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Coronavirus precautions dictate slow start for Coast Guard Academy swabs

New London — It was a subdued start to summer training for the Coast Guard Academy’s Class of 2024.

The novel coronavirus forced a number of changes to the class’ first day at the academy, which is usually filled with upperclassmen shouting commands at the new cadets, known as swabs, as they circulate through haircuts, uniform issue and drill practice.

Instead of arriving all at once, the 265 cadets, who all wore masks, showed up at set times Wednesday based on their assigned platoons. Shortly after arriving, they were tested for COVID-19 and took their oath of office in the gymnasium at Roland Hall as their parents, who sat scattered throughout the bleachers wearing face masks, looked on — a stark contrast to the traditional swearing-in ceremony, in which the full class takes the oath on the academy's parade field.

“My goal is to see each and every one of you graduate,” Superintendent Rear Adm. Bill Kelly said to one platoon of cadets, remarks he repeated to the seven other platoons. “We will do everything in our power to ensure you have the opportunity to earn the right to be a commissioned officer in the United States Coast Guard.”

The physical part of the swabs’ training will start 15 days from now, after two weeks of restricted movement to monitor their health, during which their training mostly will take place online with some classroom learning. The cadets will travel around campus with their respective platoons, eating meals together, attending in-person training and exercising.

Swab Wolfgang Pfleghar of Fairfield said he was looking forward to being in a regimented and disciplined environment, and even to being shouted out by the cadre, who train the new cadets throughout the summer.

“A weird part of me is super excited to get yelled at,” he said.

Pfleghar spent a year at the University of Connecticut and applied to transfer to the academy — his second time applying, he said — and he was ecstatic when he received his appointment.  

He said he knows education is a top priority at the academy, but said he also expects to learn leadership skills that will be “invaluable” to him throughout his life.

The Class of 2024 is made up of 39% women and 34% underrepresented minorities. There are six international students, who arrived late last week, from the countries of Guyana, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Micronesia, Jordan and the Philippines.

As Superintendent Kelly noted in his remarks, Swab Summer takes a “tremendous” amount of planning in “normal times.” Academy officials spent months planning the best way to safely bring the roughly 1,000-member student body back to campus.

The other classes of cadets returned to the academy in stages and also were tested for COVID-19 and spent two weeks in restricted movement status. Only five tested positive for COVID-19, all of whom were asymptomatic. They were isolated from their classmates until they recovered.

For Swab Sidney Palinkas of Hartland, Conn., the academy offers all she wanted in a post-secondary education: the ability to serve in the military and be part of a humanitarian mission, play soccer and stay relatively close to home.

She spent a year at Georgia Military College before coming to the academy, an experience, she said, that made her better prepared for what the summer and rest of her time at the academy will be like.

Aside from a grandfather who served in the Marine Corps for two years, Palinkas said she is the only other member of her family to choose military service.

The past year that Swab Nathan Aime of Easton, Conn., spent working and being a full-time student at Norwalk Community College solidified for him that he wanted to spend the next four years at the academy learning to become a leader in the Coast Guard.

Asked how his first day was going, he said he was nervous still but “I’ll get over that soon.”

His parents, Nathalie and Patrice Aime, who watched him take his cadet oath, told him to take the summer one day at a time.

"You made it here and you just have to keep going,” his mother told him.

Nathalie said her son’s desire to become a leader and serve his country led him to the academy.

The couple had just five minutes to say their goodbyes to their son but they’ll be back on Monday, Patrice said, to drop off their daughter for a rigorous three-week orientation on campus as part of the Coast Guard Academy Scholars Program, after which participants attend one of the military preparatory schools for a year.

j.bergman@theday.com

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