What's it like in the USCG?
October 9, 2008 8:51 AM   Subscribe

I'm liberal, non-religious, college-educated, and I think I want to join the Coast Guard through the "Blue 21" direct-to-aviation officer's program. Am I crazy? Is this a viable option? Who can I talk to, other than recruiters?

I hold a couple of general aviation ratings, but I'm realizing that if I want to fly commercially, I need a lot of training, and I can't afford the flight time now. Military aviation seems to be an attractive option, financially, but I'm not comfortable with the offensive role of aviation in the USN, USAF and USMC. I want to save people, not kill them. I get the sense that the USCG's ideology is most compatible with mine, but that's based solely on my 3rd-hand understanding, not from any contact with anyone with direct experience. The Blue 21 service obligation is 11 years (makes sense, since they're training you to be the best all-weather rotorcraft pilots, more or less, and that costs serious money). What's it like in there? Particularly if you're not republican and Christian? What kind of missions do USCG pilots really find themselves flying? I know drug interdiction, maritime border patrol, and search and rescue are on the list, but what else?
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Keep in mind that while the Coast Guard is under the DHS in peacetime, it can be transferred to the Department of the Navy in wartime. The Coast Guard has been in the Persian Gulf during both Iraq wars.

So make no mistake: the Coast Guard really, really is a part of the military, and there's absolutely zero guarantee that you mightn't be deployed alongside the USN, USAF, and USMC.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 9:22 AM on October 9, 2008 [3 favorites]

Coast Guard also supports the DEA and other arms of the Drug War, putting them in contact with members of organisations that may feel a bit put-out at not being able to get their "merchandise" through.

I am grievously understating the situation
posted by batmonkey at 9:34 AM on October 9, 2008

There are a lot of liberal, intelligent, college-educated people in the service - especially the Coast Guard. You always run the risk of being involved in a combat operation, so if you are never going to be comfortable with that, the choice might not be for you. But I've volunteered alongside Coast Guard people, and went to college in the same town as the Academy - we were involved in one another's social scenes to some extent. You will definitely encounter people who think differently from you, but you'll also encounter people like yourself who signed on for similar reasons. Taking the service route to training is cost-effective. It will probably be life-changing, in that the military experience is a very particular one, with a lot of structure and discipline and emotional charge to it. But there's no reason to think you'd be the only liberal, bright person - far, far from it.
posted by Miko at 9:39 AM on October 9, 2008

Well, believe it or not, there are people of all political persuasions in the United States services, and while there "are no atheists in foxholes," I believe you would find darn near every religious or areligious belief personified as well, save for Quakers, Amish, and perhaps Baha'i's, all of which have long established CO status.

That said, see if there is a USCG pilot alumni association or social group--while they still might be promoting their branch, they can also answer many of the questions you posed. Another source my be pilots who fly for commercial freight services such as Fedex and UPS. many of these pilots are ex-service of all backgrounds, some may be USCG. They may be able to tell you if their service provided any advantage to their position. I wonder if USCG provides air support for NOAA missions?

We have a Fedex pilot in the extended family. He mustered out as a Commander in the Navy. His active duty was from the late 70s through the early 90s and he flew jet fighter planes. He started his commercial career as 3rd seat or navigator on an airfreight subcontractor. Not glamorous, but they flew large cargo jets form the US to Europe and the Mideast, then deadheaded back.

From what he had said, many of the commercial passenger pilots are those who while in the service were the Top Gun hot-shot types. He didn't mean that as an insult, just that the fliers who thrived on the adrenaline seem to be the ones who are comfortable with the risk of 100-200 lives in their hands every time they lift off. Others are more comfortable with moving cargo. Our relative felt that Desert Storm was enough adrenaline for a lifetime.

There's a lot of flying in the USN, USMC, and USAF that is not directly connected to offense, but I get your point. I am just expressing that if by commercial pilot you mean passenger jet, your competition for those positions will be coming from the ranks of the retired fighter pilots. That said, I have another friend who started as a flight attendant at NWA and just recently retired as a 2nd seat (co-pilot). No service or combat experience there. But while there's no doubt that she's a competent pilot, she credits feminist activism in the late 70s and early 80s with forcing NWA to hire women pilots. She's not sure--in this era of cutbacks--if a pilot with her background would get the same chance today.

The UPS, Fedex, and DHL pilots all seem to have interesting and varied experiences, and our Fedex family man is generally satisfied with his job. So I'd recommend talking to men and women who are in this end of aviation as well.
posted by beelzbubba at 9:40 AM on October 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

One of my oldest friends is a Coast Guard officer and he's quite liberal and while Christian, he's certainly not the right-wing born-again type. He has a creative writing degree from college and is a painter and poet.
posted by octothorpe at 9:51 AM on October 9, 2008

This is perhaps orthogonal to your question, but I think it bears mentioning: take a very hard look at the terms of your enlistment, especially at the parts relating to what happens if you fail to qualify or pass any part of your training.

I've known some people (and have myself had some unfortunate experiences, although not wholly regrettable) who have gotten seriously burned by various guaranteed placement / advanced training / scholarship programs. You can, if you're not careful, get into a situation where if you wash or flunk out -- even if it's something you don't think of as your "fault" -- you could be on the hook for the remainder of your service term in an enlisted grade, or be required to pay back the cost of your training.

I don't know specifically how the CG program works, so maybe this doesn't apply, but some of the military scholarship programs have big hooks like this. Just read everything carefully and be sure to ask about worst-case scenarios, even if you don't think it's likely. (E.g., what happens if you flunk a final phase of training after they've put a few hundred grand into you? They're going to want their pound of flesh somehow; it's best to figure out in what way they're going to try to collect.)

Nobody likes to think about themselves failing down the road, but I'm just telling you from personal experience it's something you need to consider, no matter how sure you are that you'll succeed.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:11 AM on October 9, 2008

My father is a retired Coastie and doesn't have any particular religious or political opinions either way. Didn't seem to affect his time (20+ years) in the USCG. I think he would advise being willing to "play the game" if you intend to try to get promoted. THAT is a rather political thing - your CO has got to know you and like you... otherwise you could easily get passed over.

Also, keep in mind that although you're not psyched about heading into combat, you'll still be asked to fly in some equally (if not more so) dangerous environments - bad weather is why the USCG exists! After all, they don't have the saying "You have to go out, you don't have to come back." for nothing....
posted by blaneyphoto at 10:29 AM on October 9, 2008

My liberal, non-religious, college-educated SO is an officer in the Army. Political and religious issues don't seem to be a big deal, as far as I can tell.
posted by the littlest brussels sprout at 10:42 AM on October 9, 2008

I have two friends who are former Coast Guard officers (one was a pilot), and both are liberal, non-religious, and college educated.
posted by HotToddy at 10:54 AM on October 9, 2008

There are a lot of non combat flight operations in all branches. The Air Force has an air ambulance service based on DC9's, if I recall they just call it the C9. Admittedly I flew on one back in the 90's so maybe they have upgraded to a newer plane.
I wouldn't rule out any branch but rather speak to all of them and see what each has to offer. Tell them you don't want to go to Top Gun school or Red Flag as you are not interested in flying combat aircraft. Plenty of big multi engine stuff out there doing refueling, cargo hauling and patrolling.
As to the question of political affiliation; the service is truly where you will find people who believe the motto "country first" and live it, not just say it.
Again, my advice, talk to all branches, find out what they have to offer, then make a decision.
Good luck.
posted by a3matrix at 11:45 AM on October 9, 2008

Look into NOAA Corps too. They don't ever get deployed as far as I can tell.
posted by fshgrl at 3:25 PM on October 9, 2008

my bad - just saw you mentioned the drug interdiction thing in your more inside...I was thinking about the "no fighting" thing and got distracted
posted by batmonkey at 6:09 PM on October 9, 2008

just seconding all the folks above stressing that the military is NOT a conservative organization. in my years on active duty (just left last year) i served alongside some of the best, most free-thinking human beings i've ever met.

if you are a conscientious objector (as suggested by your "I want to save people, not kill them" comment), that could be a show-stopper. otherwise, if you can wrap your head around the concept of "my country, right or wrong", then you've got no worries.
posted by bilgepump at 6:09 PM on October 9, 2008

You might look into the Forest Service. I know they do a lot of rotary aircraft work, but I'm not sure what the requirements are.
posted by SaintCynr at 6:10 PM on October 9, 2008

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