CAPE MAY — When the alarm clock sounds on Friday mornings, Capt. William Kelly says he feels like he’s in a certain movie.
“It’s like ‘Groundhog Day.’ We do the same thing every Friday morning,” said Kelly, the commanding officer at Coast Guard Training Center Cape May, or TRACEN.
Friday is graduation day at the nation’s only Coast Guard recruit training center. TRACEN will hold 47 of them this year while sending about 4,000 seamen off to their first duty assignments across the country.
On July 8, 87 seaman recruits from Echo Company 185 graduated. They were the least of Kelly’s challenge in pulling off yet another successful graduation.
The recruits know their marching orders, which is to put their eight weeks of training to good use and perform at the ceremony. It means crisp marching, rifle twirling and saluting to impress a crowd that is mostly their own family members.
The real challenge for TRACEN is accommodating more than 300 family members and friends of the recruits. It all starts with breakfast at the Harbor View All Hands Club.
“The most we’ve ever done is 329 breakfasts. Today we’re doing 240,” said Nelson Brown, of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, as he helped cook bacon, eggs and waffles.
The auxiliary is one of the secrets to a successful graduation day. Auxiliary members cook breakfast and drive the families in vans to the next event, which includes speeches and a short film on boot camp at the Ida Lewis Auditorium.
“Anything we can do, we do. It’s all about the Coast Guard,” said Jim Rawlings, an auxiliary member and retired Coastie.
“There’s no way we could do what we do 47 weeks of the year without the auxiliary’s help,” Kelly said.
Another hidden secret is revealed at the next stop as 320 people file into the auditorium. The Guardian Spouses, an organization made up of spouses of enlisted personnel at the base, meet with the parents and family members to talk about what their loved ones can expect after boot camp.
Michelle Giaccone, the wife of a company commander, greets them as they come into the auditorium.
“I can answer certain questions, and some spouses have a husband on a boat and can answer other questions about being deployed on a boat. We talk about different bases. A spouse can say, ‘I’ve been there. I know what it’s like,’” Giaccone said.
At any given time, there are eight companies of recruits in different stages of training at the center. Even as one company leaves, another is getting ready to arrive and start their Coast Guard careers by getting a short haircut and a medical exam.
The Coast Guard has help getting the recruits to the center and sending them off. That help arrives at the bus station and airport in Philadelphia.
“The USO plays a major part getting them here and takes care of them until they fly out,” said Chief Petty Officer Sean Boone, adding that the U.S. Marine Corps League also helps.
A graduation often means catering to special guests, which on this day include Delaware Military Academy students, U.S. Coast Guard Academy recruits and U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen.
Lt. Edward Herbst, the master of ceremonies, has to remember to acknowledge all the guests and pump up the crowd.
“The next stop is the parade field. We ask you to please cheer for every recruit. Some recruits don’t have family members here. There’s no sound limit outside. We need you to be loud,” Herbst tells them.
Kelly also gives a speech about the Coast Guard’s mission to save mariners, interdict drugs and provide homeland security. He tells the mothers “not to get all weepy on me” and tells them his own son is in the Coast Guard.
The whole base, a small city of almost 1,200 military and civilian employees, seems to come alive for the graduation ceremony. The ceremony is held on a spacious parade ground in good weather but quickly moved to the gym if a storm approaches. Recruits in earlier levels of training march by first, and each successive company seems a bit more polished. A company commander chewing out a recruit who is still in one of the earlier weeks reminds everybody what they do there.
Petty Officer 1st Class Preston Blair’s job is to take nine recruits from each company and in eight weeks turn them into a polished Recruit Drill Team.
The team marches past the crowd twirling and throwing 9.8-pound rifles to each other. Blair trains eight drill teams, one from each company in boot camp, at any given time, and he trains the color guard. The training is at night and in addition to their basic training.
Sometimes he hits a home run. One of the Echo Company recruits was so good he was assigned to the Presidential Honor Guard after graduation.
Blair’s picks performed nearly flawlessly during the July 8 ceremony, finishing the routine as a Coast Guard helicopter did a fly-by over the parade grounds, which got the crowd buzzing with excitement.
Seaman Jonathan Harper also feels some pressure on graduation day. His job is to ready the Recruit Marching Band. He talks to recruits the day they arrive to see if they ever played in a high school band or can read sheet music.
“Some haven’t picked up an instrument in 10 years,” Harper said.
The band has four musicians stationed at the center, including Harper. Recruits from training weeks two through eight round out the band, which can have anywhere from 15 to 45 musicians.
“It’s always in a state of flux. Some days the band will be all trumpets and some days it’s all saxophones, but it’s a good experience for recruits.” Harper said.
The band’s mettle is tested as it performs “Semper Paratus,” the Coast Guard’s service song, as the recruits pass by.
Few watching the graduation may fully realize that a highly regimented military affair is being pulled off by recruits who just got to the center a few weeks ago, under the tutelage of longtime enlisted personnel.
Awards are given to the best recruits in such categories as seamanship, physical fitness, being the best shipmate and other areas unique to the Coast Guard. Recruits are presented with graduation certificates that also tell them their first duty assignment.
Recruits with relatives in the military invite those relatives to the center to present them with the certificates. Each one is announced to the crowd. Lining up the military presenters is just one of the many administrative tasks that must be done before every graduation.
The base once would hold graduation ceremonies 49 weeks a year, but with the recession, fewer are leaving the Coast Guard, so there will be only 47 this year. A graduation ceremony will not be held this week, Training Center Cape May’s online calendar shows, although the Friday ceremonies will resume July 29.
“You’ve been tested physically, emotionally and mentally, and you all made it through. Echo Company, you are a positive force for good. Echo 185, your service to our country awaits your arrival,” Kelly said.
As he spoke, members of Foxtrot Company looked on. They were in week seven of their training.
At about 5:30 a.m. July 15, Capt. Kelly’s alarm went off again. It was just another Friday at Training Center Cape May.
“Mondays are good. Mondays are quiet,” said Angie Kelly, the captain’s wife.
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