This time around: Coast Guard Academy cadet reflects on prior service

Written by Lt. Megan Mervar

Cadet 1st Class Matthew Hanks is not only the highest ranking cadet at the Coast Guard Academy, he's also prior enlisted with eight years of military service. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Cadet 1st Class Matthew Hanks is not only the highest ranking cadet at the Coast Guard Academy, he’s also prior enlisted with eight years of military service. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory Mendenhall.

On the surface, First Class Cadet Matthew Hanks appears to be a typical cadet: he plays baseball, he spends some nights up late working civil engineering design problems, and he’s gearing up for life as a commissioned officer.

But a look beneath the surface reveals someone vastly different. Not only is he the spring 2015 regimental commander, the highest-ranking cadet in the corps of cadets, he’s already been in the Coast Guard for almost eight years. The twenty-six year-old Chesapeake, Virginia, native is on track to graduate with his classmates in May, but he never imagined his journey would land him as a cadet at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

Hanks’ uncle had served in the Coast Guard as a machinery technician and worked his way up to the warrant officer ranks. With no plans after high school and the influence of his uncle, Hanks applied to Coast Guard boot camp, graduating in May of 2007, and headed off for a tour on board the Cutter Washington out of Apra Harbor, Guam. While on Washington, Hanks was accepted to the Airman Training Program in Clearwater, Florida, followed by avionics electrical technician A-School in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.

Hanks’ first tour as an AET on a HH-65 helicopter at Air Station Houston gave him the confirmation he’d made the right decision in joining.

“After my first rescue, that sealed it,” said Hanks. “Just seeing that little boy’s face light up with joy when he entered the helicopter…he was no longer scared. The way his family was so appreciative, that did it for me.”

When he got a letter in the mail about visiting the Academy for the “Guardian Challenge,” a program geared toward recruiting the CG enlisted force to attend the Academy, he decided it was worth a trip to New London, but didn’t have much ambition of attending as a cadet.

No one in Hanks’ family had been to college. His father and grandfather had both worked as life-long electricians, and his mom was a hairdresser. His grandfather, who Hanks had always admired for his strong work ethic, had one dream for his grandchildren: that they go to college.

Two weeks after Hanks visited the Academy for the Guardian Challenge, his grandfather passed away.

“I thought it must be a sign that I was supposed to go here,” said Hanks.

Cadet 1st Class Matthew Hanks took the reigns of Regimental Commander, the highest ranking cadet position, in a change of command ceremony in early January. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory Mendenhall.

Cadet 1st Class Matthew Hanks took the reigns of Regimental Commander, the highest ranking cadet position, in a change of command ceremony in early January. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory Mendenhall.

He applied and was offered admission to the Academy preparatory program at the New Mexico Military Institute, with an assurance he’d be granted admission to the Academy as long as he maintained a good performance in prep school. He left Houston for a three-week indoctrination at the Academy before heading out to New Mexico for one year, and then finally began swab summer with the class of 2015.

Three and a half years later, Hanks’ supervisors recognized that his leadership potential and military performance would make him the best person to lead the corps of cadets. Hanks is now responsible for the overall leadership and guidance of the corps of cadets, ensuring cadets maintain good order and discipline, cultivating high morale, and setting goals and expectations for the corps.

Hanks feels privileged that his new role gives him the opportunity to pay it forward.

“I feel the need to improve every unit I am assigned to,” said Hanks. “But I also feel an obligation to my classmates and the underclass because of my unique background. It would be selfish not to share my knowledge and experiences. I have made so many good friends here and they all know my story, my values, but I did this for the ones who I have yet to reach out to.”

In addition to serving as the spring 2015 regimental commander, Hanks also plays on the Academy's baseball team. Photo courtesy of Matthew Hanks.

In addition to serving as the spring 2015 regimental commander, Hanks also plays on the Academy’s baseball team. Photo courtesy of Matthew Hanks.

Lt. Claire Davenport, whose role is to advise and mentor the regimental commander and regimental staff, saw how Hanks’ experience could enrich the cadet corps as he was considered for the position.

“In his first few weeks on the job, I clearly see First Class Hanks’ enlisted experience contributing to his maturity and leadership perspective,” said Davenport. “He has been in the shoes of those whom he and his classmates will lead as officers and can provide that unique perspective to others.”

So while most of his classmates have one Coast Guard indoctrination program under their belts, Hanks has three: boot camp, CGA Scholars indoctrination and Swab Summer. While most of his classmates are preparing for their first experience with a Coast Guard move, Hanks is on his eighth. While most of his classmates spend their last semester at the Academy focused on their majors and sports, Hanks will delicately balance his academic and athletic obligations with heavy decision-making that affects the entire corps.

Once May rolls around, not only will Hanks have been the first person in his family to graduate from college, he will have led an entire student body at a United States military service academy.

And what does Hanks hope to do after graduation? Fly, of course. His aspirations have him back on the HH-65, but in the pilot’s seat, this time around.

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