This article is also available in the RESERVIST Magazine, Issue 1, 2018.
Written by Anastasia Devlin
The recruits at the Coast Guard’s Training Center in Cape May, New Jersey, spend a lot of time trying to blend in with their shipmates. They may not recognize that two of their company commanders are reservists blending in with their active duty shipmates.
Last summer, Petty Officers 1st Class Jonathan LaKose and Joseph Spruce both began two-year tours at TRACEN Cape May where they serve as assistant company commanders. The training center is the fifth largest base in the Coast Guard, and is the sole accession point for the entire enlisted work force.
As part of the training to teach and lead new recruits, Spruce and LaKose first attended a rigorous indoctrination course called Company Commander School. LaKose, a member of the Reserve for the last 10-plus years, finished the class in June of 2017, which he said was “no joke.”
“I’ve been a police officer for 18 years, but this was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do — physically, academically, mentally,” said LaKose, who was the only reservist in his class. “There’s nothing they can tell you that will ever prepare you for what [school] is like.”
LaKose draws on his time as an officer with the Haverford Township Police Department, just outside Philadelphia, to help him balance his skills in training both active duty and reserve recruits.
“You have to be motivating and intimidating at the same time, so you have to strike that balance,” said LaKose. “You don’t want the delivery to be non-motivational. They need to want to do what you’re telling them to do, and that’s what carries them in the fleet.”
Spruce, who advanced to first class petty officer in January, joined the Coast Guard in 2011 after seeing the rescue station near his house on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. After a stint as a police officer, he transitioned to managing a housing unit for the Michigan Department of Corrections.
“I was tired of being in prison,” joked Spruce, who, at 39, was ready for a career change. “The prison environment was affecting my health, my attitude, my personality. But when I [drilled] at the small boat station, it didn’t feel like I was working there. It felt like I was doing stuff, enjoying it.”
When the opportunity came up to apply for a new reserve position, Spruce saw the company commander job on the list. He said he’d always admired the role of drill instructor from his time at the police academy, and after working in the Summerstock program on the Great Lakes the summer before, he knew he was ready to apply for this position.
“I’ve been through the police academy, the corrections academy and boot camp,” said Spruce, “but company commander school was the most challenging out of them all.”
At 45, LaKose is the oldest of the company commanders at Cape May, and he uses his life experience, as a seasoned veteran of both the Coast Guard and the police force, to mentor his recruits through life choices.
“There comes a time in training when recruits are allowed to have a dialogue with [their company commanders],” said LaKose, who rounds out his background as a local volunteer firefighter. “They ask me questions that relate to not just their future in the Coast Guard, but their personal future, and I’m able to help them out with that.”
“My experience [working for the prison system] helps out quite a bit here,” said Spruce, a father of three. “In the prison system, you never bring anything home with you.”
Spruce and LaKose agree that, as reservists, they view the experience as company commanders through different eyes. Spruce said depending on a recruit’s question, he thinks having more Coast Guard experience would have been better, but sometimes having that real world perspective is better.
The physical fitness and intensity can be tough, but there’s not too many drawbacks to being a company commander.
Well, maybe one.
“Indoc weekend, usually sometime Friday night or Saturday,” said Spruce with a laugh, “the voice is gone. It comes back really quick. Lots of cough drops.”