Rebecca, marching. (She’s the one wearing the watch)
This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/challenging/amazing things. This is the story of Rebecca and her life in the Coast Guard.
Tell us a bit about yourself!
I grew up in a military family and moved every two to three years. I currently live in Boston and work at Harvard. I graduated with a degree in environmental management. I worked for four years at a homelessness non-profit and then ran my own dog-walking business for a year. I am a member of the Coast Guard Reserve, which I recently joined at the age of 27. I love Joss Whedon.How did you end up in the Coast Guard?
At 27, running my own dog-walking business, I began to feel like I was falling behind on the highway to adulthood. I had no health insurance, no 401k, and I was living in an apartment with 5 roommates. I knew I had to make a bold move to really shake up my life, so I signed an eight year contract to join the Coast Guard Reserves.I went to boot camp at the age of 27 (which is considered pretty old for boot camp; my 18 year old shipmates have questioned whether I’m “too old” to have children). Boot camp was eight weeks, which was followed by 12 weeks of culinary training in northern California for my specific job as a Food Service Specialist. As a reservist, I work one weekend a month, two weeks per year, and I have to be available for deployment to foreign ports (most recently Bahrain) for 6 months at a time whenever they need me.
What’s boot camp like?
Boot camp is extraordinarily difficult. Its hard work, long hours and tremendous stress. You arrive at night on a bus and pull up in front of a building where a ton of military people are standing outside waiting. Two Company Commanders come onto the bus and start getting in your face and screaming at you before saying some variation of, “you’ve got 15 seconds to get off this bus and you just wasted 5! Go, go, go!” From then on, everything you do is timed and done according to a strict procedure.The days start at 5AM with your Company Commander flipping on the lights, blowing a whistle, and screaming, “fire, fire, fire!” before you race out the door to begin calisthenics. We spent the days taking classes, exercising, and practicing marching and manual of arms. In the evenings we were generally punished for the crimes of the day. We went to sleep at 10PM and were woken up for a shift of watch-standing in the middle of the night, which took up about 1.5 hours in the middle of the night. I’d say the inability to sleep for more than three hours at a time and the five minute showers were the worst part of boot camp.
In boot camp, you’re pushed to the edge, and you think, “this is it; I can’t go any further,” but then you do go further and then further again. No matter how bad things get, the world keeps turning and pulling you along with it. You just have to always find the good in any situation. You may be doing your 100th push-up on the beach, sand filling up your boots, but you look at the sky and the sun is setting, and that gets you through that moment to the next.
How many women do you work with?
The split of male/female in training was fairly even, and in both situations the Honor Graduate was female (and completely the most deserving person). Though training is full of women, there are way fewer women in the fleet. In my unit there are about 10 women and 150 men. Though a lot of women join the Coast Guard, more men make a career out of it.I think it is more difficult for women to be part of the active duty military while also having a family. I think it’s much easier for men to find a partner willing to move with him every two years (thereby pretty much giving up their own careers) than it is for a woman to find a man willing to move with them. I have met female Senior Chiefs, Master Chiefs, and many female officers. I have always been a feminist, and expect equal treatment, but I do have to say that I think the males go a teensy beat easier on females.
Can you tell us about an average day at work?
There are a huge variety jobs and schedules in the Coast Guard, so this is just one small example of what it’s like to be a Coast Guard cook in my experience.
3:45AM: Report for duty. In the military, 15 minutes early is on time and on time is late.
4AM: Talk down and uniform inspection.
4AM – 11AM: Prepare breakfast and lunch for the crew.
11AM – 1:30PM: Do food preps for the next day’s meals.
1:30PM: Line up for talk down from the Watch Captain of the next shift.
1:45PM – @ 3PM: Finish food preps for the next day. An example of a food prep might be, “peel 300 potatoes.”
At night you iron your uniform and polish your boots with wax. This can take anywhere from 30 minutes total (my style) to two hours (one of my roommate’s style).Do you see yourself doing this for the long term?
Yes, I plan on being part of the Coast Guard Reserves for the next 20 years. In this way, I’ll be eligible for a retirement from the military. I do worry about two things: being deployed and having to leave my job for any significant amount of time and being deployed and having to leave my children (when I have them).What’s are the best parts of your job? The toughest parts?
The best part of joining the Coast Guard has been the sense of achievement. Similar to graduating college or running a marathon, you’ve achieved something big. And the next best thing is all of the friends and mentors I’ve met. It is hard to make friends once you’re out of school, but joining the military gives you a sense of community.The toughest part of my job is being totally out of my element and just not being good at a lot of things. I’ve always excelled in my comfort zone of literary/artistic endeavors, so it is a bit jarring to try totally new things and do so poorly. I am genuinely always the worst person at things like marching, shooting, pugil sticks, etc.
What advice would you give to people interested in joining the Coast Guard?
I would advise people interested in joining the Coast Guard to go for it! At this point, unless you are very extraordinary, you probably won’t be able to get into OCS, so consider going enlisted. Consider joining before college. If you go active duty for three years, you can get a ton of money for education/housing (the current value of the 9/11 GI Bill in the Boston area is about $210,810 over three years, no kidding).
Be honest with recruiters and doctors, but remember that you’re in a job interview; it’s not the time to mention your myriad minor problems. So, if the issue isn’t really a serious health or substance abuse issue, don’t mention it.If you are headed to boot camp, practice push-ups. Check YouTube to make sure that you’re doing correct military push-ups, and, if you’re female, try to head in capable of about 25. When you are in boot camp, help your rackmate make the bed (so much easier and quicker working together) and sound off as loud as you can. Sounding off is an easy thing to do that will keep you under the radar. And just remember that at the end of the day, it is just exercise and yelling.
Are any of you in the military? Would you ever consider joining? Questions for Rebecca?