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
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
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
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
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
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 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 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
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
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
“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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.