Recruit Mary Mills has, in a sense, been training to serve and protect for nearly a decade. She first began considering a career in law enforcement in high school, which led her to begin researching the qualifications she would need to get into one of the military academies.
"Within months she had served as a volunteer in different areas, she had gotten a job, she was so concerned about making that varsity team and getting that varsity letter, but she was determined," said Mills' mother, Lisa.
Mills, 27, chose to attend the United States Coast Guard Academy.
"When we first took her down there, I was like, 'All you have to do is survive,' but she wasn't in it to survive, she was in it to excel," remembers Mills' father, John.
Mills' parents were both raised in Crystal City, Missouri. John's career with Anheuser-Busch forced the family to move several times during Mills' childhood. She had family and friends who remained in the St. Louis area and said she visited often for summers and holidays.
As an officer in the Coast Guard, Mills worked in Florida, the Caribbean, and Bahrain. She then settled in Billingham, Washington where she was the Commanding Officer of an 87-foot patrol boat for two years. Mills retired from active duty less than two weeks before beginning her training at the police academy.
Mills' instructors at the academy chose her to be the leader of Class 193. She serves as the communication liaison between the instructors and her fellow recruits and is tasked with keeping the group informed and in line.
Despite the success she achieved in the Coast Guard, Mills' parents are concerned about the risks she may face as a police officer. John and Lisa moved back to the St. Louis area around the St. Louis County Police Officer Blake Snyder was shot and killed in the line of duty. Mills had already begun the application process to become an officer.
"I couldn't watch Officer Snyder's funeral," Lisa said. "I tried. I sat and watched part of it, and I just I couldn't. That was probably about the only time I thought, 'I don't know if I can do this.'"
Lisa said she was anxious at the start of the academy, but as the training progresses, she's becoming more confident in the training her daughter is receiving.
"To hear how they are training them, to hear how well they are equipping them, and how well they are preparing them... with each little step that we go through, those fears become less and less."
Some recruits at the academy have been hired by the St. Louis County Police Department or one of the county's municipalities prior to beginning the academy training. Those recruits are paid a salary by the hiring agency while attending the academy.
Recruits who are not previously hired by a department enter the academy as "Open Enrollment" recruits. They are accepted into the academy and there is no tuition cost to attend, but since they are not yet hired by a department, they are not paid a salary while attending the academy. Recruits may be hired by a department at any time during their time at the academy, at which point they would receive the salary benefits.
Mills has been hired by the St. Louis County Police Department. After graduating from the academy in December, she'll hit the streets as a county officer in the community she longs to call home.
"I moved every few years growing up, and then I've moved every few years since I've been in the Coast Guard, so I've really never settled," Mills said. "I love the idea of settling down a little bit, and buying a house and digging in some roots here in St. Louis."