Written by Chief Warrant Officer John Edwards
Nearly every Friday throughout the year, a graduation ceremony honoring the Coast Guard’s newest enlisted members is held at the Coast Guard Training Center, in Cape May, New Jersey. Attended by over 30,000 visitors annually, it is a ceremony filled with pomp-and-circumstance and inspires a level of pride in its attendees so thick you can feel it in the air. As part of this auspicious event, the training center’s commanding officer, Capt. Todd Prestidge, addresses both the recruits and their families before officially advancing the graduates from recruits to full-blown members of the Coast Guard. During his address, he reminds the graduates of the commitment they have made to our Service, to our Nation and to their shipmates.
Eight weeks earlier, Capt. Prestidge addressed these same recruits on the Friday before they met their Company Commanders for the first time. He spoke about the rigors of the service and what basic training intended to accomplish. “This is the hardest job interview of your life,” he says. He spoke about commitment and teamwork. He asked them if they thought they were ready for the challenge. “Sir, yes, sir,” they would reply. The speech he gave them clearly stated what he expected of them, but it also explained what they could expect from the training center staff.
“I promise you three things,” Prestidge says to the wide-eyed recruits. “Number one; I promise you this will be hard. Number two; we will insist you meet our standards, not what you want our standards to be, but I promise we will assist you in getting there. Number three; I promise that you will be safe. Here you will find an environment of training that is free of discrimination, recrimination or intimidation based on your race, creed, color, gender, religion, where you are from, or your orientation. You will not be harassed and you will not be assaulted.”
Now, eight weeks later, these recruits not only stand as a testament of those promises, but they represent the future of our service and the continuation of our core values.
“This is where the Coast Guard’s culture begins,” said Prestidge. “At the training center, we embody the standard. We teach the standard. And we keep that standard safe for generations to come.”
That is more than just a tag line for Prestidge. It is a mission statement.
“The training center and its staff represent a unit committed to setting a high standard of professionalism each and every day,” said Prestidge. “We have the privilege of teaching our Core Values, and we take this responsibility very seriously. Through our efforts, we make our service more capable and ready to meet our mission requirements by ensuring our newest members carry out into the fleet a mindset and moral compass that improves their understanding, tolerance and appreciation of our differences as people and embody the concepts of ‘service before self interest’. It doesn’t matter what they may have thought before, or how they grew up. We teach them a new standard here, a higher standard, and when we are done – they are re-born a Coast Guardsman and share in our values.”
Prestidge’s equal opportunity ideology was officially recognized by the Coast Guard as he was a recipient of the Service’s 2015 Senior Leader Civil Rights Award. This award specifically acknowledges his commitment to the principles of civil and human rights, justice and equality, and by making numerous contributions toward attaining an Equal Employment Opportunity/Equal Opportunity model program at the training center.
His award was based upon a nomination from his staff to Coast Guard Headquarters.
“It is an honor to receive this recognition from our Coast Guard,” said Prestidge. “But I am truly humbled that the nomination package came from within my own staff. Their loyalty and support are the best validation of all.”
Prestidge was cited for instilling principles of equality to recruits throughout basic training, and providing opportunities to report any instances of treatment that do not align with the service’s high standards. Prestidge modeled equal employment management practices through numerous, meaningful cultural observances organized by the training center’s Leadership and Diversity Advisory Council. He empowered the LDAC to screen films and documentaries, visit museums and host guest speakers that celebrated important contributions made throughout Coast Guard history by individuals of diverse backgrounds. Additionally, Prestidge championed methods to improve diversity among the instructor staff, and used expert consultation to enhance the unit’s already positive command climate.
Other factors that contributed to the award include Prestidge’s requirement that all recruits are counseled on non-discrimination, and receive, as well as sign, an administrative remarks sheet as part of their accession paperwork that informs them of their rights as recruits. This form also details the command’s expectation that the training environment will adhere strictly to the tenets of equal opportunity.
“We are proud to ensure their first steps in the Coast Guard are the right steps,” said Prestidge.
With approximately 80% of the Coast Guard’s workforce entering the Service through Training Center Cape May, the goal for Prestidge and the rest of the training center staff is more than simply preparing their minds and bodies for the rigors of our service. It is also to ensure that the foundation of a healthy, positive and cooperative culture is laid and that the Coast Guard continues its honorable service to Nation with honor, respect and devotion to duty.
The Civil Rights Directorate’s mission ensures the U.S. Coast Guard’s commitment to equal employment opportunity, equal opportunity and a discrimination-free work environment is achieved. This goal requires the active participation and positive leadership from the entire workforce. Every year, the directorate recognizes the stellar performance and contributions of leaders, civilian and Coast Guard members through its outreach and recognition program. To learn more about these award programs and submission requirements, visit the civil rights website.