This was first published in two parts in the U.S. Coast Guard Auxillary Flotilla 38 August and September newsletters. 

By Isabella Balsamo

I am 21 years old and was born and raised in East Greenwich, a member of the EGHS Class of 2015. Growing up close to the water might be the greatest thing that ever happened to me. My love for boating and the water started when I began to sail at the age of 6. Attending sailing school (Greenwich Bay Sailing Academy),  I was labeled a “natural helmsman” by my instructors. Prior to joining the Coast Guard, I attended a year and a half of community college. I found myself disinterested in the courses I was enrolled in. I knew there had to be something else besides school that could teach me a new skill set. There had to be a career path that would better fit my personal makeup.  

Isabella with her brother Michael and dog Buddy at the Coast Guard Station, Point Judith.

My neighbor, a retired United States Navy veteran, highly recommended the United States Coast Guard as a possible good fit for me. Growing up I had never considered joining the military, but figured I would look into it. After doing research, my eyes were opened to the many opportunities the United States Coast Guard had to offer. After a long and trying application process, I received my basic training date. 

Nov. 28, 2017, was a day that changed my life forever. Eight long weeks later, on Jan. 19, 2018, I graduated from basic training. Ten days later I reported on board Coast Guard Cutter Paul Clark stationed out of Miami Beach, Fla. The Paul Clark is one of 34 commissioned 154-foot fast-response cutters. FRC’s stationed out of south Florida conduct missions that include search and rescue, migrant interdiction, drug interdiction, and fishery patrols. 

Since the day I reported to on board CGC Paul Clark, I have had many amazing experiences, have been presented with endless opportunities and have assumed great responsibilities. While on board I earned my qualifications in Junior Officer of the Day, Quarter Master of the Watch, Boarding Team Member, Basic and Advanced Damage Control and Boat Crewman. For the past year and a half I have not stopped working toward my next set of goals.

Once I enlisted I began to explore the different career opportunities available to me. It took me several months to decide, but I finally choose Boatswain’s Mate. I choose this rate because of my love for the outdoors and because it entails so many unique opportunities to become a strong leader. Also, it is the only enlisted rate in the Coast Guard that can hold a command position, which is something I might want to do in the future. In December 2018 I placed my name on the wait list for the A-School. From that moment on I have worked on qualifications and took tests that would prepare me for A-School.

I am now getting ready to depart the Paul Clark and transfer to Training Center Yorktown to begin A-School. This 13-week course is my next step towards advancement in the United States Coast Guard. In A-School I will receive specific training that will allow me to graduate as a Boatswain’s Mate Third Class. During the training, I will learn the basics of boat operations and establish a foundation for a future as a Boatswain’s Mate. Following school I will report to a new unit to serve the United States Coast Guard. I am looking forward to sharing with you all about my experiences and the training I undergo in A-School. 

During BM-A school, admiring the view from the Training Center Yorktown Pier.

Part 2: Boatswain’s Mate A School

On Sunday, Aug. 18,  at 1330 I reported outside of Lincoln Hall at United States Coast Guard Training Center Yorktown for Boatswain’s Mate A school. The rest of the class and I reported there wearing our tropical blue dress uniforms in formation waiting for the arrival of our class advisers. A few minutes after we had formed up both advisers exited the front doors to Lincoln Hall and approached us in silence. I could see out of the corner of my eye that they had stopped in front of the formation and glanced over all of us. A male voice broke the silence saying, “Good afternoon everyone. I am BM1 Jones and I am one of your class advisers.” Following that a female voice was heard. “Good afternoon. I am BM2 Slater and I am honored to have you all as my first class as an adviser here at the training center.” 

Immediately after that quick introduction they started uniform inspections. I stood there at the position of attention, straight faced and took a deep breath. They approached me searching for loose threads, crooked ribbons, unpressed blouses or trousers and scuffed or dull low quarters. “Very well,” BM1 Jones said as he stepped to his left to begin inspecting the person next to me. I exhaled slowly, relieved to have no discrepancies. I had prepared my uniform for several hours making sure everything was properly placed and in order to make a good first impression.

After BM1 Jones and BM2 Slater completed the inspection, they asked if there was anyone who felt comfortable taking charge and marching the class to Hamilton Hall. An arm was raised high in the air and the advisers asked who the individual to identify himself. “Joyce aye BM1 Jones,” he yelled. Seaman Joyce was brave enough to do so and continued to be the “unofficial” class leader for the rest of the week.

During week 01 we were told there were going to be three class jobs assigned throughout our time here. We were also told the people who held these leadership positions will be changing every four weeks to give others in the class a chance to hold the title and lead the class. “The jobs are class leader, class yeoman and class master at arms,” BM2 Slater said. On Wednesday, Aug. 21, we had to submit two paragraphs to the advisers stating why we want to become a Boatswain’s Mate and what leadership positions we have held in the past. Our advisers explained it would take a few days to read all 40 essays and designate 3 people as the class leaders.

Week 01: Week 01 was indoctrination week which consisted of ALP also known as Apprentice Leadership Program. ALP is taught in the first week of every A school in the U.S. Coast Guard. This week is important because each non-rate reporting to A school is there to successfully complete their schooling and graduate as the next pay grade (E-4). Becoming a petty officer takes on a lot of responsibility and requires great leadership skills. As a petty officer one will most likely have subordinates (non-rates) working directly under them. Therefore we need to become properly trained in order to take on a leadership role. I personally enjoyed the course and learned a lot from what was taught. I learned a lot about myself and it helped me think about what type of leader I want to become and things I can do to help myself get there.

Week 02: On Monday of Week 02 our class advisers stood at the front of the class getting ready to announce who they had selected for the class jobs. Over the weekend my classmates and I talked among ourselves trying to figure out who was going to be the class leader. We all predicted it be Seaman Joyce since he took charge all Week 01. Our prediction was wrong. Our advisers thanked all of us for writing our essays and said they were able to assign the three class leaders based on what people wrote. BM2 Slater then glanced down at the piece of paper in her hand and announced our first class yeoman to be Seaman Johnson. We all clapped as he walked to the advisers to revive his job folder.

Then BM2 Slater said, “Your first class leader is … Seaman Balsamo.”

It took me a second to realize she called my name because I was expecting it to be Joyce’s name she would call. I was in shock. I then went to the front of the classroom to receive my folder from BM2 Slater as she congratulated me. Inside the folder was a job description and the week’s class schedule and physical fitness schedule. The job description included the duties and responsibilities of the class leader. I was excited and nervous to take on the position, but knew I was fully capable of it.

The day was also the start of navigation week. Navigation week consisted of learning about several key concepts and skills involving small boat and cutter navigation. We learned how to plot positions on a chart, calculate time, speed and distance, calculate true wind, plot a track line, read a chart and aids to navigation. Each day we were taught a topic or topics and the following day we were tested on them. For the weekend we were assigned a large amount of homework. Most of the class stayed on base all weekend working on it. It was quite the workload.

Week 03: This week was a short week due to Labor Day. Also, the base was closed down on Friday due to Hurricane Dorian possibly coming our way. Luckily the storm did not affect the base and everyone was safe. The days we did have class were a continuation of Navigation where we learned about tides, currents, waves and weather.

Week 04: This week is known to be the most stressful week at Boatswain’s Mate A school. That’s because the whole week is dedicated to learning and preparing for the Deck Watch Officer test. This test is administered Tuesday of Week 05. It is 50 multiple choice questions on the navigation rules of the road. One must pass with a 90 percent in order to move on in BM A school. Before coming to A school, a candidate can take the test and if they successfully complete it they do not have to retake it in school. Luckily I took it before coming and did not have to deal with the stress of learning the whole book and all of the material in one week. Every day during this week I shared my knowledge with my fellow shipmates to prepare them as best as I could for their test on Tuesday. There were eight of us in the class who had passed prior to reporting, so we held study sessions for those who wanted and needed help understanding the material and concepts. This test is known to be one of the most difficult tests in the Coast Guard. The test is computer generated from a pool of over 3,000 questions. Not one test is the same. I could feel the stress level building within the class as the week went on.

Week 05: Started off Week 05 with class physical fitness, also known as PT. As a class we have PT every week at 0730 Monday through Thursday. The PT ranges from off base runs, gym circuits, sprints and swim circuits. The PT is lead by one the BM1’s from the BM A school instructor staff. I have a passion for fitness, so unlike most I look forward to waking up and starting each day with some sort of physical fitness. On Tuesday the class took the Deck Watch Officer test. The majority of the class passed, but there were a few who did not. Those who did not are given a chance to retake the test on Thursday of week 06. For the ones who passed prior to reporting, we were rewarded by doing PT with the senior BM class. That wasn’t much a reward to most.

Following that we joined the rest of the class in the classroom. The room was filled with smiles and a sense of relief was in the air as we entered. It was exciting to see how their hard work and studying paid off. Following the test, our class advisers and Chief O’Boyle came into the classroom. I had noticed that BM2 Slater was carrying a folder in her hands. Inside that folder were the papers that had our pick lists on them. This was the day we had all been waiting for.

BM2 Slater handed out a list to each person placing it face down on our desks. The anticipation was killing me. Chief O’Boyle is one of the BM school chiefs and he was there to explain to us how the picking processes worked and answer any questions the class had. I was getting nervous just thinking about how my next duty station was on the list on the other side of that paper. My heart began to race and Chief O’Boyle’s voice began to fade out. I came to attention as soon as the words, “One … two … three … flip them over,” came out of his mouth. I quickly flipped over the paper as my eyes ran frantically from top to bottom and side to side. My heartbeat came back to normal as I focused on reading all of the billets. I noticed there were a lot of small boat stations, a few cutters and a good mix of East Coast and West Coast posts. We were then told to flip the papers back over as we made a conference call with the Boatswain’s Mate job detailer. During the call he informed us about E-resumes and their importance and answered any questions. Following the call Chief O’Boyle let us look over the list again. He pointed out several units that were male-only billets so the females knew to eliminate those from their lists. “There is one-female only pick,” Chief O’Boyle said as my head popped up. I leaned in as he said, “Coast Guard Cutter Marcus Hanna, which is a 175 Buoy Tender out of South Portland, Maine.” My face lit up and I looked to the other women to my left to see their initial reaction. One of them looked extremely uninterested and the other smiled as well. I then highlighted the unit on my list to make sure I did research on it after class. I called my parents immediately after class to read them the list of units and get their opinions.

Week 06: This week was the start of Search and Rescue Execution where we learn about the mission of search and rescue and how to determine the correct search pattern and plot it. This was a course I attended prior to reporting to A school as well, but it was good to go through it again to get a refresh on the material. At the end of the course we must complete a 60-question multiple choice test and a practical portion of plotting four search patterns based off of scenarios. I had to do both of these again, but I thought it was in my best interest to do so. On Friday I successfully completed the test and practical. Friday was also the day we must submit our final pick list. I had my list made out with the 29 picks ranked highest to lowest in terms of what I wanted. The way the picks are determined is by the detailer, but they determine who gets what based on class ranking. One’s class rank consists of all test scores and physical fitness points. Physical fitness points are earned for exceeding the physical fitness test standards when completing the PT tests. All of these scores are added up and determine one’s class rank.

The class advisers do not share our class ranking with us so that there are no issues with students fighting about what units they want when creating their lists. I submitted my finalized list that night and I’m expecting orders sometime during Week 07. I hope I get my first pick and I will let you know next month where my next duty station will be.

Semper Paratus

Editor’s Note: We will follow Bella’s adventures with her next journal entry.