Learn About the United States Coast Guard

The U.S. Coast Guard is one of the five branches of America’s armed forces. It has responsible for protecting the shores, inland waterways and maritime interests of the country since 1790, preceding the U.S. Navy by eight years. It currently is the only branch of the military that is also part of U.S. Homeland Security, and continues to enforce federal law in U.S. waters.

America’s first president, George Washington, created the Coast Guard when he signed the Tariff Act. This legislation allowed for 10 ships known as cutters to be built to enforce U.S. tariffs and prevent smuggling. Known as the Revenue Cutter Service as late as the early 20th century, this fleet continued to grow. It became the Coast Guard in 1915 when Congress enacted legislation to merge the Cutter Service and the U.S. Life-Saving Service.

Along with enforcing laws and saving lives in U.S. waters, a law in 1939 put the Coast Guard in charge of America’s maritime aids, including lighthouses. In 1946, Congress expanded the Coast Guard’s duties again by making it responsible for marine licensing and merchant vessel safety. The Coast Guard works closely with the Navy in times of war, or at the direction of the President. It has done this since the war of 1812, when the cutters joined the Navy to protect the United States. Coast Guard sailors have participated in every U.S. conflict since, including Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In peacetime it operates as part of Homeland Security to protect marine environment, enforcing federal law and saving lives. One of the Coast Guard sayings, “You have to go out but you don’t have to come back,” is linked to a dangerous mission to save a crew that had run aground. Saving lives is still a significant part of the Coast Guard’s mission. The Coast Guard has an air force of more than 200 aircraft. It employs hundreds of boats less than 65 feet long, including airboats, law enforcement boats and utility vessels. It still employs cutters, boats over 65 feet in length, including ice breakers, quick response cutters and a wide variety of other ships.

A number of famous people have served in the Coast Guard, including Gen. George Patton, actor Humphrey Bogart, fashion designer Perry Ellis and pro golfer Arnold Palmer. Actress Marlene Dietrich served in the Coast Guard, along with actor Lloyd Bridges and his actor sons Beau and Jeff. Others include newsman Walter Cronkite, Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, writer Alex Haley and singer Tom Waits.
Several routes exist today for joining the Coast Guard. They include officer training at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, CT.  Approximately 300 students are accepted each year to earn bachelor’s degrees in law enforcement, seamanship, leadership and marine science.

As in all branches of the military, young people can enlist in the Coast Guard. As enlisted members, they receive on-the-job training in a variety of fields from law enforcement to aviation. The Coast Guard also has reserves, a part-time force. Civilians also perform a number of duties. In 2011, the Coast Guard included more than 43,000 active duty members, 7.800 reservists, 8,300 civilians and 33,000 volunteers in its auxiliary. It responded to more than 21,000 search and rescue operations and saved 3,800 lives. Members boarded suspicious vessels headed to the U.S. and confiscated 166,000 pounds of cocaine. It responded to possible pollution violations, immigration violations and screened hundreds of thousands commercial vessels.

The Coast Guard is also responsible for cutting ice in the Great Lakes and in the waters off Alaska. It monitors icebergs and their locations to keep the waterways safe. It is also responsible for enforcing federal law for America’s fisheries. That includes making sure that non-U.S. citizens are not fishing in American waters.

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