Inside the Coast Guard’s 8-week boot camp where recruits go through extreme physical tests and brutal ‘smoke sessions’

  • We spent four days inside the United States Coast Guard’s intense, eight-week basic training program in Cape May, New Jersey.
  • Coast Guard recruits undergo an intense journey that’s heavy on both academic and physical challenges.
  • What sets it apart are the brutal “smoke sessions,” where recruits are disciplined as a group for mistakes made by individuals in their respective companies.
  • We were embedded at Training Center Cape May for four days, allowing us to see different companies at various stages of the program, culminating with the emotional graduation ceremony on the Friday of week eight.

Recruit: 158, 157!Petty Officer Cichosz: Louder.Recruit:156!Cichosz:Louder! Recruit:155!Cichosz:Louder! Open your mouth!Recruit:154! 153!Cichosz:Go around!Recruit:Aye, aye, Petty Officer Cichosz!Petty Officer Misiuda: Open your mouth, man! Keep going! Did I tell you to stop?Recruit: Aye, aye, Petty Officer Misiuda!Narrator:This is Coast Guard boot camp. Recruit:Zero, zero! One!Petty Officer Cichosz: Go away!Recruit: Aye, aye, Petty Officer Cichosz!Narrator: Before they get to serve in the United States Coast Guard, all recruits have to graduate from the Coast Guard’s eight-week basic training program.Petty Officer Gunn: Get louder than that!Recruit:Aye, aye, Petty Officer Gunn!Petty Officer Gunn: Get away from me!Recruit:Aye, aye, Petty Officer Gunn!Chief Brandon Wheeley: It’s not easy. There’s a reason why the program is designed the way it is. We have people from all walks of life that come here. It is a small portion of the youth of this nation that are at least attempting to raise their hand and do something bigger than themselves.Narrator:Basic training happens here, at United States Coast Guard Training Center Cape May, located at the southernmost point of New Jersey. But before they get to Cape May, all incoming recruits report to the USO Lounge at the Philadelphia airport. It’s where they spend their final moments before beginning their journeys as Coast Guardsmen.Recruit:Why am I doing this? I don’t know, it sounded like a good opportunity. Recruit:My grandfather was in the Coast Guard.Recruit:My mum’s whole side of the family was in the Navy. But I didn’t really feel like the Navy was my calling. The Coast Guard felt right.Recruit:I don’t have a ton of money, man. I don’t come from money. So, I couldn’t really afford school. So, this kind of seemed like my only option to do this without accruing a large amount of debt, so.Recruit:I’m most nervous about – honestly just the yelling. It’s something you don’t get used to in day-to-day life as a civilian. Mike Schultz:This is the last non-stressful meeting you’re going to have for the next several weeks. It’s a learning experience. Their teaching methods are just a tad different than what you’re used to. They’re gonna walk into a world that’s very different for them. It’s going to be very intense so that when they go out into the fleets, stations, and cutters, they’re ready to help and ready to perform.Narrator:The incoming recruits enjoy what little downtime they have left…Schultz:Get out in the hallway! Let’s go!Narrator:Before they line up, and head to the bus that will drive them to Cape May.Recruit Coordinator: OK, Coast Guard, tough eight weeks ahead of you. What’s the motto of the Coast Guard?Recruits: Semper Paratus.Recruit Coordinator: I can’t hear you!Recruits: Semper Paratus! Narrator:The motto of the Coast Guard is “Semper Paratus.” It means “Always ready.” These new recruits have about two hours to get ready for what happens the second their bus ride is over. Company Commander: Hurry up! Let’s go! Move! Get on the triangle!Recruits:Aye, aye, sir!Company Commander: Aye, aye, what?Recruit:Aye, aye, sir!Company Commander: Hurry up!Chief Brandon Wheeley: Obviously, there’s the shock and awe factor to it. Everything goes haywire for a little bit.Recruits: Aye, aye, sir!Wheeley:While we do need to instill that little bit of fear and sense of urgency in them that evening…Company Commander: Tuck your shirt in!Recruit:Yes, sir!Wheeley:The main goal is: get them in the building and get them processed, and get the paperwork where it needs to go, and get them in the rack. Do it now! Aye, aye!Recruits:Aye, aye, sir!Narrator:The first incarnation of the Coast Guard was born in 1790. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton lobbied Congress to construct a fleet of ten large ships, or “cutters,” intended to enforce tariffs on vessels entering U.S. ports. In 1915, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service merged with the U.S. Lifesaving Service to form what we know today as the United States Coast Guard. Since then, the Coast Guard has been involved in every major United States military conflict. Today, the Coast Guard has more than 40,000 men and women on active duty, and over 30,000 more serving in reserve and auxiliary capacities. And it all begins here. On a cold week in November, we spent four days at Training Center Cape May, allowing us to observe different companies at various stages of the eight-week boot camp. Recruit:Bootcamp, itself – it is whatever you make it. You do what you’re told. Yes, sir. No, sir. Aye aye, sir. And it’s as simple as that.Recruits: Aye, aye, ma’am!Narrator:First, the new recruits are issued uniforms.Doctor:Next in line. Come on, this way.Narrator:And after a medical exam and standard vaccinations, the male recruits get a free haircut. Then, it’s time for the initial physical fitness assessment, where the recruits have to do as many push-ups and sit-ups as they can in one minute. Finally, there’s a one-and-a-half mile run. Male recruits have 14 minutes to finish the run. Female recruits have 17 minutes. Not every recruit passes on their first try, but they do get another chance.Instructor:You have five minutes to finish this test. Most of you will finish in three minutes.

Narrator: All Coast Guard recruits have to pass a three-part swimming test.Instructor:Go ahead, step to the edge.Narrator:First, jumping into the pool from a six-foot platform. Instructor:Step off!Narrator: Then, a 100-meter swim. And last, they have to tread water for five minutes. Coast Guard recruits don’t have to be expert swimmers. Remedial swimmers are allowed to wear flotation devices. After all of this physical exertion, the recruits have undoubtedly worked up an appetite… which means it’s time for lunch.. Or as it’s known at Cape May, “chow.” But chow isn’t a time for relaxation or chatting with your fellow recruits. In fact, it’s the complete opposite.Company Commander: What is it?Narrator:In fact, it’s the complete opposite.Recruit:Aye, aye, Petty Officer Sanchez!Wheeley:Let’s go! Move your feet! How about you move a little faster, man? Nope, nope! Get out! That’s not where you sit! That’s not where you sit! You have someone right there telling you where to go!It should be one of the most relaxing times they have, you would think, but that is when all eyes are on them. You’re not special! And you didn’t shave last night like we told you! A razor never touched your face! As soon as you get back from medical, I am taking you in there and ensuring that you shave!Recruit:You probably think that you get a little break from the Company Commanders, but when you go to your seats, the Company Commanders are staring you down and asking you questions.Petty Officer Greenwell: Tell me about a class-bravo fire. Who was Alex Haley? Tell me about Commodore Bertholf.Narrator:Before they can eat, recruits are randomly stopped by company commanders, and tested on required Coast Guard knowledge. Petty Officer Greenwell: Go away, Davis.Recruit:Aye, aye, Petty Officer Greenwell!Narrator:Recruits who answer correctly are allowed to pass and eat their meals.Petty Officer Greenwell: Carry on. Tell about Douglas Munro. It’s not on the deck! Start writing!Recruit:Aye, aye, Petty Officer Greenwell!Petty Officer Greenwell: Start writing! Start writing! Start writing! Narrator:Those who fail to answer correctly are ordered to document their mistakes on a performance tracker, which is collected and reviewed every day by their Company Commanders.Wheeley: It just goes to show you that there is no downtime in basic training. Misiuda:Who the freak are you?!Wheeley:It’s a sense of urgency in everything we do. And it really, all at the end of the day is there to assist the recruits and keep them sharp.Petty Officer Greenwell: Carry on.Recruit:Aye, aye, Petty Officer Greenwell!Company Commander: Ah! You don’t respond to “carry on!”Narrator:And as boot camp goes on, it doesn’t get any easier outside the galley. Misiuda:We’re going outside to play some games because of some stuff that you did. Narrator:If an individual recruit makes a mistake in boot camp, the entire company pays for it.Misiuda:So, this is what I don’t understand. I don’t understand why we’re in week zero six. We still have gear adrift in our damn squad bays! We still can’t push in the hooks on our freaking racks – our laundry hooks! We’re being lazy, Sierra, aren’t we? Recruits:Yes, Petty Officer Misiuda!Misiuda:I’m glad you agree. Fire, fire fire!Recruits:Fire, fire, fire!Narrator: When recruits hear their Company Commander say, “Fire, fire, fire,” it often means they’re about to get “smoked.”Misiuda: Find some real estate!Wheeley: The “smoke sessions,” if you will, are the physical exertion of energy to re-instill to them that what they were doing was not the correct thing. Recruits:Zero, one! One!Misiuda: Stop anticipating my command! We’ll just keep playing this game until you get louder! Straight out in front of you!I was walking through their squad bays. Their racks weren’t made properly. Just little, minute, attention-to-detail things that they should know as week zero six recruits, so they got punished for it.Recruit: Getting smoked is rough. It’s hard to push through sometimes, but at the end of it you feel better because you made it through You feel like It makes you stronger.Company Commander: Get on the deck!Misiuda:Oh, did we lose count? Do we need to start over?Recruits:No, Petty Officer Misiuda!Misiuda:Just do one good pushup!Usually in this week of training, we don’t really discipline them as much, but we still have to uphold standards, and if they’re not meeting those standards, then that’s when we use these tools. Have we had enough? Recruits:Yes, Petty Officer Misiuda!Misiuda:We need to be just as tough as the Army, the Air Force, the Marines, and the Navy. So, we also have to be held up to that standard as well.Petty Officer Gunn: Minute two-six, probation, on the quarterdeck!Narrator:Recruits who don’t meet the standards of their Company Commanders are put on probation, which is signified by wearing a red belt.Cichosz:Are you even using your brain, Press?Gunn:If you get put on probation, when you’re falling behind the company, you have an attitude problem. You wear a red belt that says, “I need special attention. I need extra help. I need you to put the spotlight on me for a couple of days.”Narrator:Recruits in need of even MORE motivation enter a program known as RAMP, which stands for Recruit Attitude Motivational Program. Recruits in RAMP are required to wear a red vest. Wheeley:RAMP is a program we have in place for the recruits who don’t seem to grasp the basic fundamentals of getting on board and aligning themselves with the Coast Guard core values. It gives them a chance to step back, realise the bigger picture and that it means more than just the individuality in which brought the recruits to the training center. It’s how they operate as a team and as a cohesive unit.Narrator:When we filmed this, these recruits were completely unsupervised, and weren’t being ordered by their Company Commanders. Gunn:Get over here, Wentler! Get over here, Wentler! I don’t understand why the hell everyone is counting but you! And then you cross that threshold when I can see you, then you start doing the right thing. Get over here. Get over here. Get over here. Recruit:Aye, aye, Petty Officer Gunn!Gunn:Chair sit. Feet shoulder-width apart right now! Doing the right thing when no one’s looking. Say it, you.Recruit: Doing the right thing when no one’s looking!Gunn:Louder. Recruit:Doing the right thing when no one’s looking!Gunn:Louder!Recruit:Doing the right thing when no one’s looking!Gunn:Louder!Recruit:Doing the right thing when no one’s looking! Doing the right thing when no one’s looking! Doing the right thing when no one’s looking! Doing the right thing when no one’s looking!Gunn:Shut your mouth!Recruit:Aye, aye, Petty Officer Gunn!Gunn:So, tell me exactly why, why you think it’s ok to do whatever the hell you want, and then someone sees you and then, oops, wake up! Time for me to start doing the right thing. Not good to go! Not good to go!Recruit:Aye, aye, Petty Officer Gunn!Gunn:Get upright!Recruit:Aye, aye, Petty Officer Gunn!Gunn:Fly away from me!Recruit:Aye, aye, Petty Officer Gunn!Narrator:In addition to undergoing intense physical and psychological challenges, the recruits actually spend the bulk of their time in the classroom. Wheeley:The Coast Guard basic training is heavy on academics. It’s almost – we use the term sometimes that it’s like drinking information through a fire hose.Narrator:Recruits are trained to fight fires. This so-called “wet room” is used to simulate a fire on a Coast Guard cutter, giving the recruits a realistic fire-fighting scenario. The recruits are trained in marksmanship…Recruits: Shift my rudder, aye, aye!Narrator:And seamanship.Instructor:We’re going to practice on our knots right now, so everybody get out your lanyards really quick.Narrator:While filming in this class, one recruit gestured towards our camera. An officer spotted this, and while the recruit was privately reprimanded for the offence, the entire company would pay the price.

Gunn:You people want to act like actual crazy people all day at seamanship? I’ve got a tool for that. Two zero zero seconds back on line with a full canteen. Go!Recruits:Aye, aye, Petty Officer Gunn!

Gunn: Fly, fly, fly! Little blue blurs! Little blue blurs!Ears. Recruits:Open!Gunn:Feet shoulder-width apart right now.Recruits:Aye, aye, Petty Officer Gunn!Gunn:Get your canteens above your skulls!Recruits:Aye, aye, Petty Officer Gunn!Gunn:Fingers interlaced, cap facing the overhead!Recruits:Aye, aye, Petty Officer Gunn!Gunn:You people have absolutely no self-discipline! Absolutely no self-discipline! So, you’re just gonna remind yourselves: We have no self-discipline! Go!Recruits:We have no self-discipline! We have no self-discipline! We have no self-discipline!Gunn:Get your biceps to your ears! Get your biceps to your ears! Recruits:We have no self-discipline! We have no self-discipline!Gunn:Scream your face off! Get louder! Get louder!Recruits:We have no self-discipline! We have no self-discipline! We have no self-discipline!Gunn:Get it up! Up! Up!Recruits:We have no self-discipline! We have no self-discipline! Aye, aye, Petty Officer Gunn!Gunn:Hey, Lindsay, you taking a nice little break now that I turned my back?Recruit:No, Petty Officer Gunn!Gunn:Let’s add a few minutes for that there, Victor. Thank you, shipmate, thank you.Recruits:Thank you, shipmate, thank you!Gunn:We have no self-discipline!Recruits:We have no self-discipline! We have no self-discipline! Recruit:You might think a small water bottle with water in it isn’t that heavy, but after 20 minutes, your shoulders kind of get a little heavy. And once the sweat starts dripping into your eyes, you want to definitely put it down. But let me advise you, do not put it down because you will be holding the water bottle up for a longer period of time.Recruits:Aye, aye, Petty Officer Gunn!Gunn:Taking a nice little break, Yelton? Taking a nice little break, Yelton?

Recruit: No, Petty Officer Gunn!Gunn: We have no self-discipline!Recruits: We have no self-discipline! We have no self-discipline!Gunn:It’s immediate recognition for their mess-ups. It’s immediate recognition for something that they’re doing wrong. I let them set their own pace, you know, and say, “All of you as a team are gonna keep it up. Oops he didn’t make it. Let’s all start over.” It’s really productive.Recruits:Aye, aye, Petty Officer Gunn!Gunn: You taking a nice little rest, there with your hands, Van Brunt? Crazy how “fingers interlaced on the front of the canteen” was the rule and you broke it. Start over!Recruits: Aye, aye, Petty Officer Gunn!Recruit:Very challenging to get through it. You just almost laugh at your own pain because you’re out of breath from screaming so loud. Your shoulders are burning It’s a huge relief when the whistle blows and you’re told to put your arms down.Recruits:Aye, aye, Petty Officer Gunn!Gunn:You want to make a deal, Victor?Recruits:Yes, Petty Officer Gunn!Gunn:Ears. Recruits:Open!Gunn:Ears!Recruits:Open!Gunn:Drop the canteens.Recruits:Aye, aye, Petty Officer Gunn!Narrator:Before graduation, recruits receive their orders for where they will be stationed after they leave Cape May.Chief Rowton: Davis! Where’d you want to go?Recruit:Chief Rowton! Seaman recruit Davis! I want to go to Puerto Rico!Rowton:You’re going all the way across to Hawaii. The exact opposite area. Good enough?Recruit:Yes, Chief Rowton!Rowton:Alright, you can’t get Puerto Rico, you got Hawaii. That’s pretty good, right?Recruit:Yes, Chief Rowton! Hawaii!Rowton:Where’d you want to go?Recruit:Chief Rowton! Seaman recruit Budhram! Anywhere warm!Narrator:Recruits can request the region or district where they’d prefer to be stationed after graduation.Greenwell:Where’d you want to go?Recruit:Petty Officer Greenwell! Seaman recruit Barker! On any Coast Guard cutter!Greenwell:Winner. Coast Guard cutter Shackle. South Portland. Narrator:But their requests aren’t always granted.Rowton:Where’d you want to go?Recruit: Chief Rowton! Seaman recruit Dowling! California!Rowton: You’re going to Alabama. Woo!Recruit:Alabama!Narrator:On the Friday of week eight, the recruits are ready for graduation. Friends and family gather for their first glimpse of the recruits since the beginning of boot camp.Captain Owen Gibbons: They feel joy and accomplishment. They know that they have done something that is physically and emotionally challenging. They feel satisfied that they have done that. Their parents are impressed because many times the parents see them for the first time as an adult, as an accomplished adult. We get a lot of credit for the change that goes on here. In a lot of cases, we’re just the catalyst. The recruits responds to the impetus themselves. They formulate the plan to change themselves as individuals and as a team, and they meet their Company Commanders’ standards. That’s the “you’ve actually done it.” And I think that’s what you see in the room today.Petty Officer Wilderman: Disband!Recruits:Mission complete, Petty Officer Wilderman!Narrator:Meanwhile, at Sexton Hall, boot camp is just beginning for Whiskey Company. That’s the group we first met met at the Philadelphia airport. Company Commander: Attention on deck!Narrator:Before the company is officially formed, they’re addressed by Captain Owen Gibbons, the commanding officer of Coast Guard Training Center Cape May.Gibbons:I can make you the following three promises: Promise one: this will be hard. Do not be afraid of that. Change is difficult. But if you give us your all, we will prove that you can do more than you ever thought yourself capable of.Recruits:Yes sir!Gibbons:Promise number two: I insist that you meet every single standard of this program in order to graduate, but we will assist you to meet those standards. Do you understand?Recruits:Yes sir!Gibbons:That assistance will not always be comforting, but it will develop in you the knowledge, skills, and abilities – the attitudes – that you will need to leave here and immediately begin performing frontline Coast Guard missions in the service of the American public. Do you understand that?Recruits:Yes sir!Gibbons:Promise number three: you will be safe. Let me say that again. You will be safe. You will train in an environment that is free from intimidation or discrimination based on your race, creed, colour, gender, religion or orientation. You will not be assaulted. And you will not be harassed. Do you understand that?Recruits: Yes sir!Gibbons:You can do this… Every single person in this room is capable of completing this program. And the truth is, we need you to do this. All over our Coast Guard, there are units that are sailing short-handed. There are empty racks. Because those units are waiting for you to complete your training and to join them as they serve the American public. But the only question on our mind is: are you ready?Recruits:Yes sir!Gibbons:We’re about to find out.