How the U.S. Coast Guard Works

Joining Up and Coast Guard Life

All U.S. residents between the ages of 17 and 27 with high school diplomas are eligible to enlist in the Coast Guard, providing they pass certain physical exams, as well as the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) evaluation test. All recruits go through eight weeks of boot camp at the Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May, New Jersey. While recruits will be taught how to swim, people who are afraid of being in or on the water should probably consider a different branch of service.

The Coast Guard Training Center and Station in Cape May, New Jersey.
Photo courtesy PA2 Blair Thomas/U.S. Coast Guard
The Coast Guard Training Center and Station in Cape May, New Jersey.

The U.S. Coast Guard Academy is located in New London, Connecticut. Anyone who wants to join the Coast Guard as a commissioned officer (and meets the eligibility requirements) can apply to attend the Coast Guard Academy. Unlike other U.S. military academies, a congressional petition is not required for entry. The academy provides a rigorous four-year academic experience that also prepares cadets for life as an officer in the Coast Guard. Graduates are commissioned as ensigns. Enlisted sailors and airmen can attend Coast Guard officer candidate school if they want to become commissioned officers.

Another option for joining the Coast Guard is the Coast Guard Reserves. The reserves train and serve one weekend per month and two weeks each year. The 8,000 reserves don't form separate reserve units -- they are integrated into full-time Coast Guard operations. Many non-law enforcement jobs are handled by the Coast Guard Auxiliary, a volunteer organization with about 30,000 members. People who join their local auxiliary are specially trained in boating safety, search and rescue, and other maritime skills. The auxiliary helps with search and rescue, teaches civilian boaters in special seminars, conducts safety inspections and provides introductory youth classes in boating and maritime safety. The Coast Guard also hires about 6,000 civilians to perform a variety of jobs (mostly administrative), both full and part-time.

After basic training, most recruits are assigned to a shore station or a ship. The Coast Guard often uses an apprentice system, where recruits work alongside a more experienced seaman and learn their job with hands-on experience. For more technical jobs, recruits are sent to technical schools ("A-Schools").

Coast Guard cutters make lengthy patrols, during which they don't return to their home station unless they need to. These patrols typically last for four weeks. An example of a typical cutter patrol is the one taken by the USCGC Mohawk (WMEC-913) in January 2006. During the patrol, the crew confiscated 6,000 pounds of cocaine from smugglers on fast boats. A special detection system spotted the boats, and the Mohawk's Dolphin helicopter chased them down, taking out the engines with precise gunfire when necessary [Source: CGCMohawk: Current Patrol]. The Mohawk patrolled oceanic waters off the southern coast of Florida for four weeks before returning to her home base in Key West.

The United States Coast Guard Cutter Mohawk
Photo by PA3 Dana Warr/courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The United States Coast Guard Cutter Mohawk

Life on a cutter is not easy. Space is cramped and you spend a lot of time in very close proximity to your crewmates. However, crews form close bonds and learn to work together smoothly and efficiently. The most important person on any ship, of course, is the captain. Each captain has absolute authority on his or her ship. The personality and habits of a captain can have a tremendous effect on the character of the ship and the way a crew conducts itself. For most mariners, achieving a captaincy is a very high honor.

Between patrols, the crew takes care of ship maintenance or may take on shore duties. Some of them will take advantage of leave time (they get 30 days of leave each year). This pattern will continue for a sailor until his term of active duty has ended. Active duty lasts two or more years, depending on the contract the sailor signed at the time of enlistment. Once active duty is over, the sailor still must provide several additional years of service, either as a reserve or a ready-reserve who can be called to active duty at any time.

As members of a U.S. military organization, all Coast Guard sailors are subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Dismissal from the Coast Guard can take a variety of forms, from an Honorable Discharge to a court martial, depending on the circumstances surrounding the dismissal. See How the Army Works for a full explanation.

Coast Guard veterans and retirees are eligible for a host of benefits, including health and life insurance, low-interest loans for mortgages or small businesses and veterans' health care. The full suite of benefits available may depend on the nature of the veteran's dismissal -- usually an honorable discharge or retirement is necessary for access to all benefits. A comprehensive guide to Coast guard veterans' benefits can be found at Coast Guard Insider.

In the next section, we'll explore the history of the Coast Guard.