GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A new batch of recruits for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources have been living at the Michigan State Police Training Academy near Lansing for over a month.
They will stay there for a total of 23 weeks, going through rigorous training on their way to becoming conservation officers.
It’s the first time since the start of the pandemic that the DNR has held this type of an academy.
“We sent our last academy through a regional academy and then did … a shortened version of our academy to learn the conservation laws,” Sgt. Jason King, the recruit school commander, explained. “But now that all those restrictions are over with, we’re back to how we used to do it.”
Throughout the academy, recruits have been blogging about their experiences, describing things like taking a four-minute bath in 28-degree ice water or wearing blackout goggles while practicing rescuing someone underwater.
DNR Conservation Officer Anna Cullen went through the academy in 2018.
“The person that I was when I started that academy was much different than the person who graduated on Dec. 18, (2018),” she said.
A DAY AT THE ACADEMY
Recruits wake up at 5 a.m. every morning to the reveille. They line up for physical training at 6 a.m. before eating breakfast and then getting ready for inspections. Everything is scheduled out, from all their meals to workouts to classes. They have Friday evening through Sunday at 6 p.m. off.
“It’s very structured and very paramilitary,” King said. “It’s a very disciplined academy.”
Cullen said one of the most unexpected parts of the experience was how rigidly controlled everything was.
“Everything was planned out for us,” she said. “Our scheduling was just really rigid.”
King said the recruits need to come into the academy already in shape.
“Physical fitness is always challenging for people because it is very physically demanding,” he said.
Throughout the six months, recruits train on everything they need to become a certified law enforcement officer and study things like fish and game laws.
“The academic portion is very challenging because there’s a lot of exams and tests-taking that they do,” King said.
Exams are Thursday, sometimes three or four in a day. If they fail, they only have once chance to retake it, King said.
‘IF YOU BELIEVE YOU CAN, YOU WILL. IF YOU BELIEVE YOU CAN’T, YOU WON’T’
Cullen said during her time at the academy, she did things she never thought she could.
“You complete tasks that at one point you would think impossible, that you would never be able to see yourself doing or completing and you finish them successfully,” she said. “And you think, ‘Oh my gosh, I did that.’ And the sense of pride that you get from completing a task that you once thought was impossible, I mean, it’s immeasurable.”
She said during times like swim week, she had to push herself past mental fatigue.
“You’re training yourself to be pushed to near exhaustion … but you still have to perform,” she said. “In real life … it could be a life-and-death situation where you have to be able to revert back to your training and say, ‘OK, I know that I can do this while I’m exhausted.'”
She said instructors had the recruits repeat, “If you believe you can, you will. If you believe you can’t, you won’t.”
“They made us say it every day until we believed it,” she said. “I don’t think that there’s a better quote to live that academy by than that, because it really, really rang true with a lot of the difficult times in that school. But at the end it was all worth it.”
GRADUATION DAY: ‘100% WORTH IT’
Fifteen conservation officer recruits started the academy on July 10. Those who successfully complete it will graduate on Dec. 16 before moving on to working with field training officers for 18 weeks.
Cullen said despite how difficult the academy was, “it was 100% worth it on graduation day.”
“I don’t know if you can really try to put it into words, to be honest,” she said. “Grateful, proud, worth it. Everything: all the pain, all the blood, all the sweat, all the tears. You realize on that graduation day that it was all leading up to this moment. … Not only that moment, but a 25-year-long career.”
Now, she works in Muskegon County, where her job varies day by day throughout the seasons.
“I am a firm believer that we have the best job in the world,” Cullen said.
She said anyone who is interested in becoming a conservation officer should educate themselves on what the job entails and should do a ride along.
King said a lot of people forget that while DNR conservation officers focus on the natural world, they are still law enforcement officers.
“We get a lot of people that don’t really understand that we are state law enforcement officers. They might apply for this job because they like to hunt and fish or because they like the outdoors. There is way more to this job than that,” he said. “You are still expected to make traffic stops and then to respond to a domestic violence or an assault or something like that. … We’re not always in the woods.”
“They think that we spend a lot of time in the woods, which we do … but there are just as many dangerous situations that we put ourselves in,” Cullen said.