Question: Why aren’t Coast Guardsmen required to know how to swim?
Answer: Because if their boat sinks, they can simply wade to shore.
Yeah, funny, I know. The fact is, Coast Guardsmen and women have endured this kind of humor throughout their existence. One reason for this is that the country never seems to know what to do with them. They’re currently under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security. Before that, they served under the Department of Transportation. The Coast Guard was originally established by Alexander Hamilton in 1790 to serve the Department of the Treasury. Ironically, it’s the Coast Guard, not the Navy, that lays claim to being the United States’ oldest continuous seagoing service. The U.S. Navy was established in 1794 in response to the Barbary Coast pirates after the Continental Navy was disbanded 11 years earlier.
Another reason they don’t receive the respect they’re due is that, like the Marine Corps, the Coast Guard is one of our services’ “poor cousins,” and as such, is often the recipient of our other services’ hand-me-downs.
The Coast Guard is composed of more than 41,000 active duty personnel, 8,100 selected reservists, more than 30,000 auxiliary personnel and 7,000-plus civilian employees. These men and women serve aboard 244 cutters, 1,850 boats and 204 aircraft. They not only protect our nation’s shores from terrorist attack and drug and human trafficking, but they are also charged with protecting both recreational and commercial sailors from their own carelessness or stupidity. They often do so in the most horrendous weather and tumultuous seas imaginable, and at risk of their own lives. If that weren’t enough, they’re commissioned with the testing, licensing and certification of our merchant marine officers and seamen, and inspecting U.S.-flagged commercial vessels as well as foreign-flagged vessels within our waters. What’s more, they perform all these functions on a shoestring budget that is often spent before their fiscal year ends.
Finally, they have served in every conflict the United States has been engaged in, from the War of 1812 right up to and including present-day Operation Iraqi Freedom and the Afghanistan war. Although their wartime role is more of a support capacity than direct engagement, they nonetheless perform their duties with distinction and valor, and have suffered casualties just like any other service.
Prior to World War II, U.S. Coast Guard intelligence managed to compile extensive data on Japanese merchant vessels. After Pearl Harbor, the Coast Guard shared this knowledge with U.S. Naval intelligence, and both branches eventually broke the codes used by the Japanese.
Although the Coast Guard Auxiliary has neither the police nor military powers of the regular Coast Guard, it nonetheless works hand in hand with its sister branch in a much-needed support capacity. Within each station, its members may work anywhere from the communications room to the armory. Outside the station, they perform regular marine patrols and aviation missions in both a public safety and search-and-rescue framework. They’re also heavily engaged in public education and awareness, and inspecting recreational vessels to assure the owners that they’re in compliance with state and federal law.
For all the above reasons, their motto, Semper Paratus, “Always Ready,” is especially fitting, and I personally offer my heartfelt thanks and a crisp salute to the men and women serving in the United States Coast Guard on this Veterans Day weekend.
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