know that Cape May is host to the only U.S. Coast Guard Recruit Training Center in the
country? Most tourists coming through don't even know the Coast Guard
base is here, especially if their stay doesn't take them to the intersection of
Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania avenues where the big sign is. I live here and when
I see those Coast Guard ships coming into port or a company of recruits running
along the boardwalk, I’m fascinated and I wonder - what in the Sam Hill goes on over
there. I know the recruits are shipped in for the Coast Guard version of boot
camp. I know the recruits are confined to the base until close to
But what do they do and who are the people who teach them to do what they do?
Well, CapeMay.com is on the scene. This month we're going to take you on base
for the day in the life of a Company Commander.
Before we begin, you must
understand this. A day in the life of a U.S. Coast Guard company commander took
me more like two days, really three, should have been four but I'm a whoose and
couldn't hang and I was nearly reverted (held back). The difference between
military life and civilian life became clear immediately. Senior Chief Wayne
Self took me (practically by the hand) and showed me exactly where to park,
which walkway to use, which building to go to and took me up to his office, all
as a rehearsal for my day with Mike Company-173's Company Commander Chief Petty
Officer Louis Bevilacqua.
Poor Senior Chief Self - all
his work for naught. The only difference between me and a first week recruit is
the uniform - I have none. The first deviation I made was in getting dropped off
instead of driving onto the base - that meant I was disoriented and got my
parking lots confused. My second mistake was not carrying proper identification
with me. My third mistake? Not allowing enough time to screw up and still be on
time. A phone call solved the first problem. As to the second, I ended up in the
medical building first, then the cafeteria at Eldrege Hall. And as to the third
mistake? Well, yes fifteen minutes late. My most tragic mistake, however, was
asking six recruits if they knew where Sr. Chief Self's office was. They cocked
their heads to the right, en masse, and stared wide-eyed at me in total and
complete silence. I think they thought I was a plant, a cruel test which they
must pass. Finally a female recruit said "We're in our second week ma'am."
Say no more Seaman. I
get it. I'm quite sure that particular female recruit will have no problem
finishing her eight weeks of training because she at least knew she didn't know.
A petty officer took pity on me and directed me to the right building where I
found Sr. Chief Self and Chief Bevilacqua
who were waiting very patiently for me
albeit wondering where in the Sam Hill I was. And here is the first difference
between a civilian and a military person, (note: this is also the difference between
a 1st week recruit and a graduate) the complete inability of a civilian or week
one recruit to follow a simple order, or in this case a set of simple
instructions. And that was just the beginning of the lessons.
Morning was time for classes,
so, as it turns out, I left the base anyway and came back at 1200 hours or noon.
Sr. Chief Self gave me a ride back and in so doing I had some time to learn
about him. He is a law enforcement officer in his home state of Washington. He
has a wife and three children. He had just finished a tour in Iraq - and I mean
just - when an opportunity came for him to enter the Company Commander School.
After completion of his studies, Cape May was to be a short assignment. That was
three years ago and I might add an indication of post 9/11 syndrome. All
military branches are finding that their resources are being stretched and the
Coast Guard is no exception.
At 1130 hours, I ventured
back to the Coast Guard base. This time I did drive. I did park in the correct
parking lot and I did have my I.D. And I was on time - in fact early. OK
everyone out there - give me a hoorah!
It is the 6th week of
training for Mike Company and they have a few tests to pass. Today is one of the
days when they must pass them. Chief Yeoman Franklin Wright, the section
commander, will be testing the company on their MOA or Manual of Arms test and
Close Order Drill but first lunch. Yeah. I like this gig. Now you'd think lunch
would be easy enough. Nah. Chief Bevilacqua and I sit at the officers table.
Various officers come and go throughout our lunch, including Chief
Wright, whom I am about to see in action and Chief Bevilacqua’s assistants in
Mike Company, petty officers Brandi Fossett, Allen Howard and Matt Gross. Petty
Officer Richard Goodman, who is between companies, kept a keen eye on the
recruits throughout lunch. He had the perfect view of seamen either incoming or
"Feet together Seaman."
"Lift your feet Seaman."
"Seaman. Why do I see two
desserts on that tray?"
"Seamen - step away from the
table and right face, the other way seamen, no..."
"How do you address me seaman
recruit? No sir is incorrect. Yes Petty Officer Goodman, no Petty Officer
This how to address an
officer thing is a huge issue and is part of knowing the Chain of Command -
which every recruit must know before he or she graduates. I am in complete
sympathy with any recruit who can't get it right. As Petty Officer Goodman
corrected the recruits, I found myself having an internal dialogue in my head,
practicing saying all that. Now saying "Yes Petty Officer Goodman” is hard
enough...it just gets worse the higher the rank. Battalion Commander Master
Chief Gordie Yowell told me later, he advises the recruit to look at the
uniform. If you see an anchor - that means officer. If you see one star - s is
for Senior Chief, multiple stars means Master Chief. Sounds simple, doesn't it?
Try saying it when that officer is eyeballing you in the cafeteria, on the
walkway going to classes, or catches you just daydreaming. Deer in the
headlights time folks or (and it’s so hard to keep a straight face) “Aye aye
About half way through lunch,
I realized that the only voices I could hear in the cafeteria were the voices at
our table. Seamen come in, sit down, and leave with nary a word spoken. I ask
why. It's part of the discipline, Chief Bevilacqua tells me. Each week in
training is different and as a recruit gets closer to graduation, the discipline
becomes more refined, there is less yelling, more attention to seamanship and
the skills necessary to survive a maritime rescue. But here in this cafeteria -
the focus is on the feet, eyes, and body movement because the discipline needed
later begins with these small details.
After lunch - by the way -
lunch is quite good don't believe that nonsense about military food or at least
the food at this branch. Yeah I know what you're thinking. Fahgetaboutit.
Officers eat the same selection of food as recruits. Now where was I? Oh yes,
after lunch Chief Bevilacqua, his three assistants and I move across the campus
to Healy Hall, home to Mike Company. Mike Company consists of 54 males and 12
females. It’s winter rules on the base, hence the reason Chief Bevilacqua has
three assistants – one is the norm but the winter companies are much smaller
than the summer ones (during the summer an incoming company can total as high as 150
recruits). A winter company also generally consists of an older recruit, someone
who typically has found a hard time making his or her way and is ready to give
the Coast Guard a try. Inside Chief Bevilacqua’s office, the officers speculate
whether or not Mike Company will pass their Manuel of Arms test. Petty Officer
Fossett calls for Mike Company to “form up.”
Soon we are downstairs in the
“Attention on deck.”
Just like that all 68 seamen
are at attention - their piece (rifle) by their side.
Section Commander Wright
enters the room and inspects the company as a whole, then each individual
squadron while the company commander and his assistants watch. I am amazed that
his voice is strong and in charge but not loud and scary the way you would
imagine it to be. I find myself nervous for the recruits because they must pass
this test as a company which means the performance of one person reflects on the
performance of the team. Chief Bevilacqua has been a company commander for one
year. This is his fourth company and, thus far, they have never passed the
Manual of Arms test the first time.
Chief Wright then focuses on
one squadron at a time. Each recruit has a "piece" a rifle (empty of ammunition)
and begins a series of exercises with the piece. Chief Wright stops. "What are
the check points?" The recruit answers. "Is that right?" he asks another seaman
- translation- No that isn't right. Do you know the answer? The second seaman
recruit does know the
The room is quiet of course
but the tension is so high, I feel myself starting to sweat. This is generally
how the exercise went. I won't say I got it verbatim, I think I came pretty
close, but my pen was shaking so...
"Are you going squirrel
"Seaman Recruit (Jones). No Chief
Wright. I am not going squirrel hunting."
"Then why is your piece way
up there? Bring the rifle down."
Chief Wright stops in front
of another recruit; "What is the purpose of Present Arms?"
The seaman answers
correctly. Eh not so fast Seaman.
"Did you get the answer from
the ceiling? Then why are you staring at the ceiling. Why are you looking up?"
"Do not anticipate my
commands. Put that piece up against your right toe. If I ask you about a part on
your piece, you do not have to say your name. What kind of grip is this?"
"Seaman Recruit (Brown). Chief Wright
this is a..."
"What did I just say?"
"I, I, I don't know."
Well, you get the idea. In
fact Mike Company did pass their MOA, although six recruits were asked to “step
out” following a trigger exercise in
which their rifle discharged (remember
there's no ammunition in the rifles). These
recruits were asked why their rifle was charged in the first place. None of them
had a good answer. All of them will report to duty Saturday morning for a
“refresher course” in how to properly handle their piece. Since there was no way
of telling whose rifle discharged, it was the responsibility of each recruit to
own up to his/her mistake. Teaching integrity is a key component for every
company commander. As Sr. Chief Self explained when these recruits graduate they
have the power of a federal officer. Integrity is essential.
The next test is the Close
Order Drill which will take place outside and will be led by Chief Bevilacqua
with Chief Wright watching from the grandstand. As far as I’m concerned, this
went pretty smoothly, although, when Chief Wright asked the recruits who made a
misstep, not one but several recruits raised their hands. Chief Wright’s main
concern in asking this question is to again see how many recruits are going to
be honest and fess up. He tells them as much which is sort of his way of saying
When we return to Healy Hall
and Chief Bevilacqua’s office, several recruits “square off” and bat the wall
(the military version of knocking on the door). They wish to be tested on their
Required Knowledge, this includes knowing the Chain of Command, an intimate
knowledge of the
workings of their rifle and other information needed for their
graduation. I am reminded of the time I needed to recite my catechism for Sister
Mary Margaret. She was a stern task master herself, with no patience for
slackers let alone slovenly dressed ones.
Petty Officer Howard takes
charge of the recruits and screens them before they even make the turn into the
office. It went something like this.
“Where are you going Seaman
“Seaman Recruit (Jones), Petty
Officer Howard, wishes to recite his Required Knowledge.”
“You have lint on your
uniform, Seaman. You also have dirt on your pant leg.”
And that’s the end of
Seaman Jones. Back to the drawing board until he can remember to keep his
uniform in perfect form or until he can figure out that he needs to ask one his
fellow ship mates before he puts himself into the frying pan.
One female recruit did make
it past Petty Officer Howard but got a little tongue tied when she tried to
recite her rifle parts. Back to the drawing board for her as well. She has two
more weeks to figure it out. Failure to pass this test, or any other, can mean
that the recruit will be “reverted” or held back another week.
Usually, according to Chief
Bevilacqua, it only takes one week to straighten the seaman out. Because they
want to go home. They want out of here and to be told that their departure is
being delayed one week is the next thing to hell.
The physical demands of “boot
camp” are equally rigorous. Sr. Chief Self said the only camp more physically
demanding than the Coast Guard is, you guessed it, the U.S. Marine Corps. Well,
let’s face it, if you’re stranded on a boat and taking on water, do you really
want a Seaman helping rescue you who couldn’t lift himself out of the pool?
I followed Mike Company to
the pool – the Olympic-sized pool – and watched as they, along with Chief
Bevilacqua and Petty Officer Howard
worked out in the pool for 45-minutes. I
figured I would have lasted oh say three minutes before they’d have to come fish
me out of the water.
By now, it is 4 p.m. or 1600
hours (I think). I asked Chief Bevilacqua what the rest of the recruits day is
like. They have a little free time. Chow is at 5 p.m. This is laundry day.
Evening drills will be a little easier now that they've passed their tests. And
then at 10 p.m., it's taps. Next day around 5:30 a.m., it starts all over again.
I skipped laundry time
Mike Company and mentally wished them all well. I returned to base on Friday morning to watch the graduation
ceremony of two other companies and later that afternoon I was invited to the
indoctrination of a new company. These recruits got off the bus Tuesday night.
Friday was their first day of school, if you will. Wednesday, Thursday and
Friday morning were spent
getting physicals, being outfitted, getting their heads shaved or in the case of
female recruits, their hair
appropriately pulled back, and now as Sr. Chief Self
said to himself as the new recruits marched out on their way to their barracks, “Let the games begin.”
As I watch one young female
recruit struggle with the zipper of her coat, I instinctively step back and out
of the company commanders way, ‘cause I know there’s gonna be trouble. Not so,
said Chief Self. Trouble will be a plenty but later. They’ll note that behavior
and it’ll be dealt with in their barracks.
I always had the sense of
being among master teachers when in the presence of the company commanders.
matter their rank, each officer takes it upon himself or herself to teach the
recruit at every level – to reinforce the importance of details, the need to
follow an order to the letter because although the order today may be “Present
Arms,” after graduation, the order may mean the difference in someone’s life.
There is no transition period in the Coast Guard, upon graduation they are
immediately assigned to duty. So, it is no small thing to make it through the Coast
Guard training program and no small thing to be
a company commander responsible
for getting the company ready for duty.
So what do you say, let’s
hear a big Horrah for the company commanders and recruits at the Cape May Coast
Guard Training Base. Hoorah!!!