Capt. Todd Prestidge, the commanding officer of the Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May, New Jersey, welcomes on average 100 new recruits each week, 40 weeks a year. The men and women who sign on for the eight-week basic-training program are impressionable, and it’s Prestidge’s job to make a positive impression.
“Eighty-percent of our workforce is enlisted, and they all start here,” he says. “This year we will bring in 3,750 recruits. Next year it will be closer to 4,000.” (By comparison, about 150,000 recruits enter the Army each year, about 40,000 join the Navy and 30,000 the Marines.)
This first stop is where the Coast Guard’s core values and basic message are impressed on every member, Prestidge says. “We tell them they are now living for something bigger than themselves; service to nation supersedes self-interest,” he says. “We teach them that, among all other things they will be taught, that’s the most important, and it starts with strict adherence to our standards.”
During his 2-1/2 years of running the Coast Guard’s boot camp, Prestidge has made an impression. In December, the Texas native was awarded the Coast Guard’s 2015 Civil Rights Senior Leadership Award. (Megan Allison, a civilian who directs judicial administration for the Coast Guard’s law judge program, also was given the award.)
Prestidge was recognized for having an extensive record of championing equal employment opportunities and human-rights principles. He says his mission statement for the training center encourages an environment that is free of discrimination, retaliation, harassment or intimidation based upon race, color, national origin, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation, age or political affiliation.
“I make several promises to every single recruit beginning their basic training,” he says. “First, it will be hard, but it will be worth it. I tell them we will insist they meet our standards, but will assist them to meet them. And I promise them they will be safe, not assaulted or harassed, regardless of who they are. All along the way, we will be fair, and they will be safe in a non-discriminatory environment.”
The Coast Guard specifically cited Prestidge for championing “recruit gender equality initiatives and diversity among the instructor staff in order to ensure the unit’s positive command climate.”
Prestidge, 47, has served in the Coast Guard for 26 years and says in that time he has seen the agency change. He quotes from a favorite military essay: “Today’s youth is not like youth of the last generation,” noting their modern conveniences, more material possessions and a lesser degree of fitness. “The modern military is challenged to meet the demands of the battlefield, given the quality of people it has. Today’s generation is never going to be as strong or as fit as yesterday’s generation.
“That was written in 1959 for an Army manual,” he adds.
Prestidge’s point is that every generation thinks the next is too soft. “We’re saying the same thing now of this generation, but what I see is this generation is just as fit, just as smart, just as dedicated to public service as any,” he says. “It’s just that they say things in ways not understood by past generations. It’s not that this generation is any worse, it’s that they are just a little different. So we have to take the time to understand what motivates this generation and use that to mold them.”
He notes that the young people under his command are more informed than past generations and ask thoughtful questions. “I have immense faith in this generation coming down the pike,” he says.
This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue.