Marines, standing at the poolside, stare into unforgiving training grounds. Yesterday was not easy, and today will be no better. The frigid water below taunts them, as if to say “I am going to kick you in the face.” The Marines take one last breath, jump feet first and begin their grueling one-mile warm-up exercise to start another challenging day.
Overcoming more than fatigue and cold water, they swim to try and become one of fewer than 600 who hold the title of Marine Corps Instructor of Water Survival.
The Marine Corps Instructor of Water Survival Course trains Marines to help others learn to survive in the water. At the course, Marines learn to survive in combat situations and to help others get to the battle faster in an aquatic environment.
Instructors are trained to act as first responders and to provide immediate life support for a victim until emergency medical care arrives, but their primary mission is to keep Marines more skilled and confident in the water.
“When you find yourself away from a pool environment, struggling to stay at the surface, assisting an exhausted or wounded Marine to safety, that’s surviving,” said Staff Sgt. Marshall, the staff noncommissioned officer in charge of the Marine Corps Water Survival School at Marine Corps Base Camp Johnson, N.C.
The course is three weeks of intense swimming, aquatic conditioning, rescue drills and classroom instruction to better prepare Marines to move through the water like the amphibious warfighters they’re known to be.
Before going to the course, the instructor trainers recommend incoming students train in the water at least three times a week prior to the course. Marines must be able to swim 500 meters in less than 13 minutes and have a first class Physical Fitness Test score to ensure they can endure the physical demands of the course.
“The class is one of the most mentally and physically demanding training courses I’ve taken in the Marine Corps,” said Sgt. Luke Vucsko, a scout sniper who has also graduated from the Mountain Warfare Training summer and winter courses. “When people exercise, they get to breath the whole time. In the water, we don’t have that luxury.”
The course starts out with students learning basic swim techniques, but quickly progresses to them completing a 500-meter swim to more than a mile.
“The students never thought that was possible until they’re told to go ahead and try it out,” said Sgt. Jeremiah Reilly, MCITWS. “They get through it … We push them to limits they didn’t know they had.”
One of the most challenging parts of the course is learning how to properly rescue others.
To simulate real world scenarios, Marines act like panicking victims, splashing, yelling and even grasping on to their rescuer and pulling them under the water. Marines are taught to counter such mishaps to avoid drowning themselves and to better rescue the victim.
“The whole time he’s splashing water in your face, doing what someone who can’t swim is going to do,” Vucsko said, a recent MCIWS graduate assigned to Marine Corps Security Forces Training Company, Close Quarters Battle. “You feel like you calmed them down and the next thing you know you have some dude wearing all this crap right on top of you. Then you kick for your life to get him to safety.”
Instructors said the safety of the students is paramount, as much as getting the mock victims to shore. Qualified safety swimmers and Corpsmen are close by at all times; ready to respond to anything that might happen.
“Panic will set in simply because they feel like they’re drowning,” Reilly said. “If you stay calm, you can get through anything. If you’re not ready to respond, then it can put the whole squad in jeopardy.”
Throughout the course, students also learn American Red Cross and open water rescues to become lifeguard certified.
With most of their training done at the pool, they have one day to test their skills in the open water with a not-so-relaxing day at the beach. The students fight waves, cold temperatures and fatigue to save Marines and increase their confidence in the open water.
“I feel I could help people if they fell off a boat or if the [amphibious unit] didn’t make it all the way to the beach,” Vucsko said. “I can definitely help them get to the fight.”
After successfully enduring three weeks of constant physical training, learning life-saving techniques, swimming long distances daily, and completing the class assessments, they go on to become one of the select few Marine Corps Instructors of Water Survival.
“It’s a kick in the face everyday … but it’s still a good time,” Vucsko said.