Thomas Farragher

Swab Summer tests Coast Guard’s newest recruits

Anyone who has ever dropped a kid off at their first college dorm knows the feeling — a melancholy mixture of tenderness and tension, soaring hope and intense fear.

It’s a proud moment. It produces a bouquet of stomach butterflies. It can pry tears from stoic men.

That pre-autumnal ritual will play out across America’s college town this weekend, as the U-Haul trucks invade Allston and Brighton, Kenmore Square and Mission Hill.


Now throw this into that emotional Mixmaster:

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

What if the resident assistants welcomed your child with bulging neck veins and screaming taunts? What if they pounded and kicked the wooden doors of their cinder-block rooms? What if they shaved your kid’s head and gleefully doled out push-up after punishing push-up?

That’s what greeted Keegan True of Scituate a few weeks ago, when the former high school sports star learned fast that he was no longer Big Man on Campus. He was a mere swab, the lowest rung on the US Coast Guard Academy’s academic ladder.

Moments before his seven-week Swab Summer began in late June, the 18-year-old told me: “I’ll take it in one-week increments. Week by week.’’

“You might want to change that to hour by hour,’’ his dad gently suggested, before hugging his son, whispering encouragement, and giving him a goodbye kiss.


Mark True should know. Now a civilian port security specialist at the First Coast Guard District in Boston, he stood where his son stood on the Coast Guard Academy grounds in New London 32 years ago. “I loved it,’’ the elder True said.

Keegan True, of Scituate, just completed his swab summer at the Coast Guard Academy.

So here’s what he whispered into Keegan’s ear before all the yelling began: “You’re about to embark on an adventure you will never forget.’’ Forget? Impossible.

Within minutes, he was no longer Keegan True, sports hero and honor student. His Scituate Sailors T-shirt was gone. He was on a bus that echoed with screamed commands for a short trip to a spit-polished dorm with gleaming floors that had better stay that way. He belonged to Charlie Company now, one of 32 stressed-out teenagers granted admission to a $400,000 federally funded education with the promise of a commission as an ensign in four years.

But first, there’s all that yelling and screaming, intense training designed to transform the class of about 260 boys and girls into military men and women.

“They’re going to be very average,’’ Rear Admiral Sandra L. Stosz, the academy’s superintendent, told the parents of football quarterbacks, valedictorians, and musical savants. “They’re not on top anymore.’’


Oh, that was made loud — very loud — and clear.

“You are going to fail this summer!” Keegan and his new mates, ramrod at attention outside their immaculate rooms, were told by their trainers.

“There is no more I or me!” the trainers screamed. “You are a team!”

The frightened freshmen fumbled as they rushed to dress in their new gear, and tried to memorize the Coast Guard code about honor, respect, and devotion to duty.

The trainers themselves are hardly grizzled Marine Corps drill instructors. These fearful figures of authority are really just kids themselves, 20-somethings trained to form cohesion from chaos.

At the center of Keegan’s world this summer was Charlie Company commander Lloyd Diaz, from Oxnard, Calif. Diaz, showing a genial side his swabs would never see, explained to me that there is a method to this loud madness. “We have to put them through high stress situations,’’ he said. “I grew up on the beach in California. I like to surf. I don’t like to yell.’’

Then he smiled and added: “But these kids don’t know that.’’

After the incoming class took the oath of office on the lawn outside the administration building on that first day, parents were allowed 15 minutes for a goodbye. And just a few days ago, Keegan emerged intact.

He’s now officially an academy cadet, a young man worthy of a salute.

Thomas Farragher can be reached at