SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine (AP) _ When Petty Officer 1st Class Rick Gamache joined the U.S. Coast Guard 12 years ago, he paid his dues with grunt work _ swabbing decks, washing dishes, cleaning the toilets.

These days, an officer like Gamache might be surprised to find those dues already paid _ by privately contracted civilians.

``It not only saves money, but it puts training to better use,'' said Cmdr. Mike Lapinski, a Coast Guard spokesman in Washington, D.C. ``It's the only way we can operate with the number of people we have and the number of missions we have.''

Lapinski said a strong U.S. economy and lack of recruits has forced all branches of the military to seek ways to attract people and keep them beyond their mandatory service terms.

The prospect of having someone else do the menial work is seen as a perk.

At the Coast Guard station in South Portland, for example, new sailors have been freed from tasks like cleaning the decks of cutters. Now private contractors do the work while the ships are in port, said Chief Warrant Officer Dick Foy.

Other changes include a contract with NISH, formerly known as the National Industries for the Severely Handicapped, to help run the mess hall. Previously, sailors were yanked from training for a month at a time to wash dishes.

All together, the South Portland station doles out $90,000 a year to contractors. The change has another upside _ local civilians get jobs with good pay and benefits.

But not everyone is pleased. Some old salts like Gamache believe the new generation of sailors is missing out on more than dishpan hands and sore backs.

Grunt work, he said, teaches discipline and humility.

``They're not missing out on doing dishes; I think they're missing out on professional growth,'' said Gamache, a 12-year veteran. ``You have to crawl before you can walk and run.''

Chief Warrant Officer Lisa Bartran disagrees.

``Mess cooking keeps you humble, but the first time you go out in rough seas in a search and rescue, you get humble real fast,'' she said. ``I think we learn the lessons one way or another.''

With sailors responsible for a range of duties that include rescuing boaters, dealing with drug traffickers, and enforcing fishing restrictions, Bartran said the shift away from grunt work serves the greater good.

``You can either have one of our folks doing dishes, or you can have them training for searches and rescues on our new 47-foot boat,'' she said.

``When you need a police officer, do you want the police officer with the best training or the one who has been at the station cleaning the toilets?''