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."