It was a breezy summer day in Seattle last year when FBI Special Agent Katherine Holder took a deep breath and walked into Khalid Abdul-Latif's apartment.
Latif had been arrested on charges of plotting to kill recruits at a nearby military entrance processing station, and it was Holder's job to hunt for evidence that would put him in jail for a very long time.
"Please don't let me screw this up," Holder said to herself. It was that kind of focused determination that fueled her tours of duty in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan as an Army intelligence officer and then propelled her through three years of law school.
When a friend from her old unit in the 101st Airborne Division suggested she join the FBI rather than go on active duty as an Army lawyer, it was that same sniperlike focus that gave Holder the vision to see the possibilities in an unexpected opportunity.
"I was really set on going back into the Army," she says. But in 2006, she applied for a one-year paid FBI internship while she finished law school. One of about 50 people selected that year, she says it was the perfect chance to recon a career field she had never considered before. And she liked what saw.
"I saw a lot of what I love about the military in the FBI, that same sense of mission and purpose," she says. Plus, it quickly became clear that in the wake of 9/11, the FBI was expanding into the cloak-and-dagger world of intelligence gathering.
It was the perfect marriage of her military experience and legal training.
"There are days I truly do miss the Army, but I've never regretted the decision."
‘Pretty amazing' work
FBI agents are assigned specialties after they complete the bureau's version of basic training, a five-month academy in Quantico, Va. Career paths include everything from traditional criminal work to cyber sleuthing to counterintelligence.
As an intelligence specialist assigned to the FBI's Seattle field office, Holder works for the region's Joint Terrorism Task Force. Dubbed the nation's "front line on terrorism," the 71 JTTFs across the country are staffed by an alphabet soup of federal, state and local agencies.
"Every field office in the bureau has a JTTF. Our main responsibility is the state of Washington, but with these kinds of cases, you get tons of overlap. You're not only working with all the cogs of the U.S. government, but also international partners," Holder says.
It was no surprise that the entire JTTF was working the Latif case: "When something like that happens, you drop everything, and everyone is working the case."
Also a member of the evidence retrieval team, Holder spent hours going through Latif's apartment.
"You don't want there to be any question on what we've done. And you don't want to miss anything," she says. "There are specific procedures on how we collect evidence. If we screw that up, there's a possibility that it won't be admissible as evidence in court. This is where the lawyer in me kicks in."
Sometimes tough, never typical
Sometimes, the duty can be gut-wrenching.
On New Year's Day, Holder found herself crammed into an mine-resistant, ambush-protected with other agents rolling up into the snow-covered high country on the side of Mount Rainier.
National Park Ranger Margaret Anderson had just been shot dead, and the killer was on the loose.
"We were up there on top of this glacial mountain processing the scene in some pretty horrible conditions and under horrible circumstances in a situation that was pretty personal to all of us."
Still, she says she was proud to be part of it.
"That was not an easy scene to process. We were there to do the mission and do it right to honor her."
It was a tough day, she says, but every day is different.
"There's no typical day in the bureau. You may come in thinking I've going to catch up on all this paperwork, and you sit down and work for an hour and then all of a sudden the criminal squad says, ‘Hey, we need some help with some arrests,' and so you drop everything you're doing, grab your gear and you're off. I love that."
Her advice for anyone interested in a career in the FBI is simple:
"Be dedicated to your decision to do it," she says. "It's just like the military: The FBI is not a 9-to-5 job. It's a way of life."
And like the military, it comes with its headaches, but also its own rewards.