Lieutenant Commander Jon Bartel explains what it takes to work for the Coast Guard.
First, tell me how and when you got involved with the Coast Guard.
It’s kind of funny because I grew up in Wisconsin, on the Great Lakes, not far away from a Coast Guard presence. I had no idea what the Coast Guard was. I ended up moving to Alaska, and I looked up a recruiter in Anchorage. Within about four months, I made the decision I was going to join. I started boot camp on June 30, 1997, so it’ll be 15 years this summer.
I am currently the administration officer at Coast Guard Sector San Diego, where I’ve been stationed since August of last year. My main duties are as an MH-60T [helicopter] commander.
What steps did you have to take to get the job?
I went and talked to the recruiters. They make you sign a whole bunch of forms. You go to a Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPs), where you fill out some more paperwork and get a physical. Some of the paperwork includes your financial responsibilities, your family members, a security background check. With the physical exam, you have to meet weight standard, and your eyesight has to meet certain standards, too. From there, you get on a plane to boot camp in Cape May, New Jersey.
Are these the same steps one would have to take today?
The steps are pretty much the same now that they were back then. It’s probably a little bit more competitive now because of the economic downturn. The Coast Guard is drawing its force down right now and isn’t taking as many people as it was then.
How much does it pay?
Pay is the same for all five of the armed services. That information is available at http://www.militaryfactory.com/military_pay_scale.asp. It varies depending on your experience, education level, and whether you’re an officer or enlisted.
What does it take to move up to in rank?
For a petty officer, the typical track is that you enlist, go to boot camp, come out as an E-2 or E-3, non-rated personnel. From there you go to an operational unit or a shore unit. While at that unit, you apply for your Class A school, the technical training that gets you ready for the specialty you want to be in – for example an aviation survival technician or boatswain mate (a small boat driver, among other things). After the training, you get assigned to a unit where they will use your operational expertise. After that, advancement depends on performance (which is evaluated semi-annually), semi-annual service-wide examinations, and award points. The points earned from these three facets put you on the advancement list.
Officer promotion differs from enlisted advancement in that it is based mainly on performance.
What does the daily life of Coast Guard aircraft pilot look like?
It’s different every day. Three to four days a week, I’m on the flight schedule, flying training missions, law enforcement patrols as well as other Coast Guard missions. I’m on duty one to two days per week. This is much like a fire house, where someone is always on-call in case a mariner or someone else is in trouble. We work from 3:00 pm to 3:00 pm. On that typical day, you come in, relieve the off-going crew, fly a training mission that night, spend the night at the Sector, and then maybe fly the next day, but not always.
When I’m not on the flight schedule, I’m in my office doing administrative work. This might mean working on unit instructions, which tell our unit how it should operate. I do a lot of work with awards, to recognize those people that are doing outstanding work in their normal day-to-day duties, or maybe they went out and saved somebody. I review enlisted evaluations and ensure the proper functioning of the unit.
What do you find most rewarding about this work?
Helping people who are in trouble is very satisfying. When I was stationed in Astoria, Oregon, we rescued a girl who had fallen a long way off a cliff, we picked her up off the beach, flew her to Portland, and then went back home. A couple days later, I was on another mission in the Portland area and went to visit her in the hospital. You wouldn’t believe the reaction of the family, they were so appreciative. I’ve also talked to fisherman after we’ve rescued them. They’re always so grateful.
And most challenging?
The weather is the hardest part when flying. We moved here from Kodiak, Alaska where the weather was horrendous. The weather has made the flying, at times, the most challenging thing. For example, I was sent on a rescue west of Dutch Harbor. A person had sliced off four of their fingers in the fish processing equipment on board their ship. The vessel was maybe 300 feet long or better. Hoisting looks routine, but it’s not easy, even in the daytime. But of course we got the call at night. On top of that, they were in fog. We didn’t see them until we were probably an eighth of a mile away. They were pitching pretty good, too. It was the hardest hoist I’ve ever had to do.
What kind of person do you think is best suited for work in the Coast Guard.
It definitely takes someone who is altruistic, selfless, and hardworking because the work is not easy. It helps to have a positive attitude because when you’re in the work of serving others, being positive is very important. We’re also looking for very smart people. Aviation in particular is a challenging field because it’s very technical.
Can you give any additional advice for someone who’s considering this line of work?
The Coast Guard is very big on volunteerism. If you can show that you’ve been involved in any kind of volunteer work, particularly in leadership roles, you’ll be a more attractive candidate. That’s true on both the enlisted and the officer side.