When making presentations to veteran groups, I enjoy stirring up the cauldron of interservice rivalry by cracking jokes about the different branches of service — all in good fun, of course. I do not, however, crack jokes about the United States Coast Guard. This under-appreciated branch of service has been in every war since our nation’s birth; they’ve taken casualties, proven to be fearless in combat, and seek no glory. Yet when these silent warriors return stateside, they go right back into harm’s way 24/7, running down smugglers, interdicting illegal drugs, saving and handling refugees at sea, and rescuing amateurish boaters who challenge the sea in less-than-seaworthy watercraft. And when examined in depth, one will quickly comprehend that the Coast Guard is a Jack-of-all-trades military organization: They do it all because they have to.
Born in DeKalb County in 1988, self-admitted military brat Amanda Doughty moved with her family at a young age to Madison County, Florida. She said of the rural surroundings, “There wasn’t much of a town in Madison County, that’s for sure” (the census reported the city of Madison inhabited by 2,834 residents in 2010). “Yeah, I was a farm girl, gathered eggs every morning, fed the pigs … I liked it, and still have chickens to this day. Dad was in the Navy. We moved around a lot; I never stayed in one place more than two years. But since my grandparents live in Madison County, I always go back there whenever possible.”
Doughty’s father had one of the most hazardous jobs in the Navy: an underwater welder. She recalled, “A ‘flash’ almost blinded him permanently when he was in Charleston, so Dad got out of the Navy after that. I don’t recall much about those Navy days — I was very young, not even attending elementary school yet.”
Later during her teenage years, Doughty attended high schools in California, Florida and Georgia. In 2006, she graduated from Faith Academy in Buford. “My parents divorced. My dad lived in Madison County, Florida, but mom stayed in the Atlanta area, so that’s how I ended up at Faith Academy.”
Asked why she chose the military, Doughty replied, “I decided on the Coast Guard long before I graduated from high school, maybe around the age of 7 or 8. You see, my family comes from a military tradition, all the way back to America’s Revolutionary War. I have all the records to prove it. When deciding on the military path, I did consider the Air Force for a short time, but the Coast Guard had a better maternity policy, more time off — you kept rank and position, they didn’t penalize for a pregnancy. I didn’t have children while in the Coast Guard but was planning for my future at a very young age, just in case a pregnancy did happen.”
Doughty stated she was emancipated from her parents by age 17. Legally, a 16-year-old can be emancipated from their parents under certain conditions, one, by becoming a member of the military. She recalled, “After emancipation, I was on the way to Coast Guard basic training a week after I graduated from high school at age 18. Basic training for the Coast Guard takes place in Cape May, New Jersey.”
Asked about Cape May, Doughty replied, “Well, I don’t like the North, that’s for sure. I mean, it was OK. My barracks was on the beach, so I listened to the ocean every night as I feel asleep. And, as a female, we had a certain degree of leniency that the guys didn’t receive. There wasn’t a constant barrage of a D.I. or someone else coming into the barracks. And, we could take a nice long shower, which was always a big plus.”
On basic training: “It really wasn’t that tough. Basic training in the Coast Guard is about 80 percent intellect. Actually, they thought I was cheating at one point. We had open-book quizzes, which weren’t a problem, but the closed-book quizzes were tougher. I would finish within two minutes, then as ordered when a quiz was finished, sat straight up at attention and stared at the black board. I finished the quizzes so quickly they figured I had to be cheating. The fact is, I’m a bookworm. I love to read and learn, so that helped immensely.”
Being a bookworm, the Coast Guard wanted Doughty to put her smarts into Personnel. She said, “I told them ‘no way.’ I wanted to work with my hands, specifically in aviation. It was my dream to work on airplanes, but that’s like a five-year wait in the Coast Guard. So I went into the Striker Program, on-the-job training, no secondary school, and I got my wish … working on engines, diesel engines, and small gasoline engines, trucks, tractors, outboard engines, forklifts … hey, if a toaster broke, I fixed it. I mean, why join the military and sit in an office?”
Service as a boarding officer: “A boarding officer is the law enforcement part of the Coast Guard, just another duty coastguard personnel sometimes have to perform. Law enforcement was a big part of my responsibilities. We dealt with customs, migrant interdiction, drug busts, container ship inspections, harbor service, the whole nine yards. Shoot, one time aboard a cutter the cook got sick and I filled in as a cook for the ship’s captain.”
Doughty’s first assignment: Small Boat Station Gulfport, a year after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. “It looked like a war zone,” she recalled. “There wasn’t much of anything left, no casinos, no gas stations, not even a Small Boat Station Gulfport. Shoot, no nothing. Small Boat Station Gulfport operated two 41-foot UTB and two 25-foot RBT watercraft for shallow water work and semi-deep water response. But Station Gulfport had been wiped out, too, so we did the best we could. They were still finding bodies, and we’d put the deceased on medivacs to be officially declared dead somewhere else. That’s the way it worked. We, of course, couldn’t declare people dead. And we worked jointly with the Air Force. We even pulled a couple of pilots out of the water. It was just a huge mess after Katrina. We’d get together with the Seabees and Air Force to help put parks back together, too.”
And after Katrina? “People tend to forget. After Katrina hit we had two other hurricanes back to back in 2008 — Gustav and Ike. We lost the small boat station, again, it was completely gone after Gustav; so we worked out of Conex boxes in 100-degree heat. Then Hurricane Ike rolled in. By that time we were working out of FEMA trailers, but those got wiped out, too, and once again we were down to nothing. So, I stayed for the rebuilding.”
A new station: “A new $10 million station was built after Ike, so I became a Plank Owner; that means you’re on a ship or at a station when it’s commissioned. We had a couple of Coast Guard cutters attached to our unit during recovery efforts after the hurricanes, so I pulled escort duty when President Bush came down for a visit. Laura Bush came aboard the cutter I was on at the time, but I didn’t get to meet her. The entire crew had nothing but good things to say about the first lady.
“An admiral came down later and so did President Obama, but I wasn’t there for that event. I’d been assigned to a White Hull (largest coast guard cutters), the Nantucket. I didn’t really like the assignment due to the C.O. — not the best of officers to work with. On the other hand, I loved the ship and crew. I served in a technical role again, in charge of damage control equipment, plus I taught crew members how to use the equipment. We mostly conducted migrant interdiction, Caribbean people but mostly Cubans. If the Cubans got unruly or misbehaved, they were shackled to the back of the boat, just like in the old days. As part of my law enforcement duties, along with taking care of the engines, I had to babysit the Cubans quite often.”
The Dry Foot Policy: “If the migrants from the Caribbean set one foot on American soil, they could stay. If they were still 5 feet out in the water, they went back where they came from. I’d say our immigration policies need addressing. That aside, the problems on our southern border receive all the media attention, but we continue to have Cubans and others from the Caribbean try to sneak in by the hundreds, sometimes by the thousands. We had contingency plans when Castro died if a huge influx of Cubans headed for our shores.”
Any Coast Guard fatalities while deployed? “No, but then the earthquake hit Haiti. It seems like all our troops were down there, but we remained in waters around Cuba. I was on the Nantucket for almost a year.”
The back injury: “We were practicing a tactical reload. There’s a crane on the rear of an 18-foot boat and one of its many functions is to pull a smaller boat out of the water while it’s still moving. Well, this idiot bosun was practicing his coxswain skills in the smaller boat and came up behind the bigger boat and jumped its wake. You don’t do that. It’s very dangerous. Anyway, I’m sitting in the bow of the 10-footer, Mr. Idiot jumps the wake, the boat comes down hard, and wham! My spine compressed with five ruptured disks. We were in the middle of the ocean at the time. I could hardly walk, but I sucked up the pain since I was the only one in my position on the boat and didn’t report to sick call until we docked again. They found the five ruptured disks and I was transferred to sector on desk duty.”
NOTE: Each Coast Guard district is divided into sectors. For example, District Seven encompasses the coastlines of Georgia, Florida and a part of Alabama, each with a sector about 100 miles long.
Doughty continued, “I was pushing paperwork, personnel, dealing with files and such. Not my cup of tea. I was not hospitalized for my back injury and stayed on desk duty until officially discharged in 2013, and I’m on disability.”
Doughty married the same year. “I met my husband when I was 16 years old. Jason was dating my friend and I was dating Jason’s friend. Well, when I was discharged and returned to Madison, Florida, he gave me a call and wanted to come for a visit. He showed up one day early. I’d started college full time studying law enforcement and was only two classes away from graduation when we married. Then the two kids came along, but I still plan to finish college in the near future. My husband is from Bethlehem, Georgia, and landed a good job in Cornelia, so we moved up here almost three years ago. I love it up here; it’s a lot better than muggy Florida, and above the bug-line. I don’t like bugs.”
Final thoughts on the Coast Guard: “I loved the Coast Guard; I’d do it again, if I could. It’s the smaller service, so wherever you go you run into people you know. It’s like a small town. I didn’t want a bigger service simply because of that. A lot of people think the Coast Guard is part of the Navy. It isn’t. We were America’s ‘first Navy’ but we’re totally independent from the Navy. You know, New Orleans, with its levees and all, got most of the publicity after Katrina, but the Mississippi coast was on the east side of the storm with all the heavy winds and had it worse than New Orleans. They were pulling bodies off the roof of Home Depot. And tiny Bay St. Louis, basically the line between Louisiana and Mississippi, is a small bay yet Coast Guard boats were running back and forth in Bay St. Louis filling up their boats with bodies. But, yeah, I’d still do it again. If a kid doesn’t know what to do after high school, I’d advise they choose a branch of the military. It will do them good.”
NOTE: “Under-appreciated” hardly describes the hardships forced upon the Coast Guard by our squabbling Congress. Many of the Coast Guard cutters have been in service for over 30 years with some a half century old. During one 19-day stretch, the aging Coast Guard cutter Alert broke down 35 times while deployed on a counter-narcotics patrol. The heavy icebreaker Polar Star developed numerous problems on its last resupply mission to the National Science Foundation bases in Antarctica, including engine failure and shaft seal leaks. Requests for a new fleet of three heavy icebreakers have yet to be approved. The elderly Polar Star must carry-on into the late 2020s.