By Judy Bass
“I’ve come a long way,” said Mark P. Atlee of his remarkable career, one that has taken him around the world to serve his country.
Atlee, 47, a native of Belmont, Mass., has come a long way, indeed, geographically and otherwise. He was in the US Marines following his graduation from Minuteman High School in Lexington in 1984, which was a prelude to his years as a federal air marshal, and now, to his current position with the US Department of Homeland Security as Senior Special Agent in the National Protection and Programs Directorate, stationed in Portsmouth, N.H.
Looking back, Atlee said that when he was in junior high, he took an after-school program at Minuteman, and was intrigued by the variety of educational opportunities it offered and the fact that, as a technical school, Minuteman was different than the traditional high school. He “immediately thought it would be a good fit,” so he enrolled to study carpentry.
Just six months after graduating in June 1984, Atlee enlisted in the Marine Corps. “I’d never really left the area,” Atlee explained, so the chance to travel appealed to him. The physical fitness and teamwork aspects of military life also attracted him; today, he credits the whole experience with giving him “the right skill set to do a lot of things.”
Many of the men in Atlee’s unit, he said, eventually went to work for local police departments. There was a similar mindset, camaraderie, and team concept, as in the military. “I knew that was what I wanted to do,” Atlee observed. He returned to Massachusetts, put himself through Salem State College to concentrate in criminal justice, and began working in Boston’s housing projects as an officer in the early 1990s.
In that capacity, he came face to face with the grittiest urban street crime – gangs, drugs, shootings – but Atlee confirms that it was “the best law enforcement experience you could get.” It also put to the test his philosophy of “sticking up for people who can’t stick up for themselves.”
“Very few people want to get involved,” he said, “but some people say, ‘I’m not going to let that happen’” when they see wrongdoing or the most vulnerable among us being targeted.
Atlee never hesitated to get involved. His career in law enforcement, which he savored, continued to flourish as he went through the State Police Academy in 1993, and then joined the Boston Municipal Police, getting detailed to the Boston Housing Authority.
Along the way, Atlee went into the Marine Corps reserves, getting called up after the attack on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
All those developments led Atlee to his next position, as a federal air marshal, which he describes with undisguised gusto as “one of the best jobs I ever had in my life.”
At that perilous time, terrorism via aviation was considered a serious threat to this country, and armed federal agents were being used as a deterrent, Atlee said. In addition, he definitely wanted to play a larger role than the one he had, and being an air marshal gave him that opportunity, whisking him to faraway locales such as China, India, London, Paris, Amsterdam, and elsewhere throughout the world.
“I went to places I would probably never have seen,” Atlee said. Although he couldn’t talk of any specific incidents of terrorism in his seven and a half years in that job, he said he did cope with unruly passengers, gather intelligence, and keep an eye on specific people.
In fact, Atlee said he would still be an air marshal if this opportunity had not come along, referring to his present position with US Homeland Security. Describing it as more of a law enforcement job that’s a “natural progression” and a “step forward” for him, he said he’s responsible for securing federal facilities as well as protecting federal employees and visitors.
Within his territory encompassing Maine and New Hampshire, Atlee said he’s tasked with investigating threats to federal sites such as the Social Security Administration, US Dept. of Veterans Affairs, the IRS, and the US Dept. of Labor, to name just a few. If there are any criminal violations at those locations, federal property missing from them, suspicious devices or threats to people in these departments, Atlee is ready to go into action.
One of the most dramatic and intense investigations that Atlee ever participated in came after the bombings at the Boston Marathon in April. “It was probably the most significant operation I’ve ever been involved in,” he said.
“We were contacted immediately to assist the FBI with some of the investigative leads. Everybody has a camera, or surveillance video, everyone had a little piece of something. It all needed to be collected and it all needed to be analyzed. We were also on the ground, going house to house, looking in cars.”
Atlee still has vivid memories of Friday, April 19, the day that the massive manhunt for the younger bombing suspect unfolded in Greater Boston. Atlee grew up in Belmont and is familiar with the streets of nearby Watertown, where a late-night shootout between law enforcement and the two brothers believed to be the bombing culprits took place, so he spent the entire anxiety-fraught day in that community. Information was coming in at a furious pace, and the urgency of the situation increased with every hour that the younger brother remained at large.
An “eerie” atmosphere pervaded Boston that day like none Atlee had ever experienced before. The city, usually teeming with activity, had been practically shut down while the manhunt was in progress. “It was like a holiday, all deserted,” he said. In fact, when Atlee stopped in Belmont to check on his relatives there, they were reluctant to even open the door for him, so heightened was the climate of fear and uncertainty.
Today, reflecting on his stellar career, Atlee said being able to serve this nation is a privilege. “I get a lot of unmonetary satisfaction and pride in being part of that. I’ve been at the right place at the right time. So far, it’s worked out.”
To learn more about Minuteman High School, please visit www.minuteman.org.