Search, Rescue and Save Lives: SAR Swimmers Committed to a Cause

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Story Number: NNS140621-12Release Date: 6/21/2014 12:22:00 PM

By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class (AW) Lawrence Davis, USS Makin Island (LHD 8), Public Affairs

USS MAKIN ISLAND, At Sea (NNS) -- Physical and mental prowess, exceptional attention to detail, rigorous training with an unwavering will to resist complacency, and most importantly, personal sacrifice "so others may live;" those are the principles and the motto that governs the lifestyle of Navy search and rescue (SAR) swimmers.

SAR swimmers carry an invaluable role in the mission readiness of United States naval vessels. For the safety of naval personnel, ships are mandated to have a qualified SAR team aboard at all times during ship's movement.

The amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD 8) carries a four-person team of qualified, highly-trained search and rescue swimmers. Expected to be always on the alert, Makin Island's SAR team mans the ship's boat deck day-in and day-out during evolutions such as flight and amphibious operations, and leaving and entering port, ready to answer the call if a person goes overboard.

"A SAR swimmer must be versatile in their preparedness," said Seaman Sean Youngwelch, a qualified collateral duty SAR swimmer aboard Makin Island. "The call could be a multitude of situations. Whether it is a man overboard of the ship's crew, a civilian vessel, the recovery of downed aircrew, or the retrieval of aircraft parts, SAR swimmers must be prepared 24 hours-a-day to perform search and rescue operations."

The Makin Island SAR team conducts both helicopter and small boat recoveries. The demanding challenge of leaping 10 to 15 feet out of an aircraft and swimming through six to eight-foot swells to someone's rescue is certainly no easy feat. This makes repetitive training essential to mission readiness.

"They're always learning, working to perfect technique," said Ensign Andrew Wondolowski, Makin Island's SAR officer. "Training never really stops. SAR swimmers don't just graduate rescue swimmer school and that's it. They constantly earn their qualification. That's what makes it special."

Swimming the seemingly bottomless ocean in an arduous attempt at saving lives, no doubt, requires skill, a constant tasking of both the mind and body.

"You cannot for an instant become satisfied with your level of knowledge or skill," Wondolowski said. "You can never prepare yourself enough to be called upon to save lives."

Hull Technician 2nd Class (SW) Amanda Beaverson, who is Makin Island's only female SAR swimmer and one of three on the West Coast, divulged her regiment for maintaining optimal mission readiness.

"Strength and endurance is a key to success during any rescue situation," said Beaverson. "My daily workout routine varies between cardio and strength training. I also incorporate a healthy diet to provide myself proper nutrition and energy."

Considering the rigors involved in search and rescue swimming, SAR team members must demonstrate the capability to accomplish certain requirements. SAR swimmers must pass a quarterly search and rescue fitness test, including a minimum of four pull-ups, a 500-meter swim and a 400-meter "buddy-tow" within 27 minutes. They are required to attend weekly SAR training and must be proficient in the use of rescue equipment as well as capable of performing basic first aid cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

Even still, not just anyone can be a command search and rescue swimmer. Before being considered, an applicant must have a letter of recommendation from their commanding officer.

When it comes to putting lives of Sailors in the hands of other Sailors, such heavy prerequisites are designed to identify only the most dedicated.

"Being a SAR swimmer is essential to my life on the ship," said Youngwelch. "It's important to find something that drives you and your attitude upward towards your goals."

Wondolowski spoke about the measure of a collateral duty search and rescue swimmer.

"Oddly enough, they're just like any other Sailor," said Wondolowski. "They have their jobs and responsibilities in their respective divisions, but if the call comes to man the boat deck, they drop it all to answer the call."

Makin Island, assigned to Amphibious Squadron 5, is conducting Certification Exercise with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit in preparation for their upcoming deployment.

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