Recruit Training Reform

I was headed to the CG Training Center, Alameda (TRACEN) for an interview with the commanding officer, Captain Walter Curwen. The breeze felt good with the top down on my new Fiat 850 Spider.  I moved off Treasure Island into the early bridge traffic.

aerial2_coast_guard_island
Government Island: U.S. Coast Guard Training Center, Alameda, California

When I had appealed to my assignment officer a few days ago for a job at the TRACEN, he said. “You’ll have to meet with CAPT Curwen first. I can’t assign anyone as Training Officer without his approval.”

I met the Captain in his office. His natural smile and warm welcome made me feel good about him right away.
“Good morning, Captain, thank you for seeing me about your open training officer position.”
He gestured me to a chair, “Mr. Marcott, you’ll see in a minute why I felt it was important to meet with any officer being considered for this assignment.
“Captain, I think I have a good idea why,” I said. “I was Chief of the Training Branch in PTP before I came to the Resolute two years ago. Rear Admiral Scullion asked me in my exit interview how I felt about Alameda. I told him I was uncomfortable with their some of their methods.  I suspect you’re looking to make changes.”
The captain, relaxed back in his chair, and with a smile on his face he said “Good. Then let’s talk about recruit training.” In a few moments it was clear that we were on the same page.  The middle sixties were a challenge time for anyone, particularly the Armed Forces, trying to integrate young men into their workforce.

The country had grown weary of the Vietnam War. Young men of boot camp age had spent their formative years amidst youth protests movements, and anti-war militant’s open hostilities toward their parent’s middle class values. It was easy to embrace the norms of counterculture groups. They demanded individual freedom in all things, and flaunted their disdain for authority figures.
Of course, the Coast Guard had no magic source of recruits. Those who  reported to Alameda came from: troubled urban centers, pleasant suburbs, and quiet patches of remote countryside. The last sound heard by some was the gavel of a judge who told them their choice was the military or jail. Others heard their fathers telling them to get out and not bother to come back, or the cries of their mother who reluctantly gave up their youngest, but glad they would be saved from the gang warfare that threatened all her children.
On the other hand, many had enlisted to get the GI Bill that would pay for them to go to college later, others didn’t know what they wanted after high school, but thought the service was a good place to learn a trade. Some came because having received their masters degree, their student deferment had run out. They reasoned that joining the Coast Guard would be better than being drafted.
Every week seventy or more of these young men, the good, the bad, and the ugly, were dumped into the caldron of open bay living in double-deck bunks, and gang showers with yelling company commanders who made sure they could do nothing right.

To tackle the Training Officer job, my first priority was to spend time meeting with the key players: the company commanders, the assigned Navy Chaplains, and Dr. Dennis Short, a Psychiatrist, and a Commander in the Public Health Service Commissioned Officer Corps, and Chief of the TRACEN Medical Division. They did not have a history of always  working well together.
I learned two key things from these meetings: (1) Conditions had been much worse than I had suspected, and (2) With very few exceptions, the people directly on the firing line, the company commanders (CC’S,) were ready and willing to embrace change.
The meetings did wonders to improved relationship. By sharing their perspectives, the “good guys” began to trust each other and often devised a mutually agreed upon course of action. The CC’s were, at times, surprised with the “tough line” of the Chaplains. The Doctors professional observations and advice was welcomed by both.  In separate sessions with the CC’s, he taught them observations techniques, what behaviors to look for, and how to describe them in terms beyond “the kid just doesn’t have his shit together.”
I can’t fault anyone in the sixties who was trying to do right by their recruits and still meet the demands of their service. But, for whatever reason, the Marine Corps boot camp methods, which worked for the Marines, appealed to the Alameda Training Officer. It is my personal opinion, he had carried it well beyond the Marine Corps model, as though he was driven to out-Marine the Marines.
Poorly performing recruits were all dealt with as disciplinary problems. Placed in a separate X-Ray Company, they had undergone demanding physical fitness routines, marching drills, sleep disruptions, inane work details, and constant harassment. When the X-Ray company commander felt they were ready to “square away,” he returned them to regular training. I doubt if any recruit had left X-Ray company feeling better about himself or the Coast Guard.
We adopted a new a philosophy that gave every recruit the benefit of the doubt that he had volunteered, for whatever reason, to join our Coast Guard company and wanted to do well. If he was not performing, we looked for the cause and then dealt with him appropriately.
We retained X-Ray Company, for there were still some with serious discipline problems, but we did away with the insane climate. More importantly we established a Special Company, where a recruit needing  a more targeted remedial program which might include counseling or as we later found out was a major problem—remedial reading, he could get it.
I remember a recruit from a ranch in Montana. He had graduated from a small one-room school and the twenty friends and relatives who had attended his graduation were the most people he had ever seen in one place at one time. The Coast Guard Recruiter had driven him to the airport, and put him on a plane for San Francisco.
I can only imagine what he must have thought coming into SFO. He managed to get a bus to Alameda and worked his way to Government Island, only to be dumped into the mob scene with more weird people than he had ever seen in his life. He was not a discipline problem! He was overwhelmed!

We pulled him out of training for a week, provided a little adjustment counseling, and when he was ready, he performed well, graduated and moved on to the active fleet, a proud Seaman Apprentice.
The flagship of our reforms was a reading program run by a first class petty officer who held a masters degree in remedial reading. Joseph Streuffert developed and ran one of the most successful programs in the country,  and went on to his PhD, teaching in an eastern university.
Boot Camp in the sixties could have been the dream laboratory for sociologists and psychologists. But, I doubt they could have done a better job than the terrific Coast Guard petty officers who successfully turned these recruits around in eight weeks. After one week “down time” they turned around and did it again–year after year.

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Author: Dick

I have to tell you right up front. I’m a story teller. After graduation from the Coast Guard Academy in 1957 my twenty-eight years of active duty have given me a lot of fodder. Finally heeding my daughter’s pleas, “Dad, you have got to write those stories down,” my memoirs are a work in progress. Four chapters have been published in the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford’s award winning literary journal, Baily’s Beads. My blog posts will share excerpts from many of my “good stories, well told.”

2 thoughts on “Recruit Training Reform”

  1. Great post Dick. I’m learning a whole new side of the Coast Guard. Ron specialized in engineering and management. Keep the posts coming !

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    1. Thank You Millie. I just wish I was making faster progress in getting the book into print. Meanwhile, I hope I can keep people interested in getting the book eventually. I’ll keep posting, but may have to slow down a bit.

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