A Blind Auxiliarist Helps Other Coasties See

By Auxiliarist Robert Dittman, as told to Skip Munger, News of the Force (News of the Force is an all service military e-magazine)



Auxiliarist Dittman practicing marlinspike

It was Sunday, July 13. The day started at 0500 and I awoke to the thoughts of military ways, inspections, and my adventure of training with the active duty and reserve Coast Guard. It turned out to be a long day spent traveling and the biggest culture shock I have experienced in a while.
I arrived at the Philadelphia Airport at 1600 and went to the USO as instructed to do so in my welcome aboard package provided by the USCG Training Center, Cape May, NJ.
I must note, as a condition of my training, I had to bring my own complete seabag. I had to provide as much of the cost of my training as was possible. The seabag, consisting of over 55 uniform and civilian clothing items weighed 53 pounds and that didn't include the items I needed for Harriet, my seeing eye dog.
The bus was late -- or maybe they planned it that way -- but it was well after dark when we pulled into the dark gates of the US Coast Guard Training Center, Cape May. The talking and joking on the bus came to a tense quiet as we looked out the windows at the Company Commander (CC) in full drill gear approaching our bus. He was dressed in the new ODU (operational dress uniform), a kind of blue BDU the Coast Guard is switching to with a campaign (Smokey the Bear) cover.
“Welcome to the United States Coast Guard Training Center at Cape May New Jersey,” he said. “From now you will speak only when spoken to, and the first and last words out of your mouth will be sir. You have five seconds to grab your trash and form yourself on the yellow triangles you see to your port side -- and YOU JUST WASTED THREE OF THEM!”
We all scrambled to comply and it was hard getting Harriet and I on line. Petty Officer Vincent assisted by taking Harriet so I could move faster. After being formed up in what I realized was the position of attention, and in a formation of our company and with exactly 40 inches between each person, we were given a little information about the Reserve Enlisted Basic Indoctrination (REBI) program.
We were then issued our gortex rain coats and ruck sacks full of the equipment and books for the classes we would be taking through out our time on board the training center. The company was then given our name, we would no longer be 37 separate people. We were now Recruit Company 1003 (R1003). The day ended with us going to our squad bay in Sexton Hall, and lights out was at 0200 or so. Monday July 14: We awoke to the sounds of reveille and through tired eyes dressed into the civilian cloths we had brought the night before. We had realized why we were given the raincoats as a hard rain was falling drenching us as we marched to the chow hall.
We were constantly told things like "EYES IN THE BOAT!" (stare straight ahead) and "40 INCHES ALL AROUND" (maintain 40 inches all around you and your shipmates (members in your company). Breakfast was hurried as everything would be hurried. Life at the training center is "treated with a sense of urgency."
The first of two major obstacles were to be placed upon me this first day. Harriet, my seeing eye dog, became hurt when her tail was cut. I had to make a choice to send her home in order to complete training. The choice was mine, since only I could determine if I could complete training without her. I ended up paying to have her kenneled in the Cape May area, as that was the best choice for all concerned.
With Harriet gone, I was completely blind and had to adapt and overcome my blindness. Harriet was my guide, the one who looked out for my well being, and now I was truly on my own -- or so I thought. The first day was spent being issued our uniforms (I had already brought all of mine in the seabag I told you about), getting a hair cut, and beginning to learn the terms of the "Guard." We were to begin think of ourselves as military members.
Square your corners, always respond, "Aye Aye Sir/Maam, and "KEEP THOSE HANDS OUT OF YOUR POCKETS!" The rest of that day was spent with classroom subjects covering the UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice), missions of the Coast Guard, its Reserve, and its Auxiliary. Rank structure, equipment and boats, cutters, and aircraft of the Coast Guard, and more drill.
The next few days were much of the same, only the stress factor was gradually increased as we had daily uniform inspections, classroom tests, quizzes, drill, customs, squad bay cleanup, and we were each trying to meet and get to live with 36 strangers. These people had also never worked with, or lived with a blind person before, let alone a blind Coast Guard Auxiliarist.
There was some kidding around between other company members, such as finding my rack (bed) had been covered with shaving cream, or when someone had me convinced their name was Ortega and not Franco. I rose to their challenge as a shipmate may have found their boots tied together in the morning, or their shirts switched for another one. You see, lights out means that no one is able to get out of their rack unless they are going to the head (bathroom), so the dark is the perfect environment for a blind shipmate to seek good hearted revenge on those who may seek to challenge him.
Let me speak a minute about our wonderful transportation system at Training Center Cape May. “R” Company used the "two-legged bus" to get from place to place. No matter how hot is was, or long it took. We had our cadence for our relief (the person who speaks a rhythm word such as left, left, so that everyone's left foot can strike the deck (ground) at the same time). For our company, it was Ortiz. He would say things in the rhythm such as "Left, left, left, left ...we are lost, left, left, left, get a map..." depending upon what we were doing, or going it could be anything from "Gonna go to PT (physical training), to "Gonna get cancer," when the base would conveniently spray the asbestos off the buildings on us and everything else that happened to be in their way.
It must also be said that a blind person can learn to march in formation without touching anyone if a shipmate on the starboard side (right) says "P1" (your drifting right so move a half step to the left) or "S1" ( the same as before, but to the right), or gives other corrections in a low voice only I could hear. This got to work so well that people watching couldn't tell who the blind one was.
The wonderful Seagulls of Cape may must also be mentioned. One would always fail inspection due to the large glob of gull droppings on their cover, shoulder, or shoes that happened to find it's way there before inspection. We moved the inspections inside for this reason.
It was during the second week that the second hard obstacle found me. This was during the PFT (physical fitness test). All Coast Guard reservists and active duty members are required to perform a certain number of push-ups within a minute, a number of sit-ups in a minute, a sit and reach, and a 1.5 mile run. Also, they are required to jump from a 1.5 meter platform into a pool, returning to the surface and swimming 100 meters, then treading water for five minutes.
I had no problem completing everything but the 1.5 mile run. I completed it, but not in the time they wanted. So, we worked at it, and worked at it, and worked at it some more. We even tried the alternative test on the bike, but to no avail. I risked not graduating because of this test. I have never felt as I did those nights, wondering if I would be able to complete training. Everyone had worked so hard to bring me here and I didn't want to fail them, or fail myself.
You never know how much your shipmates can mean to you until they pick you up when you need them. I was able to overcome this obstacle to the satisfaction of the instructors, and that was only because of the motivation of my fellow shipmates.
Talking about the motivation of shipmates for a minute, every member of “R” Company had something holding them back. For some it was the run. For others it was the class work. and for others it was their personal lack of confidence. We all had to pull each other along in order for the Company to stand and graduate. I assisted in teaching the classroom material and military customs. Others helped me with my run and uniform inspection. I helped others with swimming and other Coast Guard related information. We all became a family of 37 brothers and a sister (we had one female company shipmate).
I can't tell you everything that happened there but I can say that I believe the program would be a help to Auxiliarists who wish to apply, if they can complete the training to the instructor's standards.
I continue to keep in touch with my 36 other family members and we have planned a reunion to be held at Cape May as soon as we let the base recover from our experience. One thing I came away with from this experience is that we are not as different as Auxiliarists as we may think. We are all Coasties, and we are all shipmates, no matter whether we are active, reserve, or Auxiliary. We are all "Team Coast Guard."
The emergency drills class brought memories of my tour of duty on USCGC Dallas,  They came in handy as many of the drills and training I had already done in real-time while assigned aboard ship. It was also good to learn that Chief Petty Officer Stauffer is also a "Dallas Sailor." Petty Officer Hayes and I had some interesting times in training. She is good, and from day one she never treated me any different from any other company member. She said, “I will not let you compromise the training of anyone -- including yourself.” They were both fine instructors, and I think the Coast Guard has done well to place them both in charge of the REBI program.
I must also comment about the seamanship classes. Everything we learn in the Auxiliary is taught to the reservists. How to handle lines, and safety. Because I am able to work the lines on my Flotilla's patrol boat, I already had some knowledge about how the lines were to be. I was placed on "BIT" detail and was the person in charge of the bits. My experience of working with Joe Currey, my Flotilla Commander, and his training made this real-time job much easier.
Colors and the sunset parade are two lasting experiences of Cape May. Colors, as you may know, is piped at 0800 each morning aboard any Coast Guard installation, or on ships not underway. Cape May is unique in that a cannon is fired when this takes place. On our graduation day, “R” Company stood alongside the other training companies as part of the training regiment -- as we had done before -- and we stood straight and proud and as the National Anthem played. We all felt a wave of pride, knowing that from this point on, we would all be Coasties for the rest of our lives, that training had been completed and we were now safeguarding and serving our wonderful nation.
I can only hope that my training with the REBI recruits will give them a working knowledge of the Auxiliary and how Auxiliarists -- although volunteers -- can and do serve in the Coast Guard missions. I have started training a REBI shipmate in watch standing by phone, so that he can pass his shifts in Florida. I have also assisted providing other shipmates with the contact information for Flotillas and Director of Auxiliary (DIRAUX) offices in their AOR (area of responsibility), so that they may make more Auxiliary friends.
The Coast Guard does well by bringing us into the fold, and it will only serve to strengthen the Coast Guard as America's maritime military protection force.
These are quotes from my shipmates:
"First of all, the most important thing that I can say about the whole experience is it was about heart, desire, and the will to succeed. Dittman, (who I called Radar) truly inspired. Not to say that first thing in the morning the last thing I wanted him to do was to step on my boots, that I shined all night, (ha ha). I truly valued the entire experience, and was awed at how we all pitched in together to make him a part of us. Mind you, not to say that we did it for him, we were just there to assist as he did it for himself. I had enough difficulty running the 1.5 mile course. I don't know if I would have had the courage to do it without seeing my way. He was there and he did it. He swam the 100 meters, and he lived and ate just like any one of the guys, (and girl). Last, but not least, was having him march with us in formation. At first we had some things to figure out, but by the end he was marching along, in step and in formation, and without anyone "holding his hand" purely by voice direction from a shipmate behind, and listening to Ortiz call cadence, we were able to not only get the job done, but get the job done well. I look forward to my job in the USCG, and I know that I will be serving with the USCG Auxiliary. I just have to say that they will have a high standard to live up to, as it was already set there by my shipmate, Dittman." – PO F. D. Marrin, Jr., PS3, MSST 91102 Chesapeake, Va.
"Hello there, Robert: This is PS3 Thomas Stenger of Boca Raton, Florida. I must say that your courage has inspired all of us. It takes a lot of trust in people to follow us, and you showed a lot of that. I was glad that this experience made us better people. I tell everyone here and back home about this motivated blind man who followed where we lead him and had a great trust in his shipmates. I must say that these weeks gave a new appreciation for what blind people can do, and a great respect for you, having to deal with it. I wish you the best and I look forward to hearing about the REBI story. Semper paratus."
"Hello Dittman, it's SK3 Knapp, good to hear from you, and hope everything is going well. I'll do anything for you, so here's my comment: Having a blind person serving in the Coast Guard Auxiliary and attending Reserve Enlisted Basic Indoctrination was truly and experience for me. I had never been around a blind person, especially in the military. I know for me Auxiliarist Dittman showed all of us just what a blind person can do. He was definitely smarter than most of us when it came to the academics. He was always adding to the course and giving additional material to reference. He was also the class clown. When it came to marching, he first had some trouble. Who wouldn't, I mean he was trying to march with 36 other people and he couldn't see. After one week, and a lot of sore elbows and ankles, he was marching like everyone else. He showed me what one man's courage and determination could do. I'm proud to say that I served in REBI Class 1003. The class with the blind guy. Hope this is what you wanted. It's all true! Forgot to tell you my unit which is HDCU 205. My full name is David A. Knapp, from Chester, Virginia. Again, proud to serve with you!"
"Mr. Dittman, this is PS2 Jonathan Thackston. I do not know if I have any quotes for you other than it was a pleasure to serve with you. I know you told me several times that you were blind but that you could hear better than anybody in the company, and that you heard what some people said. What you did not hear was what people said when you were not around. You know guys with their macho attitudes. I think everyone had a tremendous respect for what you were doing. I seem to recall someone saying something about you being an inspiration. Me, personally, I served 12 years in the Virginia National Guard, including an 8 month active tour in Bosnia. I have never seen so much dedication or commitment to a cause. It is obvious that you care about the Coast Guard and the protection of our homeland. In my line of work (Probation and Parole) you see little in the way of goals but more in the way of excuses. It is always someone else's fault. You do more with less than most do with all. That is a good quote for you. I enjoyed serving with you and I wish you luck in the future. If you ever get to South Boston, Virginia, then look me up. I will be serving with the MSO in Norfolk, if you are there also, at least 1 weekend a month. Good luck with your military career and stay in touch." -- Jon Thackston.
"Hey, Dittman: Having you in the class was very interesting. To me it showed teamwork with the USCG and the quality of people that are entering the force. Whether it was a blind person or someone with another handicap, I feel we would have all pitched in to get the job done. That is the beauty of teamwork and people that are motivated. I hope you're doing well and let me know if the article gets printed and when." -- ET3 Larry Spence (striking for BM), Station Cortez, Sarasota, Florida.  


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