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Attack on Reagan Changed US Protection Tactics, Agent Says

On March 30, 1981, shots rang out as President Ronald Reagan left a Washington hotel. The president and three others, including Secret Service Agent Tim McCarthy, were seriously wounded. Our correspondent talks with former agent McCarthy about how that day changed his life, and how the Secret Service protects the president.

Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy faced a decision the morning of March 30, 1981 - file paperwork in the office, or protect President Ronald Reagan on a local trip to give a speech.

“So the shift leader rather than pointing to one or the other, since we had both been briefed, it’s probably more clichéd, but ‘flip a coin’ because one of the two of you have to fill that position," said McCarthy.

McCarthy lost the toss.

On site later that day, he recalls scanning the crowd as Mr. Reagan emerged from the hotel after his speech.

“I had looked back at the president, and all of a sudden, John Hinckley, who is on the left side of the rope line, pushed himself forward," said McCarthy.

Hinckley took aim at the president, and fired a revolver.

“I really never put the gun with the person because it happened so quickly," remembered Tim McCarthy. "I could tell by the sound and the smoke that I saw where the rounds were coming from.”

More shots rang out, including one that ricocheted off President Reagan’s limousine. As this car sped away and became free of the chaos, it was apparent that President Reagan was wounded, by the bullet that ricocheted. Once the gunfire ended, and officers wrestled Hinckley to the ground, three people around President Reagan were also wounded, including Press Secretary James Brady and Agent McCarthy.”

“I was hit in the chest, and the bullet went into the lung, liver and diaphragm, and the common picture shows me grabbing my abdomen, but that’s down where the liver was when it went through the liver," said McCarthy. "That’s where the pain was at the time, but actually I was shot in the chest.”

Press Secretary Brady suffered serious injuries, but survived, as did Washington police offer Thomas Delehanty.

President Reagan also recovered from his wounds, but McCarthy says the incident was a wake up call for the Secret Service.

“After that, metal detectors were used to screen anyone who gets near the president," he said. "Shortly thereafter, the legacy is that since that time, there has not been another attack on any of our presidents by the historic assassin, which is the lone gunman who would simply get close to the president with a handgun and of course attempt to assassinate the president.”

John Hinckley Junior was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He remains confined to a mental health facility.

The limousine that carried Mr. Reagan to the hospital is now on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn Michigan. The damage caused by Hinckley’s bullet was repaired shortly after the shooting.

Though the incident occurred over thirty years ago, the attack created a lasting bond between the president and his protector.

“The President and Mrs. Reagan were more than grateful, more than thankful and gracious to me and my family from that day on," said McCarthy.

After serving two more Presidents, McCarthy retired from the Secret Service in 1993. He now serves as the chief of the Orland Park Police Department in suburban Chicago.

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    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.