By Diana Driscoll
Nestled in the southernmost point of New Jersey, Cape May is one of the country’s oldest vacation and resort destinations catering to families since the mid-18th century. But aside from its boutique shops, endless beaches and fine dining, Cape May is also the adopted hometown of the United States Coast Guard and where you will find the branch’s fifth largest base.
Training Center Cape May (TRACEN) is the nation’s sole accession point for the enlisted Coast Guard corps and sees more than 4,000 recruits come through every year for their first step in becoming coasties. Recruits come from all over the country to begin the eight-week boot camp at TRACEN, but before they descend upon the coastal city, they muster (that is, formally assemble) 97 miles away at the USO Center in Philadelphia International Airport.
The USO at Philadelphia International Airport is a 5,000-square-foot Center that has been the muster point for Coast Guard recruits for more than 40 years. To date, the USO has seen more than 130,000 recruits come through the Center. While open 12 hours-a-day, each day of the year, the USO Center has dedicated Tuesdays to recruit musters - appropriately dubbed “Coast Guard Tuesdays.” Coast Guard recruits muster at the USO 42 weeks throughout the year.
Tom Dougherty, who served 30 years of active duty in the Coast Guard, is now a civilian employee and the USO’s liaison at TRACEN. The USO works with him every Tuesday on the logistics of the musters, including recruit accountability, flight delays and charter bus transportation to Cape May. Tom himself mustered at the Center when he joined the Coast Guard in 1978.
“The USO at the Philadelphia International Airport is essential to Training Center Cape May’s ability to safely muster recruits coming from across the country as well as all U.S. territories,” said Tom.
The USO Center is also the muster point for another Coast Guard program called Direct Entry Petty Officer Training (DEPOT). Participants in this three-week program come through the USO about 10 Sundays a year – receiving the same level of service as the recruits do on Tuesdays.
On these Coast Guard Tuesdays, a team of dedicated USO volunteers will spend the day catering to all the recruits’ needs by providing home-cooked meals, including dessert, and being a sounding board for the young men and women who are looking for guidance on what to expect at boot camp.
“The moment the recruits arrive at the airport in Philadelphia, the USO hospitality begins,” said Joseph Baker, a USO volunteer since 2007.
Joseph is tasked with helping the recruits navigate their way through security and to baggage claim to retrieve their personal belongings and bringing them back to the USO Center where they sign in. If recruits forget or lose items, Joseph takes them to the stores within the airport where they can purchase what they need. His main job, along with the rest of the USO volunteers, is to provide unparalleled service that alleviates any stress traveling may cause.
“The USO worries about the schedule for the day, the cooking, the bus arrival, departures, etc.,” he said. “The recruits can just sit, have a hot meal and get to know their fellow recruits.”
For the people who serve, their first few hours or days entering the military can be intimidating. They’ve had to leave home and their loved ones, and prepare for weeks of difficult training that will lead them to a lifetime of service and sacrifice. It’s a huge undertaking that can take a physical and emotional toll on them – which is why it’s crucial to show these recruits that the USO is with them from the moment they join and offer support.
Recruits will start coming through the USO Center as early as 8:30 a.m. and will continue to flow through the rest of the day until the last bus leaves around 8 p.m. Throughout the day, USO volunteers ensure the Center is fully stocked, prep dinner and provide a safe environment for the recruits to gather. But the most important task the USO volunteers execute is talking and listening to the young men and women.
Neil Weidman, who started volunteering with the USO in 2019 said, “Interacting with the recruits is the best part! It’s fun talking to the young women and men about where they are from, why the Coast Guard, and what they would like to do after basic. It’s also nice to answer any questions or concerns they may have about basic training. I remind them that if I can make it through Navy basic, they will do just fine.”
Joseph agreed with Neil’s sentiment.
“Joking around with them, making them feel more comfortable, hearing their stories and how they came to join the Coast Guard and their hopes for the future and just making sure they know what is happening that day are the best parts of the day,” he said. “They are very appreciative of everything that we do for them, no matter how scared they really are.”
For USO volunteer Lori Loughlin, the best part of Coast Guard Tuesdays is preparing the recruits’ dinner.
“Cooking for my family has always made me very happy,” she said. “When the recruits come into the center, I feel like each one is my kid.”
The recruits are offered all the amenities available at the Center. Aside from the café, recruits will utilize the lounge to nap and will spend their time studying, interacting with their classmates or playing cards.
USO Senior Center Manager Brian Loughlin enjoys coming up with unique ways to get the recruits to engage with each other and the USO volunteers. He created a Jeopardy game as an icebreaker, giving recruits the chance to test their knowledge of the Helmsman, the USO and pop culture.
“Brian Loughlin and his staff really enjoy providing exceptional service to the Coast Guard’s newest members,” said Tom. “The job is done in such a way that truly represents the Coast Guard Core Values of honor, respect and devotion to duty.”
Overall, the USO Center and volunteers offer recruits peace of mind. After going through Military Entrance Processing Stations (MEPS) activities, saying goodbye to their families and traveling, the recruits get to go on autopilot and just relax. They have the chance to create bonds before boot camp begins, as well as get information and guidance from some active-duty service members and veterans. Lori has noticed visible changes in the recruits after those discussions saying they will have a calmer look on their face – even if only for a few moments.
When the time comes for the recruits to leave, the USO volunteers line them up in the terminal and walk them down to the bus. The volunteers do a head count (twice) when everyone is seated, wish the recruits good luck and send them on their way.
At TRACEN, the recruits are immersed in a comprehensive training program. The first week consists of forming and indoctrination where recruits will receive haircuts, be issued uniforms, attend numerous classes and take part in medical exams and physical fitness tests.
“As the weeks progress, so does the physical fitness and classroom instruction. Some of the many classes include Watchstanding Procedures, Customs and Courtesies, USCG History, Resiliency, Financial Management and Civil Rights Awareness,” Tom said.
The recruits will also receive hands-on instructions in first aid, CPR, seamanship, fire fighting and manual of arms. They will take part in pool workouts and live fire at the range. All of these drills help mold the recruits into the coasties of tomorrow.
“When recruits graduate and report to units throughout the country and beyond, they know from their experience of mustering at the USO for boot camp, that the USO will be a welcomed sanctuary throughout their military career,” Tom stated.
For many recruits, Coast Guard Tuesday is their first USO experience, but it is far from their last.
The Coast Guard’s motto “Semper Paratus”, meaning “always ready” is something the USO volunteers take to heart every day of the year. From the moment they enlist and throughout the duration of their military careers, the USO is always ready and willing to be there alongside America’s newest military members just when they need us most.
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