Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a series of articles where cuttermen discuss why they go to sea.
Name: Petty Officer 1st Class Benjamin Yoder
Rating: Electronics technician (ET)
Hometown: Wilson, Wyoming
Personal: Married to Kelsey (a clinical psychologist for the Department of Veterans Affairs) and nine-month-old son Nikko (Japanese for sunshine)
Joined Coast Guard: October 24, 2011, boot camp company X-185
Sea time to date: 8 ½ years
Previous units: Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star (WAGB 10), homeported in Seattle, Washington; Coast Guard Cutter Bear (WMEC 901), homeported in Portsmouth, Virginia; Coast Guard Cutter Harriet Lane (WMEC 903), homeported in Portsmouth, Virginia
Current assignment: Afloat Platform Section of the Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Cyber and Intelligence (C5I) Service Center, Portsmouth, Virginia
Why did you join the Coast Guard?
My dad was a Coastie way back in the ‘70s. To this day, even though he only did four years and has had a successful career afterwards, he cites his service in the Coast Guard as one of the best experiences of his life.
I wanted a little direction and opportunity for adventure, so we drove 4 1/2 hours from Wyoming to the nearest recruiter — and here I am.
You went to the Polar Star out of bootcamp. Was that something you were looking to do?
Yeah, that was definitely my first choice out of boot camp. I was really excited about it. When I got there, she was in drydock. It was a long year of sanding, chipping, painting, all that, which was a bit of a culture shock and not what I was expecting.
But then, we got out of the yard, and I got to make a north and a south patrol on the Polar Star, both the Arctic and Antarctic — which is, to this day, one of the coolest things I’ve been able to do, not only in the Coast Guard, but in my life. Really cool experiences, so it all paid off.
How are they different? The north and south patrols?
The Arctic is just a big ice cap, so we’re breaking ice to see the capabilities. We did see polar bears. Well, I think a polar bear. People were saying two, but I’m pretty sure it was the same one.
There’s some wildlife up there but not like Antarctica. For the south patrol, we’re breaking, like, a cul-de-sac into McMurdo (Station) so that they can resupply. The transit in the week or so we spent breaking the ice was probably the coolest part of the experience. Even less people have that experience of getting to the continent by breaking ice. Seeing a polar bear up north was very cool, but the wildlife in the Antarctic takes the cake. It’s the most National Geographic thing I’ve ever seen in my life!
There are all these penguins bebopping around. I don’t know what happened evolutionarily with penguins, but they seem like they got the short end of the stick. They can’t fly. If you look at them when they’re on land or ice, they just kind of walk around. They lose their balance, fall on their face and use that momentum to keep sliding. It looks like a really silly animal until you see them actually get into the water. And then it is the most nimble thing I ever seen in my life. It’s darting all over the place, dodging whales.
Did you always want to be an ET? What other ratings did you consider?
Originally, I wanted to be a PA (public affairs specialist). I had an influential XO (executive officer) on the Polar Star, Cmdr. Frank, who asked me why I wanted to be a PA. I told him, “I want to see all the cool things that the Coast Guard does.” But then he asked me a pretty profound question. “Do you want to see all the cool things the Coast Guard does, or would you like to do some of them?” That gave me something to chew on.
I started looking around and saw that ET combines the things I was looking for in a job: working with my hands and critical thinking. And the group of people in the rating were just kind of my people: I’m a bit of a nerd. So, Dungeons and Dragons, anime, video games, all the typical ET things. I was with my people.
I almost wasn’t an ET. I struck BM (boatswain’s mate) because the ET rating locked up after the LORAN (long range navigation) stations closed. I struck BM and got all my sign offs, passed my DWO (deck watch officer exam) and then the ET “A” school list reopened. I had to go tell BM1 that I didn’t want to be a part of the Cool Kids Club and I wanted to go be a nerd. He was not too thrilled.
I’m happy with my choice. The BM1 was a little disappointed that he had invested his time in me. If I had the chance, I would let him know it wasn’t wasted because I did two ships afterwards. And all that experience and knowledge certainly served me well, and I shared whatever I could. So, I don't think it was a waste.
How would you compare your time on the Polar Star to your time on the Harriet Lane?
I’m not gonna lie when I say that the accommodations on the Polar Star, even though it’s the oldest ship I’ve ever been on it, was better compared to a 270'. As a non-rate on the Polar Star, I was in a four-man berthing because there’s ample space. On the 270', the smallest I was in was nine-man as a third and a second. And then, when I was a more senior second and made first, I was moved to SPO (senior petty officer berthing) which is a 21-man.
But connectivity is improved. It’s a lot easier to talk to home, and I know they’re only improving that. All the work they (the Office of Cutter Forces and the Sea Duty Readiness Council) are doing to make things better for the new generation of cutters is awesome. The habitability, upgrades, Starlink connectivity and all the great things are coming to make it even better.
I’ve seen some pretty cool stuff deployed underway. Not necessarily on every ship, but I think that’s becoming more and more common to see some pretty cool morale networks put together. You have more tech savvy individuals that basically set up on-demand movie streaming services.
In testing for advancement to chief, do you think you’ve missed something from not doing a shoreside ET tour?
On the cutter, you get hands on with a lot of different equipment because even though your billet is one thing, when stuff goes wrong, we’re kind of all helping each other out in the shop. So, even though I was primarily a NAV tech (technician for navigational equipment), I got hands on with some communications equipment.
I don’t think that it’s hindered my career. If anything, it’s been a boon to my career. I feel like I advanced pretty quickly. I was a non-rate for almost three years and then advanced about every two years.
I think the sea time and sea points helps a lot.
I was meritoriously advanced to E-6 and I don’t think I would have had that opportunity had I not been afloat and taken full advantage of everything. I’d most attribute the meritorious advancement to immersing myself in it. Law enforcement, helo OPS, LDAC, morale — everything a white hull had to offer. If I was going to do it, I wanted to get the full experience of it. So that’s why cutter Bear was my number one choice out of “A” school. I had done a red hull and it was awesome; now, I wanted to try something different. Plus, I wanted another cutter because I really wanted to become a Cutterman.
What has challenged you in the Coast Guard?
There’s been tough moments, especially balancing home life with an afloat career. My then girlfriend, now my wife, put up with a lot in terms of me being gone or on duty. She had the misfortune of meeting me after my first patrol on the cutter Bear, so she did Bear and Harriet Lane with me. That was the most challenging aspect of being underway. That’s certainly a challenge.
Being gone itself, though — there’s something about when you throw off lines and get out to sea. You kind of get tunnel vision. You’re there, you have a mission, and you know the days are relatively well structured. That’s something I found solace in. When I was out to sea, it was very easy to be in the moment and focus on what I was doing.
What’s the allure of sea duty?
I initially joined for adventure. I went afloat because I wanted to have some adventure. But the thing that kept me coming back was the camaraderie.
Having that second family is something I haven’t experienced in any other job. I love the job I’m in now and I love the guys I work with, but it’s different. When you show up, clock in, go home as opposed to living with a group of folks for up to 90 days at a time — it’s just different.
Those are my favorite stories: the moments I’ve shared with my shipmates. Even when it was, like, just a bunch of grown men down in the lounge playing Among Us on our cell phones.
Other than the camaraderie, what do you miss most about being underway?
I’m the extrovert of our marriage. My wife is a little more introverted. She jokes sometimes that the cutter is basically summer camp. Tongue-in-cheek, she’s like, “You get underway and all you’re doing is hanging out with your best friends. You guys have snack time and you have nap time and you go on a field trips (port calls).” And you know, if you cut out all the arduous stuff, she’s not wrong.
The camaraderie is truly what keeps me coming back. That’s what makes it easy. It’s like, even when you are kind of “in the suck,” even when you’re doing the really hard stuff like a 12-to-24-hour boarding or standing a tight watch rotation — it’s the people that make it bearable and actually make you kind of look back on it fondly. In the moment, you’re thinking, “Oh, man, this is tough. This really sucks.” But then, when you look back on it, those are usually some of the best memories. The hard things are the things you wind up remembering and enjoy the most.
Even though I’m happy to be on land now, I really do recommend people take the opportunity to go to sea, not only because we’re seagoing service and it will behoove you and your career, but it really is an experience you’re not gonna get anywhere else. At no other job will you have those experiences that are available to you on a cutter.
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