The history of the service is very complicated because it is the amalgamation of five federal agencies. These agencies -- the Revenue Cutter Service, the Lighthouse Service, the Steamboat Inspection Service, the Bureau of Navigation and the Lifesaving Service -- were originally independent, but had overlapping authorities and were shuffled around the government.
The Coast Guard, through its forefathers, is the oldest continuous seagoing service and has fought in almost every war since the Constitution became the law of the land in 1789. After the Revolutionary War (1775-83), the Continental Navy was disbanded. From 1790-98, when the U.S. Navy was created, the revenue cutters were the only national maritime service. The acts establishing the Navy also empowered the president to use the revenue cutters to supplement the fleet when needed. Laws later clarified the relationship between the Coast Guard and the Navy.
The Coast Guard is one of five branches of the U.S. Armed Forces and falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security. The Coast Guard's responsibilities include search and rescue (SAR), maritime law enforcement (MLE), aids to navigation (ATON), icebreaking, environmental protection, port security and military readiness. In order to accomplish these missions, the Coast Guard's 41,000 active-duty men and women, 7,000 reservists and 31,000 auxiliarists (as of 2018) serve in a variety of job fields ranging from operation specialists and small-boat operators and maintenance specialists to electronic technicians and aviation mechanics.
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The Verdict: The Coast Guard is by far the least "flashy" of the branches. It gets little time in the limelight. It is also probably one of the tightest-knit "families" among the services. By and large, the Coast Guard focuses on law enforcement, not large-scale military operations. If you like the law, assuring security, working as a member of a small team and a seagoing lifestyle, the Coast Guard may be for you. Of course, make sure you like water and can stand being on a boat!
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