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    Coast Guard Training Center Cape May: Leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic

    Coast Guard Training Center Cape May: Leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic

    Photo By Chief Warrant Officer Timothy Tamargo | CAPE MAY, N.J. - Chief Petty Officer Dave Knapp, a section commander and interim...... read more read more

    Written by Chief Petty Officer David Knapp and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Timothy Tamargo

    “Attention on deck!” With these words, Capt. Kathy Felger, the commanding officer of Training Center Cape May, addressed the four companies-in-training at an all-hands in the base gym Friday, March 13, heralding an unprecedented change in recruit training.

    Nearly every week since 1948, recruits have decided to set out on a new career course in the Coast Guard, traditionally beginning those journeys from Military Entrance Processing Stations (MEPS) across the nation and converging on the Philadelphia Airport USO. When every member of their assigned group has arrived, they board the infamous buses that carry them straight to the yellow triangles in front of Sexton Hall on a Tuesday evening. There, company commanders -- CCs for short -- greet these new recruits with a voracious welcome. This begins their 8-week training program.

    COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on life in the United States as well as the Coast Guard. Cape May County and Training Center Cape May, situated at the southern end of New Jersey, were at first relatively insulated. The town is seasonal, often sleepy; there aren’t many visitors in the winter and there were a few weeks where no recruit shipping was scheduled. But once concern for the virus became national and threatened to become local, the Training Center quickly began developing their plan for action.

    Training Center staff, CCs, and the recruit families were just as concerned as the recruits when the virus began to catch the attention of the world. The anxiety was everywhere. New Jersey shut schools, businesses closed, and the public was ordered to shelter in place. The Coast Guard at large canceled leave and restricted movements. The Training Center accelerated graduations, restricted guest attendance, served boxed meals, and canceled all leave for recruits headed to their new duty stations.

    Company commanders had their own unique stressors -- the fear that they would bring the virus home to their family, or that recruits would contract the virus and spread it to the company or others on base. They began calling their supervisors for guidance; wondering together what they should do and what would work best to keep everyone safe. Beyond the service’s already complex missions, this was unlike anything anyone had ever been asked to do. They had to come to work in an environment with an invisible, completely unknown, and unpredictable variable. Most of all, they knew they had to continue with recruit training, providing fundamentally trained and physically fit personnel to the service. More than ever, that mission could not be allowed to fail. Faced with a new enemy in COVID-19, they needed to plan for taking care of the people who enabled the mission in the first place.

    Things started off simple with the allotment of additional time for extra cleaning and sanitation. CCs made their usual rounds with genuine care, treating the recruits as they would their own family, and watching closely to make sure that all cleaning was completed to their strict standards. They scrubbed their hands and used hand sanitizer religiously. When they went home, they stopped at the door to remove their shoes before heading straight to the washing machine to remove their uniforms, and then to the shower to mitigate any potential exposure to COVID-19 before beginning the process again the next day.

    The Chiefs: 100 years of leadership tested

    One of the most impactful groups on the regiment during the crisis was that of the section commanders, the chief petty officers responsible for the safety, discipline, and training of CCs and the recruits under their command.

    They came together from the very beginning; creating clear courses of action to mitigate the potential spread of the virus and to continue training recruits for the fleet. Safety of personnel is always a concern; without them, the Coast Guard’s missions grind to a halt. Section chiefs provided leadership up and down, from those in the most junior training companies to the most senior personnel responsible for making the decisions as to how recruit training could be carried out – safely, and appropriate for this formative military environment.
    “Our role as chiefs is to support the command, disseminate orders, and above all else take care of our people. There were a lot of unknown variables early on,” said Master Chief Petty Officer Randall Lawrence, the battalion commander at Training Center Cape May. “A big part of our job was to maintain the integrity of our training program while dealing effectively with the rapidly changing circumstances. Our goal was to provide a sense of normalcy to the 56-person staff and our recruit population.”
    There was a lot of flexibility needed to overcome the challenges caused by the virus. The chiefs pushed changes, maintained communications, acted as a conduit to the command to bring up and address important issues, and communicated changes to staffing and the recruit training schedule. Being able to change roles, changing covers sort to speak, showed adaptability and agility in the team.

    Chief Petty Officer Dave Knapp, the interim assistant battalion commander and a storekeeper in the Coast Guard, is one of these chiefs.
    “Humility is a sterling quality of any great chief or leader and Chief Knapp embodies and embraces that,” said Lawrence. “He remained focused on the staff and their well-being. He is a genuine leader and doesn’t hesitate to share his own personal challenges and past experiences. He inspired trust and built rapport as the assistant battalion commander and never hesitated to roll his sleeves up and put in the time and effort necessary to achieve positive results.
    “Chief Knapp is not only an exceptional leader but just an awesome human being at his core,” said Master Chief Petty Officer Dave Pace, the command master chief for the base. “I have met very few Coast Guardsmen that have his dedication and professionalism every day they put on the uniform. It is extremely evident when you see him in action leading people on the regiment. I can't say enough about how awesome of a leader Chief Knapp is.”

    “I feel as if my career prepared me for this moment,” said Knapp. “I have been fortunate to be put into positions of trust during major storms and events. I think that is what set me up for this situation as well as my experience of being a prior company commander.”

    The environment the team created during COVID-19 had not been done in recent memory. The chiefs constantly had to revise, implement, and execute plans that had been cemented just the day before to meet ever-changing guidelines from the Center for Disease Control, the Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard, and the state of New Jersey. What they came up with was a Restriction on Movement plan, or ROM.

    Some of the decisions included shortening boot camp, increased social distancing, new disinfecting guidelines, and significant restrictions to leave and liberty. The stress on the regiment was both real and tangible; the leadership, experience, and training of the chiefs were put to the test.

    “I had to make the best decisions and solve problems for a pandemic that I had never been specifically trained for,” said Knapp. “I had to tell people that despite stay-at-home orders and the scary news of people dying from the pandemic in the U.S., we had to come to work to make sure the Coast Guard could complete its mission in an environment that could present the possibility of exposure to the virus.”

    “This weighed heavy on me because I had to ask what felt like the impossible from people,” Knapp said. “The one thing I did tell them was that I was only asking from them what I was doing myself. I was working in the same offices and having the same interactions with the recruits and staff that they were going to have. We were in it together.”

    The chief’s anchor has always held weight and visibility in the Coast Guard. During COVID, as with other responses, that mettle was tested. The pressure was immense.

    “I believe that Chiefs feel that weight acutely because junior personnel are looking to us for guidance on what should be done,” said Knapp. “We don't always have the right answers, and we are processing emotions along with them. To me, that’s exactly what applies here. We were unable to control the COVID-19 situation, yet the mission must go on,” he said.

    From the Meaning of the Anchor: Lastly, the chain fouled around the anchor is the ‘sailor's disgrace’ to remind a Chief that there may be times when there are circumstances beyond their control in the performance of duty, yet a Chief must still complete the tasks. It is during these times that humility and fortitude learned ages ago at initiation or on bitter experience are brought to bear.

    There are a lot of leaders at Training Center Cape May who inspire trust and credibility because of the very nature of how the Coast Guard brings up enlisted personnel. Our people are taught from the very moment they arrive on how to react to tough situations, and it all starts here in boot camp. Recruits are placed in tough situations to see how they’ll react under pressure.

    “I feel like I am one of those trusted people here because during a time of crisis I have a tendency to triage what needs to be done in the moment and how people might feel going through it,” said Knapp. “I also call and check in with my staff in the evening to see how they are doing. I want them to know that I care – that the Coast Guard cares.”

    The legacy of the Coast Guard chief petty officer has a rich history; every day for the last 100 years, that title has been earned and the holder of the rank tested in the crucible of life.

    “I think it's vitally important to have deck-plate leadership in times where the crew is feeling stress and uncertainty,” said Pace. “Chiefs not only provide guidance and direction to their members but also the compassionate leadership that ensures each member and their significant others are doing okay and have the support they need. The Chiefs network grows stronger than ever during times the service is tested.”

    Recognizing performance and effort

    If the section commanders provided the leadership and support, the 56-person CC staff, including the lead company commanders and their assistants, carried out training recruits tactically.

    The Instructional Systems Branch (ISB) developed modified plans for all companies in training. Because recruits were in different phases of training, each one had a unique plan tailored specifically for the company. Company commanders worked with ISB to identify gaps and conflicts within the new and abbreviated schedules by getting a firm grasp on issues affecting the companies in training and trying to minimize those impacts on the recruits going forward.

    “Every CC and staff person stationed here at Training Center Cape May cares about their recruits,” said Knapp. “Throughout a whole career, no one -- and I mean no one -- ever forgets their Company Commanders. We want to send only the best to the field because our names and reputations go with them.”

    Some used their talents to develop a supplementary program designed to help keep recruits that were struggling up to speed with the company. That allowed the CCs to lead the main company concentrating on the big picture and meeting time objectives with a heavily modified schedule.
    “It was truly inspiring to see our team step up, adapt and show an unparalleled commitment to our mission’s success, often performing tasks and assignments they've never been called upon to do,” said Lawrence. “I'm privileged to work alongside such an exceptional group and I'm continuously in awe of their perseverance.”
    CCs and instructors had to be flexible and agile to carry out the plans to graduate recruits who met the high standards required to succeed in the service. In a twist of fate, by chance the companies in training at the time of the COVID outbreak were all led by the most junior petty officers on the staff. Petty Officers 2nd Class Joscelyn Greenwell, Joshua Duran, and Reilly Burrus led recruit companies M-198, N-198, and O-198.

    Greenwell, a boatswains mate, was in her first Lead Company Commander role with M-198, and was halfway through training when the pandemic hit. From the very beginning, she had the welfare of her team and recruits on her mind and improvised ways to complete recruit training in a safe and orderly way ensuring all recruits met the standards.

    “She is known for her genuine care for everyone, but also is firm and focused on getting the best out of her crew,” said Knapp. She developed a strict cleaning regimen to protect her shipmates, sanitizing their most-touched surfaces so the company wouldn’t get sick. She was steps ahead of the others. Her actions inspired a whole series of new cleaning guidelines for the regiment.

    Duran, a machinery technician, was also in his first Lead Company Commander role with N-198 and during the pandemic came up with better ways to accomplish tasks adapting to constantly changing information.

    “During the pandemic, he remained calm, cool, and collected,” said Knapp. Duran brought his real-world life experiences to the company which was made up of people with little experience or had recently graduated high school. He set the example for the recruits -- their job was to focus on training and let him worry about the pandemic.

    Burrus, a maritime enforcement specialist, was in her second company as a lead and had O-198 from the beginning of the pandemic.

    “She is an honest and transparent leader who compassionately took care of her people and fought to make sure they got the training they needed to be ready for the Coast Guard,” said Knapp.

    She was told in week two of training that her company was going to graduate in week six and that she had to overcome obstacles never placed before a lead company commander. With improvisation and adaptability now at the forefront of recruit training, she communicated with the section commander and her team every day, endlessly reviewing the mission and how they could do it safely. Her actions became a model for the new ROM plan, and the recruit training schedule.

    The three companies’ staff were nominated by Knapp for recognition by the Coast Guard’s most senior enlisted member, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Jason Vanderhaden.

    “One day I saw all the Lead Company Commander's outside marching their companies and it dawned on me that we have the most junior personnel on the front line of the pandemic,” said Knapp. “For two of them, this was their first company as a lead CC and they were performing as a seasoned chief petty officer would. This was awe-inspiring to me, and just shows that if you give your junior personnel a set of guidelines and trust them, you will be amazed at what they can achieve.”

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    NEWS INFO

    Date Taken: 05.15.2020
    Date Posted: 05.15.2020 12:54
    Story ID: 370089
    Location: US

    Web Views: 209
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