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Keeping Coast Guard Shipshape : Academy Seeks Only the Cream of the Student Crop

Charles Hillinger's America

November 17, 1985|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

NEW LONDON, Conn. — The curriculum, the discipline, the physical fitness programs are tough.

Half who enroll never graduate.

Last year 7,800 applied for admission, 290 were accepted.

All students here are on full four-year scholarships that include room, board and living allowances.

Almost all students here were in the top 10% of their high school classes.

It is one of the most selective colleges in the country--the U.S. Coast Guard Academy located high on a wooded hill on the shores of the Thames River in this rustic New England seaport.

Unlike the three other military academies--Army, Navy and Air Force--appointments here are made solely on the basis of an annual nationwide competition. There are no congressional appointments to the Coast Guard Academy; no state quotas or special categories.

Candidates compete for entry, based on high school rank and performance on either the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or American College Testing Assessment (ACT). Also taken into consideration are the candidate's participation in high school extracurricular activities, community affairs and part-time employment.

"This is a high-quality school. We will match our academic program with the other three military academies and I sincerely believe we will come out on top," said Capt. David Sandell, 46, dean of academics at the Coast Guard Academy.

Capt. Thomas D. Combs, 51, dean of admissions, added that the overall program "is so demanding that the attrition rate of cadets here is far greater than that at any of the other academies.

Retention Rate

"But we also have a post-graduation retention rate that none of the other military academies can come close to. Of all our alumni, 83% are still serving in the Coast Guard 10 years after graduation, and 70% after 20 years or more."

The Coast Guard, smallest of the military services with only 4,000 officers, 28,000 enlisted men and 6,000 civilian employees, was founded by Alexander Hamilton and established as the Revenue Cutter Service by George Washington in 1790.

Half the Coast Guard officer corps are graduates of the academy, which traces its beginning to 1876 when the Revenue Cutter School of Instruction was started with nine cadets.

Today there are 745 cadets attending the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

For freshmen, the first year at the Coast Guard Academy is like being in boot camp.

They spend 12 long months marching at attention, shoulders back, standing straight as an arrow as they move from one classroom to another or walk anywhere on campus. At meals they sit rigid in their chairs, eyes straight ahead. They cannot look down at their plates or drinking cups.

"It's a challenge. At first you dribble food on your clothes, spill your milk. But you learn pretty quick how to eat without spilling anything looking straight ahead all the while," explained Richard Mourey, a 17-year-old fourth classman (freshman) who graduated from Venice High School in Los Angeles last June.

Upperclassmen discipline the fourth classmen or Swabs, as they are called. "Eyes in the boat!" bark sophomores, juniors and seniors at the Swabs, meaning keep those eyes straight ahead at all times.

"Oh, it's really difficult at first. This may sound odd, but you get to enjoy it after a while," said Mourey, a top student while at Venice High and a member of the school's volleyball and soccer teams. "The reason for it is the discipline. It teaches us self-control and respect for authority."

Mourey was accepted by the Air Force Academy as well but chose the Coast Guard instead. "This seemed to suit me better. I like the Coast Guard's peacetime mission, helping people. That's why I came here. The Coast Guard is a very practical service."

For any disciplinary problem or other infraction, cadets receive demerits; 300 demerits in a year and the cadet is asked to leave.

Demerits for Room

Craig Henzel, 18, of Canton, Conn., said he and his roommate have been restricted to the academy grounds since their arrival as fourth classmen last June. The reason: demerits they have received for an unkempt room.

"We normally get liberty Saturday afternoon and evening and all day Sunday," noted Henzel. "They are really strict here."

Henzel isn't alone. Many new cadets have a rough time early on making the transition from civilian to military life.

A straight-A student in high school, Henzel was an all-state basketball player two years in a row and president of his senior class. He is hoping to become a Coast Guard pilot.

All cadets receive flight training in their junior year and 15% of the graduates eventually make it as Coast Guard pilots.

Sophomore Norvel Williams, 20, of Charleston, W. Va., is one of 12 black cadets. He was West Virginia's high school wrestling champion and had a 3.5 grade average.

"I'd never heard of the Coast Guard Academy. I had my heart set on the Naval Academy until a Coast Guard officer visited our school and told us about the humanitarian role of the Coast Guard, of its interaction with people. That sold me," said Williams.

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