For Coast Guard rescue swimmers, waiting for the 'big case' is hardest part

Posted: Monday, April 03, 2000

An Alaska AP Member Exchange

KODIAK (AP) -- It was Christmas morning 1993 and Coast Guard rescue swimmer Wil Milam was searching for two duck hunters who were reported missing near the Columbia River in Oregon.

Milam was 26 years old, fresh out of training and revving to go. As the new guy, he had volunteered for Christmas duty. When the bell rang, his heart leaped. It was his first search and rescue case.

After looking for the hunters for hours, Milam's team spotted two camouflaged figures on the shore of the river. As he approached, Milam realized they were both dead.

''It was a cold morning,'' he said. ''They were frozen solid. It was Christmas and we had to take two frozen bodies back to their families.''

Since then, Milam has accepted the fact that retrieving bodies is part of his job, although it's not a part he relishes.

''The sad reality is more times than not you're going out to pick up a dead body -- not a live one,'' Milam said.

Milam is one of 17 rescue swimmers currently stationed at Kodiak. Their search and rescue assignments in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea are some of the toughest in the world. It's not unusual for them to be called out in zero visibility to search for survivors of sunken fishing vessels in seas raging to more than 30 feet.

But they say the idea of pulling even one person out of the water to safety is what keeps them going.

''We come into this job to save lives,'' said 12-year rescue swimmer Senior Chief Olaf Leavelle. ''We do see people die, but when you get that one who survives it makes up for a lot.''

The adrenaline rush that floods the body in the course of a good rescue is a bonus.

''People that do this job are definitely adrenaline seekers,'' Chief George Cavallo said. ''We like jobs that get us out a little on the crazy side.''

Most of the swimmers agree a sense of humor is also a qualification for the job.

''If you looked at everything seriously, you'd burn out quickly,'' Milam said. ''You have to be able to vent some of the things you see. A lot of times you try to just make light of it.''

Saving lives and playing hero are the glamorous parts of the job. But it's the daily workouts, false maydays, body pickups, and mistaken flare sightings that consume much of a swimmer's time -- and keep them ready for the big case.

''People see Baywatch and think it looks great, but it's not always as good as it seems on TV,'' Leavelle said.

Before a swimmer even gets a shot at saving lives, he or she must go through an intensive 16-week school in Elizabeth City, N. C. Class size is generally six students. The dropout rate is 50 percent.

''At the school they learn how to use, inspect, and prepare aviation life support equipment, dewatering pumps, life rafts, parachutes and other gear,'' Leavelle said. ''They go through a rigorous physical training program -- pool workouts, sit-ups, pull-ups, push-ups, chin-ups, life saving drills.''

In school, instructors see just what a person's made of. Mental toughness is just as important as physical strength.

''The instructors ride you and ride you and ride you,'' Milam said. ''If you can't handle that, then you're not going to be able to handle it when you're dropped in the water at two in the morning to search for people.''

If they make it through school, they head to Petaluma, Calif., for emergency medical technician (EMT) training. When they finish, they get assigned to a station. There they work out and wait. Wait for something to happen.

In Kodiak, they spend Monday and Wednesday in the gym, Tuesday and Thursday in the pool. They are constantly pushing each other to swim faster and work harder.

''We go more intensive here than other units I've been at. It's the nature of the beast -- the Bering Sea is right out our back door with 30-foot seas,'' Leavelle said.

For new guys, waiting is the hardest part. They imagine their first ''big case'' over and over, jumping on the opportunity to participate in any search and rescue mission, no matter how minor.

''You become (a swimmer) to put your butt on the line at least once,'' said three-year rescue swimmer Jason Bunch, who is still waiting for his big one. ''I'm a little more on the gas than most people. I volunteer for everything.

''When I work out, when I run, all I think about is that big case. I think of the water -- darkness and crashing surf. It's kind of twisted. Someone else's misfortune is your dream.''

When the wind is howling and the sea comes alive, swimmers on duty experience many sleepless nights. Even on clear, calm days they think about what could happen.

''Almost every duty night I'm up until one or two in the morning,'' Milam said. ''Even when it's not blowing, you wonder if that alarm's going to go off.''

Many of the Kodiak swimmers say they pray before every search and rescue flight, even though they're not deeply religious people.

''You always say a little prayer -- a 'give me the strength' kind of thing,'' Bunch said.

When a person becomes a rescue swimmer, he joins a kind of fraternity, creating a bond not easily broken.

''There's definitely a brotherhood within the shop,'' said 10-year swimmer Dave Toppi. ''We're competitive and we feed off one another. Regardless of your personal feelings, you always stick up for each other outside the shop.''

All of the swimmers say one thing over and over. They couldn't do any of it without the support of many others -- the helicopter pilots, flight mechanics, and ground crews that get them in the water and keep them safe.

''We're not the sole heroes. We're not the demigods. There's a whole list of people backing us up,'' Leavelle said.

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