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For newest Coast Guard cadets, first day is no picnic

By Izaskun E. Larrañeta and Greg Smith

Publication: theday.com

Published June 30. 2014 11:52AM   Updated July 01. 2014 2:33PM
Sean D. Elliot/The Day
United States Coast Guard Academy Cadets Second Class Aurimas Juodka, left, and Sheila Bertrand get in the face of "swab" Kevin Lennox as Bravo Company finishes at the barber shop and mailroom during R-Day, the reporting-in day that marks the beginning of the 7-week "Swab Summer" for the class of 2018 Monday, June 30, 2014. About 250 prospective cadets, Swabs, start the program designed to indoctrinate them to the military life of the academy and at the end will be accepted into the corps of cadets.

New London — At first glance, the screaming and yelling happening at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy Monday seems rough, bordering on cruel. 

But the reality is that military life isn’t easy. It’s not meant to be comfortable. The men and women who will serve their country through the Coast Guard will go through rigorous training that many civilians cannot begin to comprehend. 

And on Monday, the first day for the Class of 2018, also known as reporting-in day, the new students, called “swabs,” got their first glimpse of what the next seven weeks would be like. 

By 3 p.m., they were marching in groups across the front parade field of the academy in cadence with the U.S. Coast Guard Band before a crowd of family and friends. 

Then, Rear Admiral Sandra L. Stosz, the academy superintendent, administered the oath of office. With an “I do” uttered in unison, 263 cadets were sworn in as members of the U.S. Coast Guard. 

The final count of fourth-class cadets who took the oath included 256 U.S. citizens and seven international students who are part of an exchange program to promote a spirit of cooperation with foreign governments and their maritime organizations. 

“Welcome to the Coast Guard Academy and the Coast Guard Family,” Stosz said. “The Coast Guard Academy’s motto, ‘The sea yields to knowledge,’ is one of challenge and inspiration. Over the next four years, the Class of 2018 will develop the knowledge and skills needed to achieve proficiency and excellence as they prepare for public service in a challenging maritime domain.” 

Those who survive the summer of training will receive their shoulder boards, marking their formal acceptance into the corps of cadets. 

Cadets also will be mentored by Coast Guard Academy graduates from the Class of 1968, continuing a tradition known as “the link in the chain,” in which past graduates track new cadets and build relationships with them, sharing advice and a historical perspective. 

But when they arrived Monday morning, the aspiring cadets were on their own. 

“Look straight ahead,” shouted Second-Class Cadet Aimee Valencia, who is training swabs in Delta Company. “From now on, there are no more personal pronouns. No more I, me or we.” 

Prior to Valencia’s instructions, the company exited a yellow school bus, followed a blue tape on the floor and ran into the quad at Chase Hall as Cadre members, who will train the cadets, yelled, “Move with purpose,” “Don’t run,” “Don’t look at me.” 

Valencia said she can’t remember her first day, saying it was a “blur” and “stressful.” She said the young men and women will mature by the time their training is over. 

“It’s not about who they were before they came here,” she said. “It’s about who they are going to be. It’s about building them up.” 

Thirty-three percent of the Class of 2018 are from underrepresented minority groups and 37 percent are women. 

The incoming class has the greatest representation of U.S. states — 48 — in at least 20 years. In addition, the class includes members from the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, Maldives, Honduras, Gabon, Panama, Thailand and Mexico. 

The swabs cycled through haircuts, uniform issue, drill practice and various types of administrative processing. 

Swab Daria McKenna of Mystic is following in the footsteps of her parents, Tamara and Robert, both graduates of the Coast Guard Academy. 

“There has been a little yelling and that’s to be expected,” McKenna said. “My parents told me what I should expect, so I think that will help. I hope.” 

The Chase Hall barracks rang with the voices of upper-class cadets yelling instructions at the swabs, who had to stay in the center of the hall and square — sharply pivot — around each corner, all while looking straight ahead and greeting people correctly. 

They became quickly acquainted with new terms they needed to know immediately: The floor from now on will be referred to as the deck. What used to be the wall is now the bulkhead. The number five is now “fife” and nine is now “niner.” 

The Cadre members of Echo Company were quick to remind swabs that their past is exactly that. 

“I don’t care if you had perfect SAT scores or (were) captain of every team in high school,” one cadre member screamed. “You are ours now. You will act as a team.” 

The swabs turned over their electronic devices, which were tossed into plastic bags. They will not have access to the outside world. From 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., their lives will be consumed with learning everything about the academy. 

On their first day, they also were expected to read from their manuals, the “Running Light,” and to memorize the Coast Guard’s mission statement. 

First-Class Cadet Drew Ferraro, Echo Company’s commander, said the swabs would be disoriented but, through constant repetition, they would learn the commands and the proper way to address their superiors. 

“This is not about weeding people out,” Ferraro said. “This is about teaching them about military life. It’s different from the civilian world.” 

In a trailer on the quad at Chase Hall, barbers gave buzz cuts to the men. There are no special requests; every haircut is the same. 

Bill Maynard has been giving swabs their first haircuts for 25 years. He tries to lighten the moment, telling to take off his glasses so the young man wouldn’t see the damage being done. 

Maynard says he tries to get them to smile because he knows their first day is stressful. 

“These are wonderful young people to deal with,” he said. “They are pretty excited to be here, except on their first day.” 

Swab Jacob Sorenson of Oakdale was at the cadet store, where he was issued three pair of shoes. His father is a 1988 Coast Guard Academy graduate. 

He said he went to a military prep school last year to prepare for the rigorous training at the academy. But, he acknowledged, “It’s going to be a long seven weeks.” 

i.larraneta@theday.com 

g.smith@theday.com

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