The Hardest Job in the Coast Guard

By Yeoman First Class Mark J. McCracken, U.S. Coast Guard

The wind shifted, and waves began filling the sloop with water faster than the pumps could keep up. Petty Officer Thomas knew that time was up. "Pull the pumps! Get yourselves and those two people off, now!" The 47foot rescue boat came alongside, and the crew helped the scared owners off, leaving the pumps behind and leaping for safety. Three minutes later, Richard and Brenda Boone of Coos Bay, Oregon, watched their sloop break apart in the seas. Their lives had been saved due to the fast thinking of one dedicated Coast Guardsman.

As hot coffee hits the empty stomach of Petty Officer Thomas, he contemplates how lucky the crew was and especially how lucky the rescued Boone family was. At the moment, they are in the officer-in-charge's office complaining that they wanted to bring their golf clubs and VCR, but that they were ordered to leave them by the crew.

He turns his attention to forms and reports, and then it's back to the 47footer to make sure it is properly secured. It has been a long night, but Petty Officer Thomas will sleep well knowing that he and his crew saved two lives.

For his efforts, Petty Officer Thomas receives special duty assignment pay (SDAP) level 4 in the amount of $220 per month. In the minds of many, Petty Officer Thomas has the hardest job in the Coast Guard.

Half a country away in the quiet river community of Hannibal, Missouri-the boyhood home of Mark Twain and the setting of many of his stories-the Coast Guard Cutter Greenbrier (WLR-75501) is docked 500 feet from Mr. Twain's front door. While the Mississippi River quietly shimmers in the afternoon sun and tourists stroll the streets of Hannibal, one Coast Guardsman feels the rising pressure of a crisis.

Master Chief Boatswain's Mate Benjamin Green, a native of Peoria, Illinois-the officer-in-charge-wishes the mess-deck chair were a recliner. He needs to catch 20 winks, but there is no time. He really has no time for a soda either, but his body needs the sugar.

This spring, the Mississippi River and her tributaries had flooded to an all-time high level. The water was calm on the surface, but the current was running strong. There was wide-scale damage to aids to navigation. The Greenbrier has been away from her home port of Natchez, Mississippi, for six weeks. The 12 crew members are homesick and tired from working around the clock. The job of repairing washed-out aids over 1,000 miles of river has been a true test for the crew. To add to the crew's frustration, three days ago the main propulsion system on the Greenbrier failed. The engineers have worked feverishly to get the river buoy tender under way again.

After 70 hours of hard work and wrench turning, the diesel plant came to life, making the Greenbrier operational. Under way in less than an hour, the Greenbrier and her crew will reach the next disabled aid to navigation in less than 30 minutes. This job will require the entire crew to pitch in. Master Chief Green works alongside his crew to ensure safety, but he is concerned that his crew is tired and has been pushed to the limit. Things would be much easier if they weren't shorthanded by two nonrates.

Master Chief Green attacks the pile of papers that includes purchase orders for the parts used for the repairs just completed and the accompanying justification explaining why these parts were not purchased using the stock system or from an approved General Services Administration source. Of course, there are no GSA-approved part stores in Hannibal.

The break is over. Time to yank buoys.

For his efforts, Master Chief Green receives level 5 SDAP in the amount of $265 per month. In the view of many, Master Chief Green has the hardest job in the Coast Guard.

Aviation Survivalman Second Class Donna Wilson, a Coast Guard helicopter rescue swimmer and a 22-yearold native of Long Island, New York, sits quietly in a ready room chair after the hardest rescue of her career.

A vacationing Boston police officer on a jet ski collided with a ski boat one mile off of Martha's Vineyard. Petty Officer Wilson was lowered to the deck of the 18-foot Sea Doo, where the owner, a physician, informed her that the victim-who was still in the water-had a broken neck and a severe concussion.

Loading and transporting this type of victim is dangerous; one false move can paralyze the victim for life. One moment's hesitation and the victim dies of trauma, shock, or internal bleeding. Life hangs in the balance. Not every 22-year-old can handle this much stress. Petty Officer Wilson knew the clock was ticking. After 20 minutes of wrestling a Stokes litter into position and getting the victim stabilized and raised to the helicopter, the pilot immediately departed the scene for Boston Mercy Hospital Trauma Center. Petty Officer Wilson was left behind on the ski boat and would have to wait for the helicopter to return and pick her up. It was an unusual treat for Petty Officer Wilson-usually she waits in freezing water for the helicopter to come back.

Once back at Air Station Cape Cod, Petty Officer Wilson takes a drink of hot chocolate. Her hand feels the dressing on her forehead that covers 15 stitches. While raising the Stokes litter to the helicopter, it suddenly snapped back and struck her. One of the many dangers of the job.

For her efforts Petty Officer Wilson receives SDAP level 4 in the amount of $220 per month-the headache was included free. To many, she has one of the hardest jobs in the Coast Guard.

Three thousand miles away, Yeoman Second Class David Johnson sits at his desk. It is 1730. It has been a very long day. Petty Officer Johnson dials his voice mail and listens.

"Daddy, you promised you would be here for my school music program. You promised." The phone hangs up. Petty Officer David Johnson is under the gun-and not just at home. He is paid SDAP level 3 in the amount of $165 per month. To many of his peers, he has the easiest job in the Coast Guard; he is laughed at, made fun of, and despised. In reality, he has the hardest job in the Coast Guard. Petty Officer David Johnson is a Coast Guard recruiter.

Unlike the first three Coasties, who are admired and have great job satisfaction, Petty Officer Johnson is anything but admired and each day questions why he doesn't pick up the phone and call his assignment officer to request a return to rating and the "real" Coast Guard.

Petty Officer Johnson's day started off like any other at Coast Guard Recruiting Office Fresno, California. He visited a high school, where all the students were highly interested in the Coast Guard. But they asked a few questions that lowered their interest level.

"Does the Coast Guard offer $40,000 college fund like the Army?"

"No," Petty Officer Johnson replied. "Does the Coast Guard offer $12,000 enlistment bonuses for everyone like the Army?"


"Does the Coast Guard offer guaranteed assignment location for everyone like the Navy?"


"Does the Coast Guard offer guaranteed technical schooling like the Air Force?"


"Can the Coast Guard guarantee my assignment to a surf boat station?"


"Generation X" is savvy and informed. They know the job market and clearly understand what is available. To some applicants, job satisfaction and Coast Guard missions sell the service. Others look recruiters in the eye and say, "Show me the training. Show me the money."

After returning to the office empty handed-no leads or prospects from the school visit numerous phone messages await. One was from Senior Chief Clark, Petty Officer Johnson's supervisor at the Coast Guard Recruiting Center in Arlington, Virginia. There was a complaint from a retired Air Force colonel whose son was denied enlistment in the Coast Guard because the son had a drug conviction when he was 16 years old and failed to mention this fact on his enlistment application. "I thought my juvenile record was sealed," was the only comment of James Whitworth when Petty Officer Johnson delivered the news that an FBI records check revealed his arrest.

"It's not the arrest that is the problem," Petty Officer Johnson told the applicant. "It's the fact that you attested that you had never had been arrested or convicted of a crime. You didn't reveal the truth."

The remaining messages were from the recruiting supervisor in Arlington, the commanding officer of Recruiting, and the Assistant Commandant of the Coast Guard for Personnel, not to mention two U.S. senators and a U.S. representative all inquiring about this matter. The last call was from the colonel himself, informing Petty Officer Johnson he was coming to see him that afternoon to discuss "the injustice to his son."

After clearing his messages, Petty Officer Lyon at Recruiting Operations called. Petty Officer Lyon ensures that all recruit training billets at Cape May are filled. He is working late in Arlington readying the next morning's shipment of recruits. Like the rest of the Coast Guard, boot camp operates with a limited staff and runs at maximum capacity. Petty Officer Lyon delivered the unwelcome news that the two recruits Johnson shipped last week were coming home. One recruit was discharged for having too many cavities. With not enough dental staff to go around at Training Center Cape May, recruits with more than four cavities are discharged. The second recruit failed a urinalysis test at Cape May. Even though he denied any drug use, cocaine was found in his system.

Both individuals were discharged and sent home. Neither will count on the monthly recruiting quota for his office. For the third month in the row, Petty Officer Johnson has missed his quota. As he hangs up the phone, a sinking feeling sets in. He has spent all day on the telephone-three hours listening to Colonel Whitworth say, "You can't do this to my son!"

Coast Guard Recruiting's slogans are "Be part of the action" and "Jobs that matter." When the Commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral Robert Kramek, announced early in his administration that diversity issues and Workforce 2015 would be cornerstones of his tenure, Coast Guard Recruiting was tasked with making the Coast Guard a military workforce that "looks like America." More African, Asian, Hispanic, and Native Americans and women of all ethnic and racial backgrounds were the future for the service.

The real challenge for Coast Guard Recruiting is that everyone is looking for the same thing. Private industry, large corporations, and educational institutions alike are working very hard to attract the same people.

Last year, Petty Officer Johnson had an outstanding African-American woman engineer apply for the direct commission engineering program. When the selection panel was meeting in Washington, D.C., the applicant withdrew her application. She was offered twice the salary the Coast Guard could offer-plus time off to complete her advanced degree work. Additionally, they let her pick her school and agreed to pay for tuition and all fees.

Then there are the chief competitors for Coast Guard recruiting-the four uniformed Department of Defense services. With gigantic budgets and 25 times as many recruiters in the field, Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps recruiters are outspending and outmaneuvering the Coast Guard through their sheer size.

The U.S. Army was a sponsor for the Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans. The Army spent the equivalent of Coast Guard recruiting's entire annual budget on four 30second television spots.

The Coast Guard has a standing policy of not paying for television advertising. The money available is so scarce that paying for such advertising would bust the budget. Instead, the Coast Guard sent an excellent series of public service announcements (PSAs) to television stations coast to coast, who are asked to air these spots without fee. While the response has been excellent, prime-time play of these PSAs has been low. The Army and Navy, however, run their ads in selected markets, targeting the specific market in which they are interested. While the other services sponsor Monday Night Football, the Coast Guard waits for handouts.

DoD recruiters are paid SDAP level 5, $275 per month, while Coast Guard recruiters are paid level 3, $165. Petty Officer Johnson and all Coast Guard recruiters compete with heavy weather surf coxswains, helicopter rescue swimmers, recruit training company commanders, and others for a small pot of SDAP dollars. The pot of SDAP dollars remains constant. How it is divided changes annually, and program managers address the SDAP Panel for increases for their program's personnel.

When Petty Officer Johnson recruits one prospect, his work is far from complete. He must prepare all the required forms and contracts, administer Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) tests, schedule physical examinations, reserve a training slot for this enlistee at Training Center Cape May, and drive the enlistee on ship day more than 200 miles to Los Angeles to the Military Entrance and Processing Station (MEPS), where enlistees from all five services are processed and then shipped to boot camp.

In the Coast Guard's case, all the processing and paperwork is done by the recruiter. DoD recruiters turn the enlistee over to a recruiting specialist who handles paperwork and processing. While Petty Officer Johnson is cooling his heels typing paperwork or driving for four hours to the MEPS, his competition is out recruiting once again.

To further complicate matters, Petty Officer Johnson is a jack-of-all-trades recruiter. While his competition specialize in specific career areas, the Coast Guard recruiter must recruit for active-duty enlisted, reserve enlisted, reserve officer programs, direct commission officer programs; guide Coast Guard Academy applications; register citizens to vote in accordance with the Motor Voter Act; and administer ASVAB tests to high school students in addition to regular duties.

Coast Guard Recruiting Office Fresno is the only Coast Guard unit within 100 miles, so Petty Officer Johnson visits grade schools, participates in local parades, speaks at Rotary luncheons, and performs a variety of functions that are good for the overall image of the Coast Guard and support the community in which he lives-but do not help his immediate mission of putting people in the Coast Guard.

The first three Coasties in our story have several things in common: They have very hard jobs; they have the respect of their peers throughout the Coast Guard; and they all laugh when they pick up the Navy Times and read an article concerning a shortage of Coast Guard recruiters.

"Cake eaters, slackers. In by 1000 and out by 1400. Feet up on their desk all day!" they exclaim. As they simultaneously toss the Navy Times aside, they all must return to work. Petty Officer Thomas must clean his 47-footer; Master Chief Green must ready the buoy deck for operations; Petty Officer Wilson must secure her gear and ready the helicopter for the next mission. They are in the same boat, short of nonrated personnel at their commands. How soon will they receive new non-rates? The burden rests on the shoulders of one tired, frustrated, and overworked cake eater-and others just like him in 66 other Coast Guard recruiting offices.

Petty Officer Johnson has his hand on the telephone wondering what to say to his family. He is considering quitting. He could return to sea duty and make more in sea pay. He would be away from home more, but than again. . . . As he thinks over what to say, the phone rings. It's a student from this morning who has some questions about the Coast Guard. The student is surprised someone answered the phone so late. "I thought I would get your voice mail!"

Petty Officer Johnson stays a few minutes longer to answer a couple of questions. "Maybe I can make the quota next month," he thinks to himself as he settles back into his chair and checks his watch. It is now 1945; he'll make it up to his family somehow. The Coast Guardsman who has the hardest job in the Coast Guard is answering the call. The possible future of the Coast Guard is on the phone. His day is not over yet.

Petty Officer McCracken is a 20-year veteran of the Coast Guard. He has served on board the USCGC Boutwell (WHEC-719), on the personal staff of the 13th and 14th Coast Guard district commanders, Support Center Seattle, Atlantic Area Staff, and is currently assistant chief of the Administration Branch, Coast Guard Recruiting Center, and administrative assistant to the director.


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