CRESTVIEW — Ensign Justin Rebholz, 22, of Crestview, and his U.S. Coast Guard Academy classmates had a special guest at their May 17 graduation ceremony — the 45th president of the United States, Donald J. Trump.

The event took place at the four-year, accredited military academy, located in New London, Connecticut, according to Rebholz.

"President Trump originally was not scheduled to be at graduation this year, but because of his schedule and where he was at he decided to attend," Rebholz said.

After graduates took the field, the president was honored with a 21-gun salute as he walked onstage.

"He delivered about an hour long speech. He poked fun at our classmates, thanked us for our commitment to the Coast Guard, and talked about the direction in which the Coast Guard was going. Both the commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral Zukunft, and President Trump were on stage as we walked across," Rebholz said. Trump shook every graduate's hand as well.

"To be honest, I don't remember a lot about that walk across the stage! (With) the culmination of the crowd in the background, the feeling that this was actually happening, and the fact the president of the United States was standing with his hand outstretched towards me, I'm just glad I made it all the way across in one piece," Rebholz said.

What was Trump like?

"He was taller than I had expected! When I walked up to him I said with a bigger-than-necessary smile, 'Thank you for being here Mr. President!' I don't remember what he said back to that, but after the picture was taken and I was releasing his hand, he said to me, 'Have a great life!' The moment couldn't have been more surreal! I even forgot to wave to my parents sitting in the audience on my way back to my seat," Rebholz said.

Rebholz graduated from the academy with a bachelor's of science degree in civil engineering and earned an officer's commission as an ensign.

Coast Guard training

Rebholz was accepted as a student in May of 2013 — accepted students get an automatic four-year scholarship — and arrived at USCGA July 1.

On arrival, cadets begin an eight-week Coast Guard basic training session called "Swab Summer" — "where we are yelled at and broken down in order to form a family bond with each other and learn Coast Guard basic principles," Rebholz said.

Over the four years, they work to earn different privileges, like being able to look at their food and walk to class without being in formation, and are usually restricted to base and wear uniforms to all their classes. "We have regular personal inspections, military testing, multiple daily formations, and have to pass a fitness test once every semester," Rebholz said.

Summer assignments included sailing on training vessels to various U.S. and international locations, qualifying at the pistol range and patrolling the waters of Lake Eerie. After his freshman year, Rebholz spent six weeks aboard the Eagle, a 295-foot Coast Guard training vessel he and fellow cadets sailed down to the Caribbean, with stops in Puerto Rico, Aruba, Cozumel, and Miami. The next half of that summer was spent at a small boat station in Cleveland, Ohio.

Cadets also take training flights on helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, earn sports credits every semester, and train incoming freshmen during Swab Summer.

Rebholz, who played football and baseball at Crestview High School and became football captain in his senior year, also competed in football and baseball at USCGA.

Serving with gratitude 

After 30 days of leave, Rebholz will report as a student engineer for the next two years aboard the Waesche, a 418-foot national security cutter in Alameda, California. While there, he'll advance to the rank of lieutenant junior grade, and plans to further his engineering studies.

"It is a stone's throw away from San Francisco and I couldn't be more excited. Our main missions are law enforcement and drug interdiction ... up and down the western coast of the United States and beyond," he said.

"I feel beyond blessed to be given this opportunity to serve this country and would not have been able to even come close to completing the academy journey without my parents, Tim and Mary Rebholz. They have been my number one fans and the reason I decided to attend the Coast Guard Academy in the first place was to make them proud. Hugging my mom after graduation was one of the moments in my life I will always treasure and never forget," the 2013 Crestview High School graduate said.

"I would also like to thank all the great people of Crestview. This town did nothing but prepare me for my time at the academy, as well as everything I will face in my future Coast Guard career. All my teachers, guidance counselors, coaches (Coach Tim Gillis and especially Coach Kevin Pettis, who introduced me to the academy), friends, and community members along the way have my utmost gratitude and thankfulness.

"I love this small-town panhandle city, and plan on returning to the area somewhere long down the road. I am both humbled and so blessed by this opportunity to serve."