‘Semper Paratus’ society revives U.S. Coast Guard as military training unit at Norwich

After a period of limited club activities that amounted to little more than briefings and kind of a book club on the United States Coast Guard, Semper Paratus has been revived and brought back to Norwich as a specialty unit with a tough training requirement.

The new status is due to the efforts of Joseph Vallo, a junior geology major from Toms River, N.J., who now serves as the commanding officer of Semper Paratus (Latin for “Always Ready” and  the official motto of the Coast Guard and the title of the official Coast Guard marching song.)

After making the decision to come to Norwich, Vallo was excited to join Semper Paratus from what he had heard about it. However, his excitement was dampened after arriving when he learned that the club had diminished years before due to a lack of interest.

“No one was really interested because it was just an information dump. It was like ‘here’s all this information. Come back if you want to’,” he said.

Vallo, 23, was the perfect candidate to revive the program. He had transferred from the Coast Guard Academy after struggling with the math requirements and also served as a rescue diver, so he already knew a lot about the Coast Guard.

“I figured, if anything, the Corps likes PT (physical training). They like services where you can do something and get your hands on it. And that’s where I put the twist on it and decided to make it a special unit,” he explained.

To qualify Semper Paratus as a special unit though, there were extensive steps that had to be taken. The first was just starting Semper Paratus back up as a club. From here, there were more steps to ensure the unit was accepted and could train people safely.

“You have to start with creating a club,” said Kenny Johnson, 20, a junior nursing major from Twentynine Palms, Cal., who is a member. “Down at student activities, Greg McGrath (head of student clubs and activities) wants you to have a constitution and roles. You have to outline your officer positions and what they do. And once you do that and it gets approved, you are a club. You can do things like book meetings.”

Johnson went on to explain the difference between a special unit and a club: “If you want to be a special unit, it has be approved and there are waivers that have to be signed, and you have to get permission to use resources like the pool from the swim coach.

A big advantage that Semper Paratus had when it came to getting things signed off was the influence of the advisor, who happens to be the Norwich president, Richard Schneider.

“President Schneider being our advisor is more than willing to sign anything and being the advisor is really convenient because people will say ‘Oh you got the President’s seal of approval? It must be solid then’,” Johnson said.

However, there is often back and forth between President Schneider and Semper Paratus according to Johnson. Often he was hard to sway on topics, including Semper Paratus becoming a specialty unit, he said.

Vallo agreed: “He wanted it to be more of the informational thing, and we thank him for his help every step of the way because he has done a lot for us, but that was the one thing he wanted to go one way but we made sure it went the other way.”

Vallo said club members have a collaborative process with President Schneider, saying, “We’ll have a conversation like ‘This is the plan, this is what we’re doing, and this is where we plan to go.’ And he kind of gives us the okay and says where he might want things tweaked, and we do, we tweak it for him because he is helping us out.”

Semper Paratus specializes in teaching its members the ins and outs of the skills and knowledge required to be in the Coast Guard. Vallo, who served in the United States Coast Guard, said the training includes things such as water survival, underwater knot tying, the history and background of the Coast Guard, and more. Through Semper Paratus, members are also able to get information on ways to commission as an officer into the Coast Guard, though such opportunities are few and far between.

Johnson described a process offered by the United States Coast Guard in which senior students at senior military colleges such as Norwich can apply, and if accepted, can commission right after graduation and go to officer candidate school.

“It is very, very limited in terms of spots, and that’s what Semper Paratus was designed for, as that conduit to help people into all these different events,” said Vallo.

Vallo said a Norwich student has been going through that process now, providing helpful insights. “He’s feeding me all of that information as to what might happen or what kids can start doing now and stuff like that,” he said.

Although the special unit has a Coast Guard focus, there are several members who do not aspire to join the Coast Guard but still see value in the skills and lessons learned in the unit, whether for the challenge and fun or because it could help them get ready for another branch of the military.

“As of right now there’s two of us who want to be Navy Seals so we’re in it for the swimming portion. And it’s definitely worked, my 500 (meter) time has dropped by over 30 seconds, that’s pretty substantial,” said Jake Nichols, 19, a sophomore geology major from Batavia, N.Y. Nichols is currently a seaman in the special unit, which means he is still basically trying out.

Elijah Piverato, 21, a sophomore criminal justice major from Norfolk, Va., said he joined because “I love swimming.” He also mentioned, though, that the Army has a diving school and that he can see himself trying to prepare for that as well.

Along with pool and water exercises, learning about CPR and first aid, there are classroom sessions in the evenings focused on the kind of jobs available in the Coast Guard and the skills needed.

Besides the specific skills learned, Piverato said he values the sense of brotherhood that goes along with being part of Semper Paratus. Nichols, who is a member of Golden Anchor, a Navy themed special unit on campus, went along with that idea as well.

“In Golden Anchor we’re trying to weed out the weak, but in Semper Paratus it’s very teamwork-based. If someone is struggling, you help them through.”

Nichols said in one of the teamwork-oriented exercises, a group of members hold an empty stretcher above their heads while treading water and try to keep it from touching the water.

Piverato was part of the first group of seamen last year to go through the “indoctrination phase” of Semper Paratus. Vallo said it is rigorous, with the “Blitzkrieg” phase, which involves activities Monday through Friday for the first three weeks, drastically slimming out the ranks. This past year the first indoctrination phase cut the class down from 27 members to only five.

Unlike other special units on campus though, the cadre of Semper Paratus are not upperclassman that went through an indoctrination phase like the new members of the unit. However, they have still been through training to qualify them as cadre.

Vallo talked about the cadre selection last year saying, “I asked around looking for officers and as a rook, not a lot of people are going to help you out. So I turned to my rook brothers and some other people I knew and they said, ‘yeah we’ll help you out’. And they gave me a hand.”

To make sure all of the training that is conducted for the pledges would be safe, Vallo and the rest of the cadre have all done it first themselves. Vallo continued, “Every process that we’ve put anybody through, we’ve done previously.”

“It’s a society that’s just getting on its feet so you have to account for that. There’s a stigma about it being the new society on campus so they’re the ones getting picked on. So that’s definitely a factor but all the guys there have potential to be really good leaders,” said Nichols.

Piverato and Nichols said there has been a large improvement from last to this year, specifically in terms of organization.

Semper Paratus has been taking steps this year to make itself more financially stable. Semper Paratus members recently worked as the dealers at Norwich’s casino night, aiming to collect the money they would get paid for their services and use it to fund the special unit, according to Piverato.

So far, costs involved with being a member are very small. All of the uniforms worn are Corps of Cadets issued so there are no additional uniform costs. Nichols said that the only cost he sees for new members is buying goggles for their time in the pool.
Vallo also noted that the special unit is van qualified now, and money raised would go towards taking trips to different Coast Guard stations in the area.

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