Did you 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 graduation. 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 wuss 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 outgoing.
“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 Goodman.”
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 petty…chief…chief…petty…ah…sir.”
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 drill hall.
“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 correct answer.
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 hunting Seaman?”
“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 good job.
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 Recruit?”
“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 with 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. No 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!!!