Note: Second of two parts
As Surface Rescue Swimmer School (SRSS) - Class 18005 moved into its third week aboard Naval Air Station Jacksonville, the 17 students who remained had battled through two of the most grueling and stressful weeks of their lives.
Each one had their own motivation for pushing through the pain.
“I am big on family, so I always think what would my family would think if I were to quit,” said MN2 Zachary Miller of USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19). “That’s what motivates me. Would I be able to look my father in the face and tell him I quit something? I would never do that.”
Week three was also when many of the students still in the class knew they would make it and would become Navy rescue swimmers.
“It was definitely week three for me, when I did my first scenario and it was with AWRC Barry Hickman,” said STG3 Lauren Charles of USS James E. Williams (DDG 95). “I went through it. I did my disentanglement, all the procedures. I did it really fast and I heard chief say, ‘She crushed it.’ That felt really good.”
Other students knew from the beginning they would pass the course. “I knew from day one that I would make it,” said QM2 Chris McGann of USS Jason Dunham (DDG 109). “The people who had doubt sorted themselves out within a week or two.”
McGann, who was named class motivator, said he took the course “day by day, meal by meal.”
In SRSS, the titles of class motivator and class leader are assigned to the students randomly by the instructors and they are reassigned during the class to shake things up and keep the class on their toes. McGann said he was named class motivator because he was very quiet in class and the instructors wanted him to become more vocal.
Week three would build on what the class had learned in the first two weeks, while maintaining the daily level three physical training and pool conditioning exercises.
The main focus of training for the week would be multi-rescue scenarios, which involves multiple victims in the water. Students must assess the status of each victim, render first aid if necessary and then get them to safety with different rescue devices.
“Week three has them putting into practice what they learned,” said AWS2 Grayson Young, an instructor at the school since 2015. “So it goes from us teaching them to evaluating them and critiquing them.”
Week four, or finals week, is all about evaluation.
It starts with practical first aid, where students have to access and treat simulated injured victims. “The medical aspects, which the doctors teach here in the schoolhouse, are outstanding,” said EN1 Joseph Chase, an instructor at the school for more than two years. “What we teach to the students is absolutely crucial.”
The highlight of the week is the day/night operations in the St. Johns River for swim evaluations in an open water environment. The river operations continue until after sundown, but the final is not yet over. Students head back to the schoolhouse where evaluations continue in the completely darkened pool.
As the students were being driven to the NAS Jacksonville marina for river operations, the van was filled with SRSS students laughing and cracking jokes. It was the sound of students who were confident in their ability to overcome the challenge that faced them in the river.
Their confidence had grown each week. Only three of the 17 students who made it through the first week did not pass the course and none failed during finals week.
“I believe in my skills and my training,” said GM3 Israel Acosta-Perez of USS Thomas Hudner (DDG 116). “I know I can do it.”
This was the second time Perez went through class after not passing during the finals week of his first attempt. “It was week four, day two, two days from graduation,” he said.
“I made mistakes during finals and had to go home. The instructors reached out to my command and convinced them to let me come back. Which, I am really grateful for. I’m glad they were able to get me back.”
Perez was one of the 14 students in Class 18005 to pass.
The class graduation was held the next day in the same room where the students first assembled four weeks earlier for SRSS orientation.
SRSS is an all-volunteer school for both students and instructors. “It’s awesome. It is a fun job,” said BM1 Christopher Anderson, who was a rescue swimmer for more than five years before becoming an instructor. “This schoolhouse is the best command I’ve ever seen in the Navy.”
Anderson said that the biggest problem for many incoming students is training. “The surface fleet needs swimmers,” he said, “but a lot of times they don’t understand what it takes to be a swimmer.”
Navy ships are required to have two rescue swimmers aboard at all times to get under way.
“We instill a sense of realness to them from day one,” Chase said. “This is a real-life thing, to go out and risk their lives to save another. You have to ask yourself, are you ready to pay that cost? Not a lot of them are and you see it right away. You can see it in their eyes that they are not willing to be here.”
That feeling is embodied in the SRSS motto: “So others may live.”
“There is no more noble cause,” Chase said.