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At the Helm for Training

At the Helm for Training

By Collin Hall

Amanda Denning with her family. She works to bring the best out of Coast Guard recruits, who come from an increasingly diverse set of life circumstances.
Amanda Denning with her family. She works to bring the best out of Coast Guard recruits, who come from an increasingly diverse set of life circumstances.

Coast Guard’s Amanda Denning tailors boot camp for increasingly diverse sets of recruits

CAPE MAY – Commander Amanda Denning joined the Coast Guard after witnessing the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina. She saw how her brothers, who joined the service before her, saved folks from death, and she hoped to do the same while building her post-college resume as a stepping stone toward the next stage of her life.

Those few resume-building years after her graduation from the English department at Providence College transformed into a 17-year career in the service, where today she oversees the development and implementation of recruit training at Training Center Cape May. While in the service, she went back to school to receive a master of liberal arts in leadership and ethics and eventually a master’s in education from Florida State University.

“Recruit training never stops,” Denning said. “We have people here 365 days a year, every holiday we have recruits onboard. It’s a nonstop job.”

She oversees an increasingly diverse set of recruits. There was a time, she said, when most recruits looked the same: younger men just starting their careers. But today, with the recruitment cap set at 42 years old, men and women of all life stages are joining the Coast Guard.

That maximum age has increased several times in the past decade to help the service meet its recruitment goals. A positive side effect, she said, is an ever more diverse set of recruits, whose different life experiences bring new perspectives and skills to the Coast Guard.

But to serve all those recruits, and to help them best serve their country, Denning says that the service has had to adjust the way it trains and works with those entering boot camp at Training Center Cape May.

She told the Herald: “Our workforce comes from very diverse backgrounds — socioeconomic, educational, geographic — that all need something different. The old-school attitude of ‘You get what you get’ doesn’t work anymore. The new way requires a lot of emotional intelligence from company commanders to recognize what people need to be successful while they are here.”

That doesn’t mean that Cape May’s boot camp is a cakewalk. Far from it – the Coast Guard can hold recruits back from graduation if they are not meeting the mental or physical milestones set for them. Some recruits might take 12 weeks to graduate if they can’t get it together. Spend a day at Training Center Cape May and you will see recruits having some of the toughest days of their lives.

Amanda Denning participated in the Cape May County Coast Guard Community Foundation’s Always Ready 5K 2 years in a row, placing #1 for female runners.

What is different, Denning explained, is that the Coast Guard increasingly helps recruits understand why they are given a certain task. It used to be that the schedule of the eight-week boot camp was a mystery to those who signed up. “But this generation is called the ‘Why’ generation,” she said. “The idea that people will do the tasking without any discussion about why it is necessary or important isn’t always the case anymore.”

So the Coast Guard is helping recruits understand why they are doing the intense training asked of them. “You have to meet the workforce where they are,” she said, explaining that if the Coast Guard fails to adapt to the needs of today’s Americans, then it fails to do its job.

“It’s an amazing time where you have so many different kinds of people in the Coast Guard, but that’s what makes us the strongest,” she said. “What you think the ‘military stereotype’ is — that has to change … We know that diverse teams are more successful. It’s our job to attract and keep that diverse talent. I like recruits to leave here knowing that even if this is the most challenging time in their life, they have a place, and their skills are going to be called upon.”

Denning, who hails from Boston, is leaving Cape May this summer. She spent the past four years here overseeing recruit training, a switch up from her prior roles as a Coast Guard aviator. She saw a lot of in-the-sky action during her time as a pilot.

“I got to fly in a couple of cases where we got to rescue other service members. I remember hoisting another service member who was having a stroke off of a navy vessel,” she said about an ice storm rescue off the coast of North Carolina.

She and her family – her husband and two young children – will move to Coast Guard Air Station Astoria in Oregon, where she will move up in rank to serve as its executive officer.

“We have absolutely loved living here in Cape May,” she said. “We’re big beachgoers; we are on the beach every weekend.” She and her children have been active participants in Lower Township’s recreation programs, which she praises highly.

Moving so often has been tough on her two children. “This will be my daughter’s third school, and she is only in third grade,” she said. But the trade-off is a career that lets her see America’s diverse landscapes and that has shaped her into the person she is today.

If she has one piece of advice, it is not to “self-select yourself out of an opportunity that can be life-changing for you. Don’t say you aren’t the right fit for a certain job, or that you aren’t the right person. Here in the Coast Guard, we create those opportunities for you. The door is always open.”

Thoughts? Questions? Reach the author, Collin Hall, by phone at 609-886-8600 ext. 156 or by email at chall@cmcherald.com

Content Marketing Coordinator / Reporter

Collin Hall grew up in Cape May County and works as a content manager for Do The Shore, as well as a reporter. He currently lives in Villas.

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