USCG Reserve Recruit Company Commander Leads By Example
by U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Richard Brahm
August 19, 2020
Twenty years ... That's how long he was on the force.
He worked the streets, was promoted to detective, and eventually made sergeant, but that wasn't enough. He wanted more. He got assigned to a patrol division, the Narcotics and High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area unit, Special Weapons and Tactics team, dive team, detective bureau, and was a task force officer with Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms Bureau of Investigations.
Then somewhere along the way, he signed up to be a Coast Guard Reservist.
But throughout his self-growth, he realized that something was missing. He couldn't quite put his finger on what it was, and it wasn't until he found out about a solicitation from the Coast Guard that he realized what he was missing. They were looking for more "Drill Sergeants," and he knew that was it. That was the key. It was the thing that could really help balance his skillset and he was looking forward to training the future of the military.
It was December of 2010 when Dan Pleskonko decided to join the Coast Guard Reserves. His first step in joining the service was going through the Direct Entry Petty Officer Training Program, basically the full 8-week boot camp condensed down into 3-weeks for prior service members. At the time, Pleskonko was working for the city of Camden, New Jersey, as a police officer. After graduating from DEPOT he earned his rating of Maritime Enforcement Specialist.
U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Daniel Pleskonko receives recognition as a reservist company commander at U.S. Coast Guard Training Center Cape May on August 8, 2020. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Seaman Josalyn Brown)
"The Coast Guard saved me almost immediately. Right around the time that I completed my Coast Guard basic training, the Camden City Police Department was forced to lay off officers. I was initially included in that group, but because I joined the service I was entitled to certain rights,” said Pleskonko. "Because of joining the service, I was able to continue my career as a police officer. I immediately fell in love with the Coast Guard. The song ‘On my way to Cape May, I fell in love with you’ rings so true to me."
For years his love for the nation and his local community kept him bouncing between the Coast Guard Reserves and his full-time police officer job. It wasn't until later in his career that he felt the call to become a company commander.
"I went to Company Commander School in March 2019, but I was the worst CC student ever. I thought my years of police and law enforcement experience would prepare me for the training to be a company commander, but I was wrong and ended up not making it," said Pleskonko. "I tried again in August 2019 and it was the hardest thing I have ever done. It humbled me in so many ways. I completed the training and met the standards, and because of this, I strive to grow and be better than the day before."
“Out of 14 Company Commander Schools that I have been assigned to instruct, Pleskonko has been without a doubt the student that comes to my mind that persevered the most under my watch,” said Chief Petty Officer Milton “Gus” Casey, the Company Commander School chief. “His no-quit attitude when times are tough got him to the finish line. There are no free passes in Company Commander School. You need to meet a standard and Pleskonko did.”
“There not many people that come to my mind that would do this program once, but he did it twice,” said Casey. “To me that says a lot about someone's character. There is a saying that we say here as Company Commanders - We need to set the example and be the example. Pleskonko is the example!”
And grow Pleskonko did. He took his role of being a company commander seriously. He worked hard on his CC qualifications and tried to set the example as to what a reservist could be for both his fellow CC's and his recruits.
At times, Training Center Cape May, the birthplace of the Coast Guard's enlisted corps, can seem like an isolated place. It's located on Cape May Island at the end of the Cape May peninsula in New Jersey.
U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Daniel Pleskonko instructs Coast Guard recruits during training at U.S. Coast Guard Training Center Cape May on October 25, 2019. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Richard Brahm)
There are roughly 50 company commanders at any given time on the base and they are hyper-focused on completing their mission of ensuring the Coast Guard's newest members are physically fit, smartly disciplined, and basically trained. While Pleskonko was working hard to train the future men and women of the Coast Guard, COVID was rapidly spreading around the globe and changing everything.
"When COVID-19 hit I was in a ‘break-in status’ with DEPOT 03-20 and the lead company commander was Chief Vanderjack and the assistant company commanders were Chief Lakose and Chief Repasi," said Pleskonko. "COVID-19 cut the three-week program down to two and a half weeks; essentially cutting a portion of my break-in time off, but I was lucky to have an amazing team. They worked to train me while simultaneously training the recruits of DEPOT 03-20."
During the initial stages of COVID, the regiment didn't even really slow down. In fact, it was the exact opposite. The command wanted to ensure that the Coast Guard's newest members could get to their units safely and on time – lives and mission success depended on them. So with their course set, they called for full speed ahead.
"The Regiment took the ball and ran with it, responding to COVID-19 like Super Bowl champions. Each day things changed and all the company commanders embraced it and made it work to the best of our ability," Pleskonko said. "At the time, everyone had a different view of the pandemic. Be as safe as possible, wash your hands, and wear a face mask, but most CCs had the mindset of 'we can conquer anything'."
For Pleskonko, his years of police experience provided him a little bit of a different perspective.
"Being a police officer you deal with blood, gore, disease, and death. You name it and I've probably dealt with it," said Pleskonko. "When the pandemic first started, I had this mindset that if I didn't catch it in the streets of Camden, I wasn't catching it now."
But after being in the COVID environment and seeing the impact the virus was having on people all over the world his thinking changed.
"The thought of an infected recruit coming to the TRACEN and infecting others is hard to digest, but we are all professionals and the risk is part of our job," Pleskonko said. "Turning recruits into working members of the Coast Guard is an awesome feeling. The risk to myself was definitely worth it. We just always washed our hands, tried to not touch our face, and we disinfected and sanitized absolutely everything, as often as possible."
With a little bit of patience and a lot of adapting, Pleskonko and the other company commanders successfully graduated their DEPOT recruits.
For Pleskonko though, he would soon face a new even tougher challenge; being assigned as the lead company commander for the newest batch of DEPOT recruits. But a few things were different this time.
The Training Center had instituted a new ‘restriction of movement’ period into the new recruit training schedule. This ROM ensured that newly arrived recruits didn't potentially infect other new arrivals, or the recruits currently in training. Also, due to the changes that were happening at the Training Center, multiple DEPOT classes were rescheduled and combined.
"For me, running DEPOT 04-20 was a challenging experience. Not only had COVID changed all of the normal procedures and schedules, but this was also my first company as a lead CC," Pleskonko said. “The April and May classes were combined to create a special COVID-19 version of DEPOT. The program was expanded to four weeks, consisting of a two-week ROM and two weeks of boot camp.”
"DEPOT 04-20 was a success because of all of the help I received from my assistant company commanders, BM1 Curry and HS2 Chatterjee. I lovingly nicknamed them 'the Crew'," Pleskonko said. "Every day was a challenge, the Recruit Training Schedule was fluid and always changing, but with great teamwork of ‘The Crew’, the standard was met and DEPOT 04-20 was a success.”
"Petty Officer Pleskonko is by far one of the most selfless individuals I've had the pleasure of meeting or working alongside of,” said Master Chief Petty Officer Randall Lawrence, the battalion commander at Training Center Cape May. “Throughout our time spent together in Company Commander School and every day since, he's provided an unparalleled level of support to his shipmates and has served as an integral part our team effort here at Training Center Cape May. His humility, compassion, and ability to be an effective teammate, follower, and leader have exemplified the traits and skills necessary to successfully serve as a Company Commander," he said.
The American public and the Coast Guard rely on the recruits that complete training here. That critical job requires both active duty and reservists working side by side to accomplish the mission. Once the recruits finish their training, they will disperse across the globe to help complete front line Coast Guard operations.
“I'm proud of the fact that I can bring my diverse perspective as a Reservist and my years of real world experience to the recruits in training and show them by my actions that ALL members of the Coast Guard matter and can make a difference,” said Pleskonko.
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