The Coast Guard (CG) is, in the minds of some, the most underrated branch of military service.
You may disagree about whether that is true, but some change their minds when confronted with the fact that Coast Guard troops were patrolling the sea some eight years before there was even a United States Navy. What is the Coast Guard, how do people join, and what role do they serve protecting the nation?
A Brief History Of The Coast Guard
Before being named as such, the Coast Guard was established in 1790 by President George Washington. At that time, legislation called the Tariff Act established the construction and operation of ten seagoing vessels designed to enforce federal trade laws, perform interdiction to stop smuggling operations, and other duties. At this time the service was called The Revenue Cutter Service.
Another operation, called the U.S. Life-Saving Service, began water-based life-saving operations around 1848.
Unlike the Revenue Cutter Service, this was intended as an intervention for shipwrecks and other nautical disasters. Both agencies were on a collision course with each other (pun intended) and come 1915, they merged and were renamed as the Coast Guard.
In 1939, the Coast Guard was put in charge of the Light House Service, making the CG in charge of maritime navigation issues. And if it seems like Coast Guard history is rife with examples of taking on more and more responsibilities, you aren’t mistaken–this is a trend that has been with the CG for its entire existence.
In 1946 this trend continued with Congress transferring the Commerce Department Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation to the Coast Guard. Now the agency was also responsible for merchant marine licensing and merchant vessel safety.
More than two decades later, the Coast Guard was placed under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation, another transfer in 2003 would have the service placed under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security, where it operates to this day.
What The Coast Guard Is Today
The Coast Guard is considered two things at once–it is a branch of military service complete with recruiters, officers and enlisted personnel, and even a reserve force. But the Coast Guard is also a federal law enforcement agency and operates as such with a variety of missions and tasks that include:
- Drug interdiction and seizure
- Water-based security patrols of maritime infrastructure
- Immigration enforcement
- Official escort
- Security boardings at U.S. ports
- Merchant vessel security screenings
- Investigates pollution incidents
- Conducts safety examinations on foreign vessels
- Conducts marine inspections
- Investigates marine casualties involving commercial vessels
As a federal law enforcement agency, the Coast Guard has specific rules of engagement. In times of war or when ordered by the President of the United States, the Coast Guard falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Navy for missions to protect the U.S.
Today, the Coast Guard is tasked with maritime safety, security, and environmental stewardship related to American waterways. CG operations include protecting something called the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This area includes some “4.5 million square miles stretching from North of the Arctic Circle to South of the equator, from Puerto Rico to Guam, encompassing nine time zones – the largest EEZ in the world,” according to the CG official site.
Coast Guard Statistics
There are some 56,000 Coast Guard members, and the fleet includes more than 240 “cutter” type vessels, some 1600 boats, and more than 200 aircraft. In a typical duty day, the Coast Guard is responsible for:
- Search and rescue cases
- Lifesaving (10 lives a day according to the CG official site)
- Escorts high-capacity passenger vessels (as many as five a day)
- Security boardings in and around U.S. ports (some 24 per day)
- Services buoys and fixed aids to navigation (more than 80 per day)
- Facilitates movement of goods and commodities through the Nation’s Maritime Transportation System (Nearly $9 billion per day)
Joining The Coast Guard
Joining the Coast Guard is much like joining any other branch of service. You talk to a Coast Guard recruiter and you will need to examine the list of Coast Guard missions to find a job (also known as a “rating”, see below) suitable for your interests, skill sets, and willingness to train in. Those missions include:
- Port & Waterway Security
- Drug Interdiction
- Aids to Navigation
- Search & Rescue
- Living Marine Resources
- Marine Safety
- Defense Readiness
- Migrant Interdiction
- Marine Environmental Protection
- Ice Operations
- Law Enforcement
Coast Guard jobs are referred to as “ratings” and there are 17 ratings you may consider when joining. They include:
- Aviation Maintenance Technician
- Aviation Survival Technician
- Avionics Electrical Technician
- Boatswain’s Mate
- Culinary Specialist
- Damage Controlman
- Electrician’s Mate
- Electronics Technician
- Gunner’s Mate
- Health Services Technician
- Information Systems Technician
- Intelligence Specialist
- Machinery Technician
- Marine Science Technician
- Maritime Enforcement Specialist
- Operations Specialist
- Public Affairs Specialist
The Coast Guard Reserve adds one additional, unique specialty–Investigator.
Joining The Coast Guard With A College Degree
If you want to join the Coast Guard and have a college degree, you may qualify to join as an officer. Coast Guard officers serve five basic CG missions:
- Maritime Security
- Maritime Mobility
- Maritime Safety
- Protection of Natural Resources
- National Defense
Officer programs for the above include the following career fields:
- Command, control, communications
- Computer & information technologies
For officers, there are also options to serve in the Coast Guard medical system, but the CG uses Public Health Service (PHS) Officers to fill medical, dental, pharmacy, environmental health, and physician’s assistant positions.
According to the Coast Guard official site, if you want to apply as an officer and be considered as a healthcare provider, “All health care providers must first join the U.S. Public Health Service.”
This process has two phases, you must complete the initial online forms at the official site for the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service.
There is also a secondary application that requires more detail and a physical exam, credentials verification, letters of reference, and a background check. This process “typically takes around 180 days,” according to the official site.
Coast Guard Benefits
The CG official site describes the benefits offered to Coast Guard recruits as follows:
“All active-duty enlisted members entering the Coast Guard start out making approximately $20,000 annually. This is just basic pay.”
Coast Guard members may also be entitled to military allowances depending on their status, rating, or other factors. Other allowances include:
- Sea pay
- Housing allowances
- Subsistence allowance (“separate rations” pay)
- Uniform allowance
- Family separation pay
- Hazardous-duty pay
- Pay increases based on time-in-service
Like the rest of the U.S. military, you are taxed on your basic pay, but allowances such as BAH and BAS are not taxable.
You’ll receive additional tax-free money for Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH), if government housing is not available in the area you are stationed; Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS), if government dining facilities are not available in the area you are stationed; and a uniform allowance (for enlisted personnel only) to help maintain your uniforms. Tax Advantage: All existing allowances for food, housing and clothing are not subject to federal or state income taxes.
There are also healthcare benefits, life insurance options, and family leave options for those who have a newborn or are expecting one. There are also military pension options for those who make the Coast Guard a career and serve the minimum required time in uniform (20 years).
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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