One of the greatest joys of my life has been my participation in the United States Coast Guard Academy Sponsor Family Program. How it began was this:
My husband Ed was browsing the newspaper one day and said, “How do you feel about being a Coast Guard sponsor?”
“What’s that?” I replied.
Turns out the Coast Guard Academy (CGA) has a program whereby families in the New London, CT area can apply to become sponsors to the incoming class of freshmen. The point of the program is to help transition new swabs from their regular, every-day lives into their new role in the armed forces (often quite a rude awakening). We decided to give it a try.
Our lives were changed forever.
The Academy assigned us a cadet. A few days later, they called to ask if we would take a second cadet, since they had not received enough families into the program. We said yes. On the day we finally got to meet them at the Academy, two young men (18 years old, a bit shell-shocked, a tad nervous and insecure) approached and introduced themselves as 4th Class Charles B. and 4th Class Andrew P. With them was another cadet, 4th Class Andrew G. “Can he sit with us during dinner?” Andrew P. asked. “He didn’t get a family.” Ed and I exchanged a look (one of those “married people” looks) and I said, “Heck, we’ll adopt him, too.” So now we had three.
Sponsorship is a fairly fluid term, one that can be massaged to mean many things. For some families in the program it means a one-year commitment, an occasional dinner out, or a trip to the airport during the holidays. Others choose to take the cadets into their lives for the entire four-year term at the Academy, becoming not only friends but family.
That’s the route we took. It seemed silly to commit to one year only to tell them at the end of it, “Well, it was nice to know you, but goodbye, we’re getting new cadets.” Our feeling was that sliding into life at the Academy was only one of the many challenges our cadets would face and we wanted to be there (if necessary) to help them through whatever trials came along.
And come along they did. The first one right in our living room two weeks before Thanksgiving.
Because they were all going home for the holiday, we decided to throw an early Thanksgiving so we could celebrate with them. We did it up with all the trimmings. Ed and I were busy cooking and the boys were in the living room watching television, when I heard this noise come out of one of my cats.
(A bit of background. At this time, there were three cats and two dogs in residence. One of the cats — Yeti — was born missing a bone in each of her front legs. This meant that her legs toed in, resulting in a hobbling walk more like a bulldog’s than a cats, and a hunched back. She got around well, but could not use her paws to defend herself and I wasrather protective of her because of this.)
At any rate, it was Yeti I heard. The frightened yowling continued and I knew something was up. So Mother Bear charged into the living room to see what was upsetting her cub.
When I’d last seen the cat, she was reclining in one of those slings that fastens to the windowsill. She was still there, but now she was on her feet, crying out because Andrew P. had his hand beneath the sling and was bouncing her into the air. Let me reiterate: she was obviously scared, he wasn’t stopping and (to make matters worse) he was laughing about it.
To say that I blew up is an understatement. I went ballistic. Part if it was that I’m protective of my pets, and part was that I hardly knew Andrew. I didn’t know what sort of person he was, but he had been invited into my home as a guest and I was beyond furious that he would tease one of my animals. I went up one side of him and down the other at a volume that would rupture eardrums, make eyeballs bleed, and engage seismographs. He lost every ounce of color and looked absolutely crushed. Dead silence rang in the house by the time I was done.
Dinner, as you might expect, was a quiet affair. Once I calmed down, I tried to engage Andrew in conversation. He was polite, but spoke in one-word sentences. After we took them back to the Academy, I said to Ed, “I blew it. I know I over-reacted, but I don’t know these people and this is my pet we’re talking about.” He understood, but he also agreed that maybe, just maybe, I had blown things a little out of proportion.
(Fortunately, Andrew and I are both big enough to admit when we’re wrong. We apologized and made up rather quickly and now — almost nine years later — we tease each other about it. Recently, his girlfriend said to me (after I had told her yapping dog to keep quiet), “Don’t bounce the dog.” We had a good laugh at my expense.)
I’m rather proud to say that in the four years from 2002 to 2006, our boys spoke so highly of us that their friends began to ask if they could come along. Slowly, our Coast Guard family grew from three to a solid core group of eight. During picnics, we often hosted as many as 15 cadets. Good times.
Graduation in 2006 was a gloriously celebrated, bittersweet time. We had shared so much in four years — homework, projects (the largest being a rebuilt jeep), relationship breakups, the deaths of family members, the loss of pets, barbecues, parties, trips to the airport. We’d become not only friends, but family; and not just with the cadets, but with their home families as well.
So…graduation. The conferring of degrees. The wild tossing of hats in the air. And major empty nest syndrome set in.
So, we did it again. This time it was on a much smaller scale, only two cadets. One decided he didn’t want a sponsor family (or maybe it was us he didn’t want), but the other, Jacob K., stayed with us for the 18 months he was at the Academy. Jake transferred to the Army, where he’s much happier, and we’re very proud of him.
We’ve tried a time or two since to have more cadets, but it’s a different cultural climate now. Back in the day, the cadets were purposely cut off from the familiar in order to make them bond with their platoon members. Now, it appears that things are a bit “looser.” Kids are less inclined to be interested in having an away family when they’re still in regular touch with the ones at home. So it goes. We’re cool with that.
As for our former cadets, I’m proud to say that we’re still in touch with almost all of them. Some we hear from regularly, others hardly at all, but sooner or later they’ve all come back through our door. I have to say there are few things that make us happier. We’ve attended weddings, anticipated the birth of children, and continued to be family.
So here’s a belated thanks: to Charlie and Andrew and Andrew: to Ian and Paul; to Kristen; to Andy and Ian and Elliott; to Jacob; to those who rounded out the parties — Mary, Chris, John, Mike. To those who became family after the fact: Evey and Mark and their son Cayden. Each of you has contributed something positive to our family. Each of you has made our days brighter, our lives shine a bit more. We’ve cried together and laughed together.
Thank you for being my family.