Connecticut natives among those graduating from CGA

Brendan McNeil of Pawcatuck 'sounds off' as members of the United States Coast Guard Academy Class of 2017 report in for the first day of their 7-week 'Swab Summer' indoctrination Monday, July 1, 2013, at the academy in New London.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Brendan McNeil of Pawcatuck "sounds off" as members of the United States Coast Guard Academy Class of 2017 report in for the first day of their 7-week "Swab Summer" indoctrination Monday, July 1, 2013, at the academy in New London. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Day Staff Writer Julia Bergman has interviewed more than a dozen Connecticut residents who are members of the Coast Guard Academy Class of 2017, including eight from New London County.

Cory Murallo, 23, Waterford

Coming into the academy, Cory Murallo wanted a way to stand out.

"I knew I was going to be wearing a uniform. We're all kind of standardized in that sense, but I felt like the way to express myself and my individuality is through my writing and being able to carry a conversation and say what I mean and mean what I say," said Murallo, who majored in government, which "prepared me really well in that sense."

Going forward, the cadets will be doing a lot of writing and communicating as officers, he pointed out. Murallo put his skills to use during a recent trip to San Remo, Italy, a high point of his academy career. He was selected to take part in an annual conference on International Humanitarian Law for military academies.

The low point in his career came recently with the death of his mother. He and his older brother, who lives in Groton, have leaned on each other, talking every day. But the academy community also has been helpful.

"This place is incredible with that type of stuff, absolutely so supportive. Anything that I could ask for or need, it's there, in a fast way, too," he said. "I really appreciate that."

Murallo is headed to Portsmouth, N.H., to serve as a deck watch officer on the Coast Guard cutter Campbell, befitting since his grandfather, who served 26 years in the Coast Guard, also served on a ship named Campbell.

Related stories: Graduating cadet from Stonington balanced Coast Guard academics with personal goals; 'Where do I sign?' New London native graduating from CGA

Eric Vrissis, 22, Stamford

Baseball brought Eric Vrissis to the academy, where he's been a starting pitcher for four years. But admittedly, if he had to do it all over again, he probably wouldn't choose to come here.

Vrissis is honest about how much of a struggle the last four years have been. Although he was attracted to the military lifestyle, he found it hard to adjust to its inherent structure and rigor.

"I don't like to follow the crowd, so I end up getting in trouble in a place where you're supposed to follow the crowd," he said.

But he's also keenly aware of how much he's grown on this "long and rough journey." He first went to military prep school for a year before attending the academy.

A management major, Vrissis is headed to Portsmouth, Va., where he will serve as a deck watch officer on the Coast Guard cutter Harriet Lane, a medium-endurance cutter that performs a wide range of missions, including search and rescue and drug and migrant interdiction. Vrissis is hoping to get involved with the law enforcement aspects of the ship.

Audrey Gaynier, 22 Higganum

Through the academy, Audrey Gaynier was able to find her passion, not academically, but militarily.

One of the low points of Gaynier's academy career was discovering she didn't have the enthusiasm she thought she would for her major in mechanical engineering. But through various leadership roles, she discovered a knack for managing people.

"I was able to realize how, even if I got out of the Coast Guard, I'd still want to manage people," she said.

In addition to her leadership roles, Gaynier has been a cheerleader for the past four years, and she's performed in various cadet musicals.

After graduation, she is headed to Pascagoula, Miss., to serve as deck watch officer on the Coast Guard cutter Decisive, a medium-endurance cutter that interdicts migrants and conducts search-and-rescue missions and counter-narcotic operations. She will spend most of her first year as an ensign below deck, familiarizing herself with the ship's engine room, and getting various qualifications.

As for whether she'll stay in the Coast Guard longer than her required five years, Gaynier said, "I don't really see myself fiving and diving."

Brendan McNeil, 23, Pawcatuck

Brendan McNeil is clear: It's the friends you make at the academy that "really gets you through this place."

A management major, McNeil also played baseball and football. He chose the academy because he wanted to be able "to serve my country" and get a quality education.

He described navigating through the cyclical nature of the academy with schoolwork and military obligations piling up some weeks, and others when there's not as much work. One day can be great and the next a disaster.

"That big swing of emotions is what makes this place what it is," McNeil said.

After a year of military prep school and four years at the academy, McNeil said he's "kind of running out of gas," but added, "I'm almost at the finish line."

McNeil is headed to Seattle, Wash., where he'll serve as a student engineer on the Coast Guard cutter Midgett, one of 10 high-endurance cutters on the West Coast. The Midgett performs a range of missions, such as maritime law enforcement and fisheries management, as well as maintaining military readiness in support of North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies and the U.S. Navy. 

Brianna Grisell, 21, Brookfield

It was a year after the Iran nuclear deal had been signed, and there were indications that Iran was not holding up its end of the bargain. Brianna Grisell and her classmate had to figure out what should be done.

The exercise was one of several opportunities that Grisell, a government major, took part in during her academy career that far exceeded her expectations.

Since billet night, when cadets find out their first assignment as an ensign, she's been reflecting on how she got here. Lately she's felt grateful, given that she was wait listed from the academy and had put her deposit down at another school before receiving the call that she got off the wait list.

Grisell got her first choice on billet night, and is headed to Boston, Mass., to serve as a deck watch officer on the Coast Guard cutter Escanaba, a medium-endurance cutter that mainly performs law enforcement missions, such as fisheries management in New England or drug and migrant interdiction in the Caribbean or the eastern Pacific.

Brendan Sullivan, 24, Gales Ferry

Brendan Sullivan's family and friends have told him how impressed they are that he stuck it out.

"I didn't want to take 'no' for an answer," said Sullivan who was wait listed and then denied by the academy.

He applied to military prep school, which he paid for "on my own dime," and spent two years there; the second time as part of the academy's scholars program, before coming to the academy. He laughs when explaining that, at 24 years old, he's referred to by other cadets as "old man."

For Sullivan, a management major, the last two years have been the best. He's quick to rattle off all he's done — a sailing trip around Block Island, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket and getting an introduction to the Coast Guard's aviation program.

He's happy to have been able to spend the past four years close to home so that he could watch his little brother grow up and spend time with his family. He said he's indebted to his parents — whose home served as a hotel of sorts for his friends — particularly his mom, for all the home-cooked meals she made for him and the host of friends he brought home on the weekends.

Sullivan is headed across the country to Seattle, Wash., to serve on the Coast Guard cutter Mellon, a high-endurance cutter that takes on a host of missions, from search and rescue to environmental protection.

Michael Jeffko, 22, Barkhamsted

The job perspectives immediately upon graduating from the academy were one of the selling points for Michael Jeffko.

But it was a visit to the academy during high school that made him realize the opportunities he'd have before even heading out to the fleet. A senior at the time told Jeffko about a trip he'd taken to Haiti to help with the relief effort following the 2010 earthquake.

"The fact that he had such an impact on a global realm showed me that I'd have a lot of opportunities to do a lot of different things here," Jeffko said.

He's certainly had those opportunities, like studying the heart rates of sea lions one summer in California. As Jeffko, who majored in marine enviromental science, put it, he's seen more of the country in the past four years than all of his non-Coast Guard friends combined.

"The good times far outweigh the bad times," Jeffko said. "The bad times just kind of bleed away. You don't really remember them but you remember all the good times."

Jeffko is headed to Seattle, Wash., where he'll serve as a deck watch officer on the Coast Guard cutter Midgett.

Casey Dieter-Leeds, 21, Willimantic

Casey Dieter-Leeds came to the academy expecting "The Guardian," the 2006 movie that chronicles the life of the Coast Guard's rescue swimmers.

"I realized there's so much more to the Coast Guard, and that it's not all jumping out of helicopters," he said. "Especially from the officer side, you're really focusing on the people within the Coast Guard." The majority of his time here has been positive; he attributes that to his fellow cadets, who are like-minded and driven.

Dieter-Leeds has been able to relieve some of the stress of the academy through running as a member of the cross-country and indoor and outdoor track teams, and through music. He and some fellow cadets started a rock band called The Broken Sticks, for which he is the lead singer. The group has played at local haunts such as Hot Rod's and 33 Golden Street.

A civil engineer major, Dieter-Leeds is headed to Cape Canaveral, Fla., to serve as a deck watch officer on the Coast Guard cutter Vigilant, a medium-endurance cutter.

Drew Daniels, 21, East Haddam

Everyone at the academy talks about how much they learn here, "but it's not classroom learning like you'd think it would be, it's the experimental part of how to work with people and how to accomplish things," Drew Daniels said.

A naval architecture major, Daniels has played music throughout his academy career, and helped to start an automotive club to teach other cadets how to change the oil in their cars and do other basic maintenance.

"You have people who graduate with a bachelor's in mechanical engineering or electrical engineering who don't know how to change a tire," he said.

Until recently, when he's been able to slow down and "think about everything," Daniels didn't realize "how much these people would impact me." After four years of spending every day in close proximity to one another, he's not going to see the majority of his classmates again.

Daniels is headed to Wilmington, N.C., to serve as a student engineer on the Coast Guard cutter Diligence, a medium-endurance cutter that performs a range of missions, including drug interdiction.

Matt McAllister, 22, Colchester

If you asked Matt McAllister as a freshman what the Coast Guard did, he might not have the best answer. But that's the "beauty" of the academy's summer training programs, "you get to see what's going on out there."

Take last summer, when McAllister, a mechanical engineering major, spent two months on a patrol boat in Key West, Fla. He thinks the crew repatriated 200 migrants, mostly from Cuba, while he was on the boat.

"Migrant interdiction was a humbling experience, seeing those people who've come from nothing on their last effort to find a better life for themselves," he said.

There was also one drug case during his time onboard. The crew of a charter fishing boat found a bag of five kilograms of cocaine, McAllister said, adding the fishing crew "called us up right away."

That first-hand experience will serve him well during his first tour as a deck watch officer on the Coast Guard cutter Winslow Griesser, which does similar work. The Griesser is a fast-response cutter based in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Brendan Flynn, 22, Montville

From a young age, Brendan Flynn wanted to be a Coast Guard pilot. His dad is a captain in the Coast Guard and he remembers when the family was living in Kodiak, Alaska, seeing helicopters and planes flying around. In high school, he got his pilot's license.

Now that childhood dream is coming to fruition. Flynn, a marine environmental science major, is headed to Pensacola, Fla, for flight school.

"It's not a huge rush every time I get in the air, but there's a sense of freedom to be up there," Flynn said of flying.

The summer training experiences have been the most rewarding parts of his academy career. As for how the last four years changed him, Flynn described how he's grown as a leader.

"You learn a lot about yourself as a leader and how you can care for your people under your command," Flynn said.

Katherine Beasley of Voluntown, a civil engineer major who will serve as a student engineer on the Coast Guard cutter Spencer, based in Boston, was not able to be interviewed before publication time.

United States Coast Guard Academy Class of 2017 member Cory Murallo, in front of Chase Hall at the academy's campus in New London on Thursday, May 4, 2017.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
United States Coast Guard Academy Class of 2017 member Cory Murallo, in front of Chase Hall at the academy's campus in New London on Thursday, May 4, 2017. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
United States Coast Guard Academy Class of 2017 member Brendan McNeil, in front of Chase Hall at the academy's campus in New London on Thursday, May 4, 2017. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
United States Coast Guard Academy Class of 2017 member Brendan McNeil, in front of Chase Hall at the academy's campus in New London on Thursday, May 4, 2017. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
United States Coast Guard Academy Class of 2017 member Brendan Sullivan, in front of Chase Hall at the academy's campus in New London on Thursday, May 4, 2017.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
United States Coast Guard Academy Class of 2017 member Brendan Sullivan, in front of Chase Hall at the academy's campus in New London on Thursday, May 4, 2017. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
United States Coast Guard Academy Class of 2017 member Katherine Beasley, in front of Chase Hall at the academy's campus in New London on Thursday, May 4, 2017.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
United States Coast Guard Academy Class of 2017 member Katherine Beasley, in front of Chase Hall at the academy's campus in New London on Thursday, May 4, 2017. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

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