What Does the Coast Guard Do and 7 Coast Guard Facts to Know

By Sandi Gohn

Don’t let their snappy navy blue Coast Guard uniforms fool you - serving in the nation’s longest seafaring service is not for the faint of heart.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Daise Tamarcus and Petty Officer 3rd Class William Easterwood learn about marine-band radio installation in January 17, 2020. | Photo credit DVIDS/Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Ayla Hudson

Whether they’re protecting our nation’s ports, conducting search and rescue missions or stopping illegal drug smugglers in their tracks, members of the U.S. Coast Guard (sometimes called “Coasties”) do a surprising number of tasks that are crucial to keeping U.S. waterways safe. In fact, the complete list of jaw-dropping Coast Guard facts required to answer the simple question - what does the Coast Guard do? - is as long and complex as the military branch’s history itself.

Here are a few Coast Guard facts and answers to common questions about the second-smallest branch of the military (behind the newly minted U.S. Space Force) to showcase the amazing work Coasties do every day.

1. What Does the Coast Guard do?

Broadly speaking, the Coast Guard’s job is to protect U.S. waterways, ports and shorelines by enforcing U.S. laws and serving as a first responder on the water. According to the Coast Guard, the branch’s overarching mission is organized into six smaller areas of operational focus:

Coast Guard Cutter Munro crew members transfer bales of cocaine on June 6, 2019. The cocaine was seized by Munro’s crew following an interdiction of a suspected drug smuggling boat in international waters of the Eastern Pacific Ocean. | Photo credit DVIDS/Coast Guard photo

  1. Law enforcement

  2. First response

  3. Safety and marine environmental protection

  4. Transportation system management

  5. Security operations

  6. Defense operations

If that sounds like a lot of responsibility – that’s because it is!

2. Is the Coast Guard Part of the Military?

Yes! Even though the Coast Guard is not a part of the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), the Coast Guard is part of the United States Armed Forces (also known as the military). Technically, the Coast Guard is both a federal law enforcement agency and military branch within the Department of Homeland Security.

Throughout its long history, the Coast Guard has also been a part of the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Transportation.

Photo credit DVIDS/Coast Guard/Petty Officer 3rd Class Alex Gray

Coast Guardsmen assemble before preparing bails of cocaine to be offloaded from the Coast Guard Cutter Munro in San Diego on Feb. 10, 2020.

3. What is the Difference of the Coast Guard vs Navy?

Considering the Coast Guard’s maritime mission and its role as part of the military, it might seem hard at first to see the difference between the Coast Guard and the Navy. However, the two organizations couldn’t be more different.

The main difference of the Coast Guard vs the Navy lies in their contrasting geographic scopes, distinct core operations and vastly different sizes.

The Coast Guard mainly operates within the U.S. and its waterways, whereas the Navy’s missions require its personnel, vessels and aircraft to travel all around the world. Furthermore, most of the Coast Guard’s operations are aimed at maritime law enforcement and protecting U.S. waterways and shorelines, whereas the Navy is focused on maintaining a war-ready fleet and ensuring the freedom of the global seas. Additionally, the Navy is much larger than the Coast Guard, with about twelve times more active-duty personnel.

4. Speaking of, How Many People Are in the Coast Guard?

Currently, after the Space Force, the Coast Guard is the smallest military branch. 41,700 full-time active-duty service members are currently working in the Coast Guard, along with 7,800 part-time reservists, 8,300 civilians and 31,000 auxiliary Coast Guard volunteers.

Photo credit DVIDS/Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Rob Simpson

Petty Officer 2nd Class Kris Grimm is hoisted into an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter off the coast of San Diego.

5. Is it Hard to Get into the Coast Guard?

Getting into the Coast Guard is a simple enough process – but that doesn’t mean it is easy. Just like joining any other branch of the military, anyone wanting to get into the Coast Guard must first talk to a recruiter to begin the process and answer any questions. Then, upon completing a pre-screening, new applicants will be sent to the closest Military Entrance Processing Center (MEPS) location for further evaluation.

For the Coast Guard, this step includes several long days of testing, medical screenings and taking the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test. Potential enlisted recruits must earn a minimum ASVAB score of at least 40 – the highest-required score of all the military branches, along with the Air Force. Depending on their location, recruits and their accompanying family members might be able to relax between testing sessions at a USO lounge at their MEPS site. There are currently several USO MEPS locations across the U.S., where the USO supports future Coasties and other members of our military on the first step of their military journey.

Once Coast Guard hopefuls have passed all their preliminary testing at MEPS, the next step is to fly to Philadelphia. Upon landing at the Philadelphia International Airport, all recruits can head to the airport’s USO lounge for one final taste of civilian life before boarding the bus to attend the 53-day Coast Guard Recruit Training in Cape May, New Jersey.

6. What Celebrities or Other Famous People Served in the Coast Guard?

Golfer Arnold Palmer, author Alexander “Alex” Haley, actor [Jeff Bridges] https://www.history.uscg.mil/Browse-by-Topic/Notable-People/Celebrities-and-Famous-People/#:~:text=State%20(Ohio)%20University-,Jeff%20Bridges%2C%20Actor,-Jim%20%22Shanty%22%20Hegan), National Football League (NFL) player Emlen Tunnel, actor Cesar Romero, National Hockey League (NHL) player Art Coulter and boxer Jack Dempsey are among a slew of other stars who served in the U.S. Coast Guard.

7. What is Some Other Interesting Coast Guard Trivia?

Did you know that Walt Disney created a special logo for the Coast Guard’s Corsair Fleet during World War II, or that the oldest-serving Coastguardsman was 105 years old? Check out this list of Coast Guard trivia facts to dive even deeper into the military branch.

-This story was originally published in 2020. It has been updated for 2022.

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