Making a 'mess' at CPOA

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Kevin Wallace
  • 366th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
With palms sweating and my heart fluttering, I stood on a wooden platform hanging from a redwood tree in Northern California.

Seemingly far below me, my eight shipmates assembled, ready to catch my fall. In unison, they bellowed, "Faller ready?"

I quickly thought about the Coast Guard motto of "Semper Paratus," or always ready, and knew each of my actions would reflect either positively or negatively on the Air Force. I couldn't fail at anything in this course.

"Faller ready," I replied.

Then I locked my arms to my torso, clenched my body, raised my chin and uttered, "Ready to fall."

With the final word 'falling,' I simply let my body rotate backwards 90 degrees and began the plummet to the ground below, where I hoped my fellow Coast Guard chief petty officers from Class 193 at Coast Guard Training Center Petaluma, Calif., would catch me.

That was day one of the five-week Chief Petty Officer Academy, and hope was all I could muster. With 64 Coast Guard chiefs, four Navy chiefs and four Air Force master sergeants, what we were doing was well outside my comfort zone.

As the academy progressed, hope became trust. By the end, something profound happened - trust gave way to certainty.

We spent an entire day of our final week at CPOA more than 30 feet in the air, walking wires and logs, climbing enormous Redwood trees, and even scaling a telephone pole, then jumping off, optimistically wishing to grab ahold of a swinging trapeze bar about 10 feet away.

Not a single moment during that final "high ropes" session did I remotely doubt my shipmates had my back - I knew without reservation they'd never let me down.

Though the three rope courses certainly pushed me to prevail in difficult situations, CPOA was about much more.

Team building and strengthening the "chief's mess" was a major part of the curriculum. The Navy and Coast Guard have an organization similar to the Air Force's 'Top-3,' but profoundly different because the mess takes many meanings, but always includes the top three enlisted ranks in those services.

Aboard larger sea vessels, officers and enlisted dine in separate galleys; however, chiefs and only chiefs, dine in the mess.

"The mess is a place where chiefs can go to hash out problems among themselves, to build leadership techniques and mentor each other, and to work out issues with senior leaders so they can tackle them with a united front," said Chief Petty Officer Jadon Sprague, the executive petty officer aboard a river tender in Nebraska. "Honestly, a multitude of issues come to light behind the closed doors of a chief's mess. But when that door opens, we're a united mess both up and down the chain."

Fitness was also a major component of CPOA.

During the first week we completed tests in cholesterol and blood pressure, a 1.5-mile run, pushups, sit-ups, flexibility, weight and body-mass index, and had to track our daily nutritional intake for three days. After the data was collected, the staff gave us a complete health assessment.

In the following weeks we pushed ourselves on a wide-array of fitness challenges. Some of these included a 5-kilometer "last-man up" run, swimming, spinning, biking, aerobics, 10-kilometer run, and a "fit deck" run up Texas Hill, which was a paved path up a mountain that seemingly led to the moon. While running up that hill, we had to stop periodically to do bear crawls, duck walks, squats, burpees and tons of other humbling exercises.

The 72 students were broken up into eight groups of nine. Our group liaison was Chief Petty Officer Jennifer Stanton, a former company commander (drill instructor) at Coast Guard boot camp. Stanton's profound leadership style and energy invigorated my team throughout the five weeks. Not a single one of us was willing to let her down.

The most reflective moment at CPOA was when Chief Petty Officer John Peters, the officer in charge on an 87-foot coastal patrol boat, inducted me as an honorary chief petty officer, enabling me to be a part of the chief's mess for life.

I proudly wear the chief's anchor under my Airman Battle Uniform pocket, and will ensure it's hidden on each of my uniforms until the day I retire.

What does it mean to be a Coast Guard chief?

I don't know definitively as I've never boarded a ship of drug smugglers or illegal immigrants; I've never rescued a stranded boat or swimmer in the rough surf; I've never broke ice in the Arctic Region or Great Lakes. But, I can tell you this:

Having the opportunity to spend five weeks with an extraordinary group of Coast Guard chiefs was an honor and excellent experience. I'll highly recommend attending a sister service academy to anyone offered the privilege.

I've served with the Army and Marine Corps in Afghanistan and that has forever branded their logos on my heart. There's a Navy combat cameraman I served with in Afghanistan who I'd gladly give an eye to if it ensured we both could see.

I'm an Air Force senior NCO and being part of that brotherhood makes me proud. I relish in leading Airmen into the future, symbolically waving the Air Force flag as we march forward, but I do so with the words Semper Paratus tattooed to my heart.