I spent the weekend moving fellow Aardvarkian, James, to NYC to begin a new and exciting chapter in his life when something hit me. His mother was doing her usual “last minute” motherly things, like making his bed for the final time, when I looked that and thought, “It is a wonder that we use to make our racks in 60 seconds or less in boot camp. Man that was the most fun I never want to have again.” I then said to James, “I think I am going to write about boot camp.”
This is going to be a 3-6 part mini series if you will. The post will be longer than what I usually do. My plan is write about each week of boot camp, sometimes a couple weeks at a time, others will have their own posts, and expose the difficultly of what it means of becoming a member of the military. There will be coarse language, but I am not sorry for that. Here goes nothing.
Week one is called “Indoc” week, short for Indoctrination Week. It is a week of pure and utter chaos with new recruits running around frantically wondering, “What the fuck am I doing??” with Company Commanders (CC’s) chasing after each recruit eviscerating them for every imperfection, and boy were there a lot!
It all started back to when I left Portland, Maine on January 2nd, 2012. I was recruited out of the Coast Guard’s Portland office, so that was my departure point for Training Center Cape May (TRACEN for short), Cape May, New Jersey. I left with three other recruits (one who is now dead actually after a horrific hiking accident in Alaska) out of Portland’s airport feeling ten foot tall and absolutely bullet proof. We were all about to embark on the adventure of becoming United States Coast Guardsmen. What an honor that was going to be bestowed upon us!
The rendezvous point for all of the recruits coming in from all over the world, was the USO at Philadelphia International Airport. The amenities were something out of a recruiting office brochure. We all thought, “Man this is how we are going to be treated for joining the Coast Guard?” not really knowing what we were truly getting ourselves into. Big huge recliners, a massive projector showing a movie, something patriotic but I can’t remember what, free hot dogs and other snack foods, it was the life. I was feeling incredibly at ease for embarking on my new adventure in life. I was texting family and friends here and there, knowing my mom back home was a nervous wreck, but I was really just trying to meet all these new faces.
It was amazing hearing the stories of what people had to go through to be recruited by the Coast Guard. People needing medical waivers, family friends who were once high ranking Coast Guard officer’s calling in favors and everything else in between. Some recruits were fourth generation Coast Guardsmen or women, which to me was mind blowing. No one in my family has served since my paternal grandfather (US Navy), and he did not do a career. So to hear of people’s parents doing almost thirty years in the Coast Guard blew my mind. And then there was me… My good friend Brandon had a friend who was a Coast Guard recruiter, and the rest is history as they say. Pretty simple.
An older gentleman who was a USO representative finally gathered all of us up (some people were delayed getting in from across the country) around 10 o’clock in the evening, and put us into two lines, and made us get “heel to toe,” meaning your toes are touching the heel’s of the person in front of you, and leaving six inches between members of the opposite sex. Company Commanders referred to this heel to toe deal more affectionately as, “nuts to butts.” The gentleman said, “Get use to standing like this a lot in Cape May!” his voice booming, “I was a Coastie during Vietnam, and you bet we were over there! Got paid in cash too. I loved the Coast Guard, the best men I ever knew were Coasties with me. We could all trust each other. Learn to trust one another, and good luck. Now get on that bus!!!”
Some of us were like, “Who the hell is this loser??” while others were thinking, “I can’t wait!!” I’ll say I was inspired because that guy served in Vietnam, but will also say, I thought he was somewhat, well, cheesy. Anyways, I was now on the coach bus that would take us from Phili’s international airport, to the small sleepy town of Cape May. It was funny, the bus had a light hearted atmosphere around it as we left the airport, all excited about what was to come. But as the bus got further and further down the Garden State Parkway, the bus got more and more quiet. Once we saw signs for Cape May, it was silent. Some were trying to get a few precious minutes of sleep, while others like myself, were so anxious we couldn’t help but be wide-eyed.
The bus then went over the Cape May bridge, this tiny little thing, and we saw signs for USCG or TRACEN. It was beginning to get incredibly nerve-wracking. And then there was the gate we pulled up to. “Holy shit man, holy shit!!!” a recruit yelled out. We were stopped at the gate, and awaited for the Coast Guard Police Department to escort us the rest of the way onto the TRACEN’s grounds. We made our way towards Sexton Hall, when the SUV took a right and we took a sharp left into a random parking lot. I remember so clearly right before we took that left turn, looking out the bus window seeing what seemed like fifteen Company Commanders all standing there, with their smokey bear covers on, at parade rest. It was an incredible and extremely impressive sight.
The bus started backing up before coming to a stop right in front of Sexton Hall when the bus door opened. There was a brief moment of absolute silence before a CC came busting up the stairs yelling, “Sit up sit up sit up!!! Get your fuckin’ eye balls off of me you piece of shit!! From now on the first and last words out of your mouth will be Sir or Ma’am, is that clear?!?!” I was thinking as soon as he started yelling, “This is awesome!” I was really excited for what was to come. We all then replied in perfect harmony, “Sir yes Sir!!” “What was that?! I can’t fuckin hear you!!!” “SIR YES SIR!!!” A satisfied CC, he then said, “You have fifteen second to get off my bus and you’ve already wasted ten of them, get off my fuckin bus now!!! Move faster!!!”
We all went stumbling out of the bus trying to move as fast as possible complying to the other ten people shouting at us as we frantically tried finding our bags. We then stood at what probably looked like the most pathetic positions of attention with little gold triangles below us to show us how to make sure our feet were perfectly positioned at a 45 degree angle. Once we found our bags it was run inside, find a bench seat and sit there. We were then “hired” by the Coast Guard formally filling out W-2’s and all sorts of other forms that only God knows what was on there. It was exhausting. The CC’s would make us hold our right arm up, bicep touching ear, with our ink sticks, not pens, but ink stick in hand as we would wait for people who were taking too long filing out their forms. People were actually wincing at the pain their shoulders were being put in from such a simple and mundane task. Those ink sticks get heavy after a while.
When what seemed like to take three nights was over, we finally got to shower, but only had twenty minutes. That was twenty minutes for over 100 recruits to shower and shave and get into bed. God that was madness. There were only fifteen shower heads and we were all fighting each other to take a shower. Fifty naked men crammed into one head, trying to make sure we did not lose our clothes all the while stripping bare ass naked. It was mayhem. We found our lockers and racks, and finally called it a night.
After a brief few hours of sleep we were awoken yet again. Wednesday marked uniform issue, medical and dental. We finally got out of our civilian attire, and now got to wear Coast Guard athletic shorts, Coast Guard T-Shirts, Coast Guard New Balance sneakers that were absolutely abysmal.
Medical and dental were equally abysmal. It was like purgatory. We were trying to stay awake just sitting there waiting to be called to get our shots, teeth checked, and meet with a psychiatrist to make sure we weren’t going to snap under all of the pressure of recruit basic training.
Thursday brought more things like medical and a quick jaunt off to the Chapel to meet the chaplain and get a little pep talk before going back to staring at walls for hours trying to learn these new crazy names of our Chain of Command (COC) and other required knowledge that we could be challenged upon at any given time. We had to memorize our COC from our four Company Commanders all the way through to the Commander-in-Chief. On little sleep it was so difficult. We also had to learn our eleven general orders, which also and incredibly difficult feat. During all this time we were marched around to breakfast, lunch and dinner, or more affectionately known as simply, chow. We still took crammed quick and cold showers, and were just walking zombies with our lower backs bothering us waiting to get through all the mundane nonsense of “pre recruit training.” I distinctly remember thinking, “When do I start doing push ups” since the purpose all the medical and dental checks were to make sure each recruit was healthy and ready for training.
Then Friday came. Boy did that change everything. It started off like any other day, getting abruptly woken up, marched off to chow, and then back to Sexton Hall for some classes about the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), before chow again. Then in the afternoon something different happened. This man, in an absolutely perfect uniform with lots of gold on it was waiting for us in the classroom of Sexton Hall. This man was the Training Officer (or TO) of TRACEN Cape May. Commander Smith then proceeded to give a great speech about perseverance and being ready to work hard, which was followed by the Command Master Chief, Master Chief Smith (no relation there) who gave a really really cheesy speech about, “bringing it on” before finally the Commanding Officer of TRACEN Cape May, Captain Kelly (now Admiral Kelly) stood before us at the podium.
“What a man. What a machine” I thought. This guy was the real deal. I don’t remember much of his speech unfortunately, but I do remember it really amping me up. He said at one point, “Close your eyes and I want you all to open your hearts. Recruit training is difficult but you can all get through it.” And then it was game on.
The TO then formed our company Delta 186, by having our Company Commanders come out in their absolutely perfect Winter Dress Blue uniforms and take the oath that Company Commanders take before every company is formed. They were to take the recruits that were entrusted to their care and turn them into physically fit, smartly disciplined, well trained Coast Guard recruits. It was a daunting task they had ahead of them, but nothing they hadn’t done before.
We were marched over to Munroe Hall to then have the absolutely most frantic night I have ever had of my entire life. These four CC’s were such machines, it seemed like there were 50 of these guys. I am not kidding. They were everywhere every single time. The yelling was pure insanity. The chaos was monumental. Through all of it, we were learning how to stow things in our racks, how to square compartments, and how to simply try to function as a recruit at TRACEN Cape May. When we finally were allowed to go to sleep you could hear people crying, sniffling, praying, others simply stared at the ceiling. I welled up, and said to myself, “I need your help more than ever now Grandpa. What am I doing here?” I woke up Saturday saying, “Game on.” My grandfather’s help came through that night.
Please check back over the week for Part 2. Thank you.