New London — When her son first said he wanted to join the military, Terri Fitzpatrick told him “no way.”
“The military is a scary place for your kids. I think I was worried about hazing, not to mention the part where he could go out and get killed,” Fitzpatrick said Monday. “Everything military about it scared me.”
But Michael persisted, so Fitzpatrick said she and her husband, Jon, spoke to veterans near their home in Windsor, Calif., and people who knew service members, and regardless of the branch they were affiliated with they all loved the Coast Guard.
And, the Fitzpatricks said, they like that the culture and norms in the military are changing now that “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed and combat jobs are open to women.
On Monday, they accompanied Michael to the Coast Guard Academy so he could join the Class of 2017. Reporting-in day was the start of swab summer for the 231 students in the class, the intense, seven-week program designed to transform civilian students into military recruits and prepare them for the academic year.
The Chase Hall barracks rang out with the voices of upper-class cadets yelling instructions at the new students, or swabs. The second-class cadets, or juniors, said they created a stressful environment for the swabs because in the fleet officers must perform well under stress.
“Make sure you’re not leaning against our bulkhead,” Alex Kloo, a second-class cadet, yelled at a group of swabs to keep them from resting against the hallway walls. “I don’t want your sweaty swabiness all over our bulkhead!”
During a rare quiet moment, Fitzpatrick sat on a bench in the barber shop waiting for his blond hair to be shaved into a buzz cut. Cadets do not disturb the barbers by yelling inside the shop.
Fitzpatrick, 18, said he had been chastised several times for looking around instead of keeping his eyes straight ahead. He said he was miserable.
When asked why, he replied, “What doesn’t make it miserable? The yelling, the rules …”
Fitzpatrick said he applied to the academy so he would be guaranteed to get a good education and a job after graduation in which he could help people. He paused for a minute to consider whether he was glad he came.
“I will be eventually,” he said. “Or I hope so.”
This year’s class of incoming freshmen is smaller than the Class of 2016, which began last summer with 248 students, the smallest class in more than a decade. The Coast Guard is commissioning fewer officers because retention rates are at record levels and the military is downsizing.
The class is comprised of 28 percent minority students and 36 percent women. Seventeen students are from Connecticut.
Katherine Beasley, 17, of Voluntown, said she thinks she will like the structured military lifestyle and she is glad the percentage of women at the academy is higher than at other service academies.
“It makes it a more comfortable setting when you go through such a big change,” Beasley said while waiting to be assigned a mailbox.
First-class Cadet Matt Epperly said the goal of swab summer is to make the class into a team.
“No matter the gender or race, we treat them all the same,” he said. “Here, they’re swabs, and they need to get through this together.”
Down the hall, second-class Cadet Jalle Merritt yelled at her group of swabs for not greeting a senior cadet who passed by them. She said after it’s important to emphasize respect, starting on the first day.
“We are setting the standard high now because we won’t expect anything less,” she said. “We’re trying to teach them the values and skills that will not just get them through their first year here, but through adulthood.”
Despite the yelling and the stress, many of the new students said they were thrilled to finally begin their academy careers.
At the end of the day the class swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
Cory Murallo, 19, of Waterford, said it was a privilege to join the class because it is so difficult to get into the academy, and once he graduates he will join the “tight-knit family in the Coast Guard, serving the United States.”
Patrick Hanrahan, 19, of New London, said it was “a dream come true” to be at the academy.
He said he has wanted to join the Coast Guard since he was 7 years old and spent a year at a preparatory school before being admitted.
“At the end of the day I have the coolest job in the world,” Hanrahan said. “It’s not like my other friends in college who have to search for internships. My future is set. I get to do a great service for my country.”