Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Training

NEW YORK - MAY 27: In this handout image provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, a Coast Guard rescue swimmer hangs from a HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter, from Air Station Cape Cod, while performing a search and rescue demonstration for people enjoying Fleet Week festivities at the Intrepid Air and Space Museum May 27, 2006 in New York City. The week-long event offers parades, military demonstrations, and public tours of the participating vessels.
••• Matthew Belson / U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images

By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample

COAST GUARD STATION, Elizabeth City -- They are a small group within the U.S. Coast Guard, only about 300 of them servicewide. To join their ranks, candidates must endure physical and mental challenges that rival those facing any potential Army Ranger, Navy SEAL or Air Force Pararescueman.

The Coast Guard's rescue swimmers are the brave young men and women who hoist or free-fall from a helicopter into dangerous seas to perform daring rescues.

The rescue swimmer training school here has one of the highest student attrition rates of any special operations school in the military. Roughly 75 students go through the school each year, and fewer than half make it out.

According to Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Thor Wentz, who helps run the school, many candidates give up before stepping foot in the pool.

They are the DORs, meaning 'Drop on Request.'

"As far as being difficult, it's extremely difficult," Wentz said. "We have an extremely high attrition rate, better than 50 percent. The not truly focused people will tend to disappear in the first couple of days."

Recently, he said, an entire class was disbanded within the first week of training. "Twelve students showed up, and they were all gone within the first week," he explained.

According to the course syllabus, rescue swimmers must have flexibility, strength, endurance, and be able to function for 30 minutes in heavy seas.

However, the 137-page operations manual includes lessons in eight different water deployment procedures; 11 ways to approach, carry and release a survivor; seven ways to release equipment for Navy and Air Force flyers; and ways to detangle the services' different parachutes and backpacks.

Rescue swimmers also must have the skills to provide basic pre-hospital life support for rescued individuals.

And as part of their training, candidates must complete a four-week emergency medical training course at the Coast Guard EMT school in Petaluma, Calif.

"One of the main things we are looking for is comfort in the water under stressful circumstances," Wentz said. "Most people, if they grow up swimming, they become proficient at swimming, but when they are tasked with water duties, that's when we start to see people break down — they begin to panic.

"That's when we say, 'Sorry, you're not right for this program,'" he emphasized.

Though the overwhelming majority of rescue swimmers are men, unlike other special ops groups, the program is "all inclusive," Wentz pointed out. He said three women are rescue swimmer qualified. "This wasn't a 'gimme' for them, either," he said. "They were asked to do and did everything the men did."

The first six weeks of the four-month course is loaded with rescue swimmer training that Wentz said can be physically and mentally taxing. "They are being fed with a fire hose," he said. "They're being hit hard, it's all day long, and it's very intensive. There is no down time."

While they are going through the swimming and classroom phase of their training, candidates also must attend classes to learn about the aircraft they will serve on.

Finally, before graduating, candidates are required to pass a test involving multiple rescue scenarios, he said.

Adding even more pressure during training, instructors treat candidates with a "drill sergeant type in your face" mentality. However, Wentz noted that such treatment is done professionally and with respect.

Candidates selected for the school must first go through what is called the airmen training course. The four-month-long course, which, despite its name, has nothing to do with the Air Force, helps prepare candidates for the grueling rescue swimmer course.

Wentz said that during the airmen phase, candidates are familiarized with life at a Coast Guard Air Station, but more importantly, he said, they are tested to see "if they have what it takes to become a rescue swimmer."

"We make sure they've got the mental and physical abilities to come to me for the initial part of their training," Wentz said.

"Only the mentally tough stick it out."

Petty Officer 3rd Class Tim Kessell, 25, has been a rescue swimmer for four years and has become a role model for others here. He said everyone isn't cut out to be a rescue swimmer. To be one, he said, "takes a lot of conditioning."

It is easy to understand why. The required monthly physical training test includes wide-arm push-ups, situps, pull-ups, chin-ups, 12-minute crawl swim (500-yard minimum), 25-yard underwater swim and a 200-yard buddy tow.

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Kessell's workouts includes push-ups, situps, resistance training and up to a five-mile run. During lunch he rides his bike.

Twice each week he spends two hours in the water, conditioning his body with timed laps back and forth, up and down the Olympic-size pool.

On a recent day he lead two other recent graduates in a series of anaerobic exercises. Kessell used his stopwatch to time the trio as they raced the length of the pool, 25 yards in 30 seconds, pausing for 10 seconds, then taking off again.

"We are all about operating at our physical best," Wentz explained. "We sell lifestyle and fitness here for a lifetime, for a career. That's the only way to keep our people productive."

Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Baierski, 23, a recent graduate, said becoming a rescue swimmer was the hardest thing he'd ever done.

"If you don't have your mind 100 percent, you're not going to make it.

And if you're not giving 100 percent every single day and pushing yourself as hard as you can, you're going to get kicked out of school," he said.

Baierski said that graduating from the rescue swimmer school means that he has accomplished something that most people can't, which is what Matt Novellino, 27, of Denville, N.J., is trying to prove.

This is his second opportunity, and already his class of 12 is down to four.

Over the past six weeks, he, Josh Mros, 23, of Charleston, S.C., Josh Mayfield, 21, of Chesapeake, Va., and Ben Cournia, 25, of Bemidji, Minn., have become close friends.

Novellino was a member of the disbanded class, and he got to attend the following course instead.

Discussing the different challenges of the course, he said the school's instructors "push right in the beginning to see who's going to quit."

"That way they know who is dedicated. They don't want to be wasting their time," he added.

For Cournia, it's the physical challenge. Though he is the best swimmer of the group, he doesn't have the upper body strength his comrades have. And despite two hours of physical training each morning, doing push-ups gets him down.

He said, however, that his comrades motivate him, along with the idea that if he gives everything he has, he won't be dropped.

"I know I have the ability to do this," he said. "And I want to be rescue swimmer."

As Coasties, they all must be good swimmers, yet each admitted the swimming part of the course challenges them the most. "They'll take you to your limits," Mayfield said, "but you have to go past your limits.

They want to see if you can keep going."

Bemidji said the tough treatment candidates receive from their instructors comes from a desire to get the most out of them. "They are not mean, evil people," he said. "They get your blood up, but that's what they want to do. You can tell that they really care about how we're doing."

How well they are doing will be decided over the next 13 weeks. The four remaining students still have a long way to go, but Wentz said the four thus far are doing well.

Upon graduation, Novellino said he will take pride in knowing he has proved what he is made of, and that he achieved something his father, a Vietnam veteran, could be proud of. "That something to live up to," he said. "And I know he'll be proud of me."

Mayfield said his graduation moment will probably get a little emotional.

"It's going to be a blessing," he said. "Because we will have the best job in the whole world."