CAPE MAY — The U.S. Coast Guard may have the shortest training of any military branch before recruits take up their jobs in the field, but that doesn’t make it simple.
By the time they graduate after 7½ weeks, recruits must pass a swim test, learn to fire and maintain a Sig Sauer P229 handgun, show they can perform helmsman duties on Coast Guard boats, throw rescue lines at least 50 feet for water rescues and demonstrate basic firefighting skills.
And those are just the highlights.
Considering many arrive with no experience with guns and little experience on boats — some cannot yet swim — the training has to be thorough and tough, Chief Warrant Officer Timothy Tamargo said.
“They are sent right to boats. They have got to be operational,” Tamargo said as he waited to accompany Commanding Officer Kathy Felger on a tour of Coast Guard Training Center Cape May for U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, D-2nd. The tour included everything from high-tech firefighting training to a basic knot-tying class.
Van Drew said he wanted to learn more about Training Center Cape May so he can better advocate for it in Congress.
“You can’t leave here without being proud of the Coast Guard and the service they perform,” Van Drew said after the tour. “I will fight for them in Congress and fight for appropriations.”
Van Drew said he is working to pass federal legislation to ensure the Coast Guard is paid in any future government shutdown.
During the Dec. 22, 2018, to Jan. 25 shutdown, the Coast Guard was the only branch of the armed forces that was not funded, because it is part of the Department of Homeland Security and not the Department of Defense. As a result, Coast Guard members — including those stationed at Training Center Cape May and Air Station Atlantic City — were furloughed or required to work without pay for more than a month, harming Coast Guard families and national security, Van Drew said.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Van Drew said, adding the bill is in committee now.
The Cape May facility is the Coast Guard’s only training center for enlisted personnel in the country, Felger said. It’s also home to 13 other Coast Guard tenant commands, including Station Cape May, which has five Coast Guard cutters — a sixth arrives Oct. 26 — that patrol area waters and perform rescues.
Just about every Tuesday, a new group of 70 to 100 recruits arrives, and every Friday, a group graduates. More than 550 recruits are on base now, with a class due to graduate Friday as Hurricane Dorian passes off the coast.
“We’ve moved inside,” Felger said.
Felger said Station Cape May has not yet been asked to provide support for efforts down South in the wake of Dorian.
“The Carolinas are where everyone is focused right now,” Felger said. “If the Coast Guard does need help, we could be asked for backup.”
The firefighting training is conducted in dim light indoors, to mimic actual conditions they are likely to experience on board.
“So they can see what it looks like to have to defend your home at sea when you can’t call the fire department,” Chief Warrant Officer Patrick Haney said.
Once suited up and covered head to toe with no skin exposed, using masks and oxygen tanks to breathe, the recruits headed into a dark and smoky room where they used real fire hoses and water to fight digital fires.
“The petty officer controls with a remote control,” said Commander Scott Rae. Screens in front of the digital fire can tell if water is properly aimed and at proper force.
“The days of training with real fires are getting to be over,” Rae said. “It’s expensive and dangerous. This works for us and does what we need it to do.”
In another area outside, a much more basic training was in progress. Recruits practiced over and over throwing lifelines with floats 50 feet to dummies acting as people in need of water rescue.
And in a nearby classroom, another class worked on mastering maritime knots. An instructor called them up one by one to be tested.
“I don’t want to get too close — don’t want to make them nervous,” Felger said as she watched one recruit demonstrate a complicated knot. “It’s good to see success.”