Navy rescue swimmers speak to Chimacum students

Kirk Boxleitner kboxleitner@ptleader.com
Posted 11/14/17

Chimacum High School observed Veterans Day not just by honoring retired combat veterans, but also by giving active-duty military members a platform to explain how their day-to-day jobs benefit the …

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Navy rescue swimmers speak to Chimacum students

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Chimacum High School observed Veterans Day not just by honoring retired combat veterans, but also by giving active-duty military members a platform to explain how their day-to-day jobs benefit the country.

Alvin Ackerman, a 93-year-old Army veteran from Quilcene, earned a Purple Heart for wounds sustained on the Siegfried Line of the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. He was joined by his daughter, Susan, and was swarmed by students, who shook his hand and thanked him for his service, at the conclusion of the school’s Nov. 9 program in honor of Veterans Day.

The bulk of the presentation’s time was set aside for Naval Aircrewmen (Helicopter) 2nd Class Garrett Lukasek and Adam Trump to talk about their duties as search and rescue (SAR) swimmers stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

Trump narrated the presentation, while Lukasek ran slideshows and videos to punctuate Trump’s points. Although Trump modestly noted that he was not related to “our commander in chief,” he did tout his family’s history of military service, dating back to the Revolutionary War and including his grandfather, who fought on Omaha Beach and had a Coast Guard cutter named after him.

And avid swimmer, Trump graduated from high school wanting to put his physical skills to good use. By his own admission, he hadn’t realized at first how much of a commitment he’d made by enlisting in the U.S. Navy as a rescue swimmer.

“I spent the next couple of years working my tail off,” Trump said. “What makes it rewarding is when you see someone’s baby girl, and they tell you, ‘I was able to see her again thanks to your crew.’”

In addition to SAR and survival, evasion, resistance and escape (SERE) schools, Trump and Lukasek also went through Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS) training to learn about the Night Hawk helicopters they would be flying in.

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Trump explained that rescue swimming is more complicated than simply jumping into the water, even though the job does call for that on occasion.

“With downed aircraft, you have to disentangle aviators, and a lot of things are covered in fuel, making for explosive hazards,” Trump said. “If someone parachutes out, you have to separate them from their harness.”

Trump noted that, in training, prospective rescue swimmers have an attrition rate of more than 50 percent, due to the demanding standards of their work. In Trump’s case, he has been deployed as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, as well as on humanitarian relief missions to the Far East in the wake of natural disasters.

While Trump performs tasks as mundane as delivering mail to fellow military members, his role in SAR has made him part of “one of the busiest assets” of the Department of Defense for at least the past three years running, as SAR has been called upon for both military and civilian retrieval efforts, over oceans and land alike.

This means that SAR personnel not only have to learn how to time their dives so they aren’t overwhelmed by waves as high as 25 feet, which Trump warned “can knock your teeth out of your mouth if you’re not careful,” but they also have to use hoists and rappelling gear to navigate between sheer mountains and trees that are hundreds of feet tall.

“We’ve been sent to medevac people from the San Juan Islands at 3 in the morning,” Trump said. “Just recently, we went to Mount Baker. Do I get sick of the cold sometimes? I’ve accepted it as part of my life. Every 1,000 feet in elevation, the temperature goes down 2 degrees Celsius. It’s still super rewarding to give back.”

At the same time, in spite of the months of intense training that he went though, which included hours of studying daily and weekly evaluations, Trump deemed the job itself to be far harder than any rigors designed to prepare him for it, “since if you screw up, you could kill somebody.”

The pace of SAR calls from Whidbey is uneven and, by definition, largely unpredictable, given that it’s determined by emergencies.

“One day, we pulled seven kids and two adults out of Deception Pass,” Trump said. “On average, our unit winds up saving about three people a week. Mountain crevasses aren’t as dangerous for us as they are for the folks trapped in them, but we’ve had sketchy situations where we’re trying to load someone into our helicopter, but we can only set one wheel of the helicopter on the side of a cliff.”

Trump noted that the most common reason he and his SAR crew are called out is because people go out into the water or the wilderness without sufficient preparation.

“They decide to go hiking without hydrating,” Trump said. “When you do that, you put others at risk, because we have to come rescue you.”

Both Trump and Lukasek agreed that they plan to settle in the Pacific Northwest when they retire from SAR, with Lukasek expressing an interest in serving as a flight paramedic, while Trump is currently committed to becoming a firefighter in the region.

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