Future starts now for eager Coast Guard cadets

By JENNIFER MCDERMOTT | The Day, New London, Conn. | Published: March 7, 2014

New London - Brianna Townsend volunteered for a community service trip to read to children Thursday morning so she would not spend the day obsessing over what was to come that night.

Michael Vitrano tried to focus on the test he had to take even though, he said, it was the furthest thing from his mind.

As cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Connecticut natives Townsend and Vitrano are used to structure and to knowing how each day will unfold.

But Thursday night was Billet Night at the academy, where 212 first-class, or senior, cadets find out where they will spend the first two to three years after graduation. For Townsend, Vitrano and many of their classmates, the suspense of it all was both nerve-racking and exciting.

"It's just that feeling of not knowing what is coming and the possibility of not getting what I want," said Townsend, 22, of Colchester. "The future is so unsure right now."

"We've heard so much about how magical Billet Night is. It's finally our turn," added Kelly Grills, 21, of Pawcatuck. "It's the coolest day, by far, of our cadet careers."

Another senior, Nicko Palacios, said he is used to moving because his father is in the Coast Guard, and he is usually excited for new adventures. But his girlfriend is also a first-class cadet, and Palacios was nervous to find out whether the Coast Guard would grant their request to serve on cutters near each other.

"I've been preparing myself almost for the worst-case scenario and choosing to be happy with that," said Palacios, 22, whose parents live in Gales Ferry. "There are no bad billets. They are all an opportunity."

Townsend wanted an engineering billet on a cutter, while Vitrano wanted to go to a cutter in Florida. Grills hoped to stay close to her family by serving in Boston, and Palacios wanted to go west to Oregon.

"Whatever platform you are on, whether it is flight school, a sector or an afloat experience, it is what you make of it," said Vitrano, 22, of Burlington. "There is always going to be good or bad wherever you go. As long as you have a good attitude, you're going to be successful."

After the assignments were given out, Grills said she could not be any happier to get her first choice, the cutter Seneca in Boston. Palacios said he was "stoked, excited and ready to go" to the cutter Boutwell in San Diego, and his girlfriend, Allyson Mason, jumped in the air when she learned she was going to the cutter Sherman, also in San Diego.

Vitrano said it is unbelievable that he gets to go to a patrol boat like he wanted, the cutter Staten Island in Atlantic Beach, N.C. Townsend also got the job she wanted, on the cutter Stratton in Alameda, Calif.

The majority of cadets, 186 students, were assigned to cutters. Eighteen cadets are headed to flight school, and eight are going to shore-based sectors.

Tyler Hames, 23, of Milford wanted one of the few, and coveted, flight school slots, but he said he was happy with his assignment to the cutter Reliance. After a year at preparatory school and nearly four years at the academy, Hames said he is so ready for the next phase that he is traveling to Portsmouth, N.H., immediately to look for housing instead of going on vacation for spring leave next week.

For Marlon Camejo, the opportunity to take part in migrant interdiction operations on the cutter Morgenthau in Honolulu, Hawaii, was particularly meaningful. Camejo's father, Luis, was a Cuban refugee who was rescued by the Coast Guard off Key West, Fla., in the early 1990s. Marlon Camejo was raised in Cuba and moved to the United States at the age of 14.

"I've seen how rescuing migrants, especially in the state that they're normally found in, I've seen how much that can help them and I've seen firsthand the effect it can have, not only on the people being rescued but also on their future children," said Camejo, 22, of West Palm Beach, Fla. "It will be very rewarding to know I could potentially have that effect on someone's life."

This year, some of the cadets met their new bosses immediately because the officers who command the major, or largest, cutters attended Billet Night. The academy is hosting the annual conference for the officers for the first time.

The next milestone for the cadets is commencement on May 21. Graduation, however, is different from Billet Night because it celebrates the end of something, Camejo said.

"Billet Night highlights the beginning of something that will last for a really, really long time," he said.

Pat Kelly said he felt optimistic about going to the cutter Escanaba in Boston.

"It's a mix of optimism and happiness and understanding that it's going to be a lot of hard work in the future," said Kelly, 21, of Stonington.

The cadets often talk about the future, Palacios said, and having their first assignments in hand represents "that tangible thing we've been training for."

"It's the reason behind the sleepless nights. It's the reason behind the sacrifice," Palacios said. "It's a reward. It's the light at the end of the tunnel. It's an opportunity. It's a new beginning. It's so much for us."

"We've been wearing a military uniform, studying and learning to become this person we're going to be," added Townsend. "Finally, we can apply all of those things to serve our country. It's an honor."

The U.S. Coast Guard Academy, in New London, Conn.


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