforementioned trainee. Although Misty had been up 15 hours at this point, she wanted to see this through because she had worked hard with this student to get him to this point and this was his final chance. Although she was still joking with her colleagues and us, one could tell she was on edge, her thoughts on the student; it was almost as if she was willing him to succeed through her thoughts alone.
Then at 6:45 p.m. we began to pack up our gear and prepare to depart FLETC. The sun was setting as we left Misty and the other instructors who were awaiting the final results. Around 7:30 p.m. as we ate our dinner, Misty called to say that the student did not make it, and unfortunately would have to be cut from the program. She was gutted. She really hoped that she would be celebrating his passing the exam.
She was then required to work a little longer to complete the paperwork required when separating a trainee from the program. Her heart felt heavy; it was not the way she wanted this day to end. Although that young man may not have made it as at ATF agent, he undoubtedly felt the impact of Misty in his life and he would not forget her, just as much she would not forget her. So she closed the long day with a sad event, knowing that in a few short hours, she would have to begin it all again, and some small part of her was happy that the new day brought new challenges.