They stand on a 100-foot boat, ocean in front of them as far as the eye can see.
They think back to their upbringing in Buffalo, landlocked and surrounded by mountains, and take a moment to appreciate the polar differences between the two.
Philip Tabb and Drew Stafford met in first grade at Meadowlark Elementary. They were close friends throughout their school years, so much so that when Stafford applied for the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 2009, so did Tabb.
Now, having both just graduated with honors in May and headed for different countries, they have degrees under their belt — and decades of shared experience.
The academy, located in New London, Connecticut, can chew people up and spit them out, according to Tabb. Their freshman class of more than 300 students was whittled down to just over 200 by the time they graduated.
Tabb finished with a marine and environmental science degree with high honors at the May 21 commencement, and Stafford earned a degree in mechanical engineering, with honors.
Stafford is stationed in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for at least the next two years, working aboard the USCGC Cushing, a patrol boat. He will complete U.S. policy, weapons and use of force training before starting work at sea full time.
His decision to apply for the academy was fueled by opportunity and ambition, but now he’s on a ship and face to face with people on missions, the reality has kicked in.
“It was a very fast learning curve,” he said. “Yeah, the academy was late nights and everything, but if you slack off one day, it was your grade that was hurting. … Here now, it’s your job, and your job is to take care of people. If you slack off, it’s not just you you’re affecting, it’s other people and your boat.”
A primary focus in being stationed in Puerto Rico, according to Stafford, is tasks relating to drug importation and migration.
His ship is 110 feet, the smallest someone right out of the academy can be situated on, but despite the fierce competition of making it up the ranks, he aims to be in command of a vessel by the time his second tour rolls around in two years.
Tabb, on the other hand, is undergoing SCUBA training at the U.S. Navy Dive and Salvage Training Center in Panama City, Florida. He will be stationed in Guam by November.
“Basically, we’re learning how to do (tasks like) salvage and constructions, inspections under water, learning how to scuba dive and do surface supply, hardhat diving, more technical stuff,” he said.
Tabb’s family had been on scuba diving vacations at least once a year since he was first certified at age 12, so despite growing up in Wyoming, the pull of the ocean was always something that held his interest.
“(The Coast Guard) is a good opportunity. As soon as we graduate, we already have a job and we have no debt; our school is paid for. It’s a good chance to get our feet underneath us, whereas if I’d just graduated from a normal college, it’s hard to slip into a job in your field right out of your degree,” he said.
Though Tabb describes the experience as similar to a regular college education, the military undercurrent was always present, he said.
“We lost about a third of the class (during the four years),” he said. “People fail out; some decide it’s not for them, and people get kicked out. It’s a really (strict) policy. So if anyone gets caught lying or cheating or stealing, even if it’s a 10-point homework assignment, you’ll likely be kicked out.”
The boys graduated from Buffalo High School in 2010 and went straight to the academy.
Though the two guardsmen don’t get to come home to Buffalo as often as they, or their parents, would like, both families were able to travel to the graduation ceremony recently.
“I was surprised (when he enrolled),” Stafford’s mom, Cathy, said. “My husband’s from back east, and we always had this joke that if he wasn’t off the mountain (by a certain time), we’d call the Coast Guard because that’s what his family had always said. (Drew’s) grandfather had always talked to him about the Coast Guard. He was rescued by them a couple times, and I think once he heard those stories, he knew it was for him, but we were a bit surprised when he said he wanted to be in the Coast Guard after all those years of it being a family joke.”
Cathy said she was proud of both boys, especially having seen their friendship grow and evolve through the different stages of their lives.
Tabb emulated her thoughts, saying that when the pressure was on, especially toward the end of their studies, it was nice to have a voice from home alongside him.
“While we were at the academy, we were in different companies and did different sports, but we were always there to help out and support each other. So it was nice,” he said. “We’ve just been really good friends since first grade; he’s in Puerto Rico and I’m in Florida right now and we still talk all the time. It’s nice to have someone who’s been through all that with me.”
Because they were from Wyoming, Stafford said, there was the occasional friendly taunt thrown their way about being the boys from a landlocked state, especially during rough nights at sea.
“It’s weird growing up in the mountains, and (when you’re on a ship and) you see long waves or there’s just nothing around you, it’s really cool,” he said.
When he was a sophomore, Stafford was on a 300-foot sailing ship with a crew of nearly 200, sailing 18 days from London to Iceland, then another 15 days to Nova Scotia.
It’s an experience, he said, that threw him in the deep end, but he gained so much invaluable experience, he went again as a senior with a leadership role.
“As a sophomore, I learned a lot about pulling on lines, living on the sea, how to work in the crew, but as a senior I learned a lot about actually driving the boat, how the sails interacted, configuration, how to get from A to B, along with managing people,” he said. “I’ve never been seasick. They were always giving me a hard time, saying the Wyoming kids were sure to get sick having never seen the ocean, but I don’t think Phil ever did either. We hit a couple storms (from London to Iceland), and it was pretty nasty for a while. The first couple days aren’t so bad, but then day four to five you’re getting a little over it, but you’re in a routine.”
The guardsmen must serve at least five years of active duty as part of their education agreement, taking them through to 2019.