I’m not going to lie. I was pretty excited to interview a Coast Guardsmen. The Coast Guard is the “best kept secret” when it comes to the United States Military. I didn’t know a lot about the US Coast Guard going in to this project. So as a small goal for myself, I’m going to do whatever it takes to make the USCG the “best known secret”. Enjoy reading this interview with Petty Officer McKenzie!
Petty Officer First Class Charles McKenzie
United States Coast Guard
Just over 8 years serving in the US Coast Guard and stationed in Colorado as a temporary recruiter, Petty Officer McKenzie states that he feels his career has been a successful one and looks forward to whatever the future brings.
Why did you decide to join the US Coast Guard?
There’s a multitude of reasons that went into my decision to join. But ultimately it was the roles and missions of the Coast Guard. It’s about search and rescue, law enforcement, drug interdiction, and migrant interdiction. The humanitarian aspect of helping people is what drew me to the Coast Guard. We still get all the same benefits as every other branch, but you never have to ask yourself if you are doing the right thing. It’s a simple as, “Is saving someone the right thing to do?” It is, and that’s why I decided to join the Coast Guard.
Where have you been stationed?
Elizabeth City, NC
Back to Hawaii
How do you feel while you are in the military?
I’d say very successful. I’ve been able to advance in my career, get more schooling, and do tons of volunteer work. I’ve been able to do all the things I am was interested in doing while making money and getting free travel.
What has it been like while you’ve been serving?
There is a mixture of everything. My first entrance into the military was the roughest part. I was going through basic training. It was the hardest transition and brand new to me. I was not expecting to get yelled at and punished for everything. But, the more experience I got, the easier it got. The higher I go in my rank, the easier it gets. The more qualifications and the more time I get in the service, the easier and easier things become. So it’s definitely rough at first but it gets better almost every month.
In a day, it can go from thrilling and exhilarating to disappointing and sad. If you have a search and rescue case and you save someone’s life, it’s the most thrilling thing in your life. On the other side, if something doesn’t go the way you want it to, or you find someone has passed away, then that is disappointing and depressing. But overall, knowing that you did everything you could do, makes you feel successful.
What was training like for you?
Basic training was a lot of fun. Most people don’t believe me, but I did have a great time there. I kind of enjoyed getting yelled at and working out all the time. I thought it was a blast. I got to learn some new things. Then when I did more advanced trainings, I learned more stuff and got college credit for these courses. It was a blast taking in all that information. It was really challenging, because I had to be military mannered. You have to do it exactly according to how they want it and still be in a class, study, and do homework. Training can be very challenging but also very rewarding.
You enlisted, what was your experience like with that process?
It was pretty easy. MEPS (Military Entrance and Process Station) is a challenge for a lot of people. The day I went to MEPS was the September 11th anniversary. We were all pumped up and ready to join. I actually got shipped out to boot camp 30 days after I swore in.
What is your job in the US Coast Guard?
I’m an Avionics Electrical Technician.
Do you feel like you’ve built good friendships while serving?
Many, many excellent friendships. There’s people I met when I got to my first unit in 2007 on day one, and we became good friends. All of us still communicate on a regular basis using texting, Facebook, and the whole nine yards. We try to plan trips every couple years to catch up and see each other again. Once you build those really good relationships, you stay with them.
What does your family think of you being in the military?
My dad, at first, was pretty much against everything. He didn’t want me to leave home and risk my life. It was after my initial research on the Coast Guard that I was actually doing something good and I wasn’t necessarily out fighting war, that he became more comfortable with it. When I enlisted, my dad became exceptionally proud. My grandparents were proud. Everyone was really happy and excited for me to get out of the small town and go get some good life experiences. The more I do, the more proud of me they get. It does get rough at times, because you don’t get to see them on a weekly basis. My spouse, who is also in the service, is generally very proud of what we do in the Coast Guard. She’s proud that she’s in the Air Force, and she enjoys it. We both have that little rivalry, so that’s pretty fun.
Were there any moments you’ve been afraid?
There were a few occasions when I was flying in rough weather which can be scary. But, ultimately we were a good crew. We knew what we were doing, and we got through it. It wasn’t bad, it was just you start to think out of context. If this were the normal world, this would’ve never happened. But in your daily job, you just grit and get through it. You know that’s what you have to do to make the difference.
One of the only other times was within the first 6 months of me being in the Coast Guard, when I was on a Coast Guard Cutter. We were in Alaska and taking on water. It was a real life emergency where we could’ve potentially sank in the bearing sea in the dead of winter. Which was a pretty scary thought. But again, everyone was on point. They executed all the emergency drills and we did everything we needed to do. Within an hour everything was back to normal.
Do you feel like your career in the military is a successful and fulfilling one?
So far it has been very successful and fulfilling. I’m hoping that it will continue to get better and better each year. I can only hope that it goes that way. I know at some point it will probably have its peaks and valleys. Each year I’m ticking closer to retirement, so I’m looking forward to that.
Any stories you’d like to share?
There was this one time where we were able to help out this Girl Scout, who was working on a project. It was a very rewarding experience, we got to connect with the community, and help her work towards achieving her Gold Award.
The final two questions below gives the interviewee the opportunity to share their voice in the issue “Connecting & Protecting” is addressing.
Do you feel like there is a disconnection between the military and the general public?
I would definitely say there is unless someone has a family member in the military or has experience in the military area themselves. The general public doesn’t know what we do, doesn’t know what the Coast Guard does, doesn’t know what each specific branch’s responsibility is, and they just generally lump us all into the same category. They don’t really know how to connect with us and most don’t do anything for military honoring holidays. There is a big gap between the two. Unless they do have the experience or the knowledge of it, the general public is completely in the dark.
Do you have any ideas on how this issue could be resolved?
Doing meet and greets, having events like you did, have places for people to actually go talk to military, and making a stronger connection the goal for the day. It’s hard to just put that responsibility on recruiters or just one group of people. It’s everyone’s responsibility. For example, if you knew something about the military and someone else has an interest or says something about it, you could help that person by saying, “Oh, the Coast Guard is a branch in the military. Here’s what I know about it.” It’s all about connecting people with other people and sharing information. Just make sure it’s correct and good information. Advertisement is another big thing. But then again, if you’re working on a limited budget, you can’t have advertisement. At that point, fixing the disconnect would basically be stuck with word of mouth.