Whether he's jumping out of a helicopter into the Atlantic Ocean to rescue boaters and swimmers in trouble, flying on a training mission along the East Coast or fixing and mending his water gear; Petty Officer Third Class John K. Opsal begins each shift prepared to save others. This is a day in the life of a United States Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer.
Joining the USCG in August 2007, Opsal underwent extensive and intense physical training, and after graduation he continued his career by enrolling in the Coast Guard's rescue swimmer program. Being in the water comes naturally to the San Diego native, who grew up surfing and water skiing, and Opsal was drawn to this profession from an early age.
"I joined to do rescue swimming," he says. "I knew right away that was what I wanted to do."
Looking to fulfill his dream of becoming a rescue swimmer operating out of a helicopter -- more formally known as an aviation survival technician -- Opsal had one final challenge: a physical endurance test.
The rigorous evaluation must be concluded in one hour, in a continuous sequence. Some of the criteria includes sit , push-ups, pull-ups, chin-ups, a 1.5-mile run in under 12 minutes, a 500-yard swim in under 12 minutes, a 400-yard gear swim in seven minutes, a 200-yard buddy tow, and four underwater laps, with one minute of rest in-between. After passing the test, Opsal has served as a qualified rescue swimmer for a little over a year.
Assigned to Air Station Atlantic City, Opsal typically works six or seven 24-hour shifts each month. This air station is one of a few which has two ready crews standing by consisting of two pilots, two co-pilots, two rescue swimmers and two flight mechanics.
Opsal was standing duty on December 23, 2010, a cold and stormy winter night with fellow crew members. The team included a pilot, co-pilot, flight mechanic and Opsal, the rescue swimmer. That night proved to forever change his life, as he would reach a major milestone. Beginning like any other shift, they carried out normal duties. He recalls their standard operations, "Come in and brief about the weather, if there were any SAR cases, and what the plan is for training flights that day," he added, "Usually right around sunset we go on a two-hour training flight."
Suddenly, a SAR call came in that a vessel was in distress, Opsal and his crew were deployed to search for survivors. The crew is always mindful that every second counts, as they grab their gear, suit up, board the helicopter and fly out.
Opsal remembers the night well. "We were seven miles south of Cape May and we were eight miles off-shore. It was 2 a.m. and we got the call of two people in the water. We didn't have an exact position -- the sector gives us a search pattern to fly. We flew the whole search pattern. After they finished it they said to fly a couple more miles east."
The four-member crew continued searching for about 30 minutes when they finally came across reflective debris floating in the water. According to Opsal, the debris led them to the scene. "We saw the vessel after that and there were life rafts blown up in the water, there was debris all over, you could see the boat was half sinking, you could see water going over it."
The treacherous conditions added to the intensity and danger of the rescue. Difficult to see during the nighttime storm, Opsal wore night vision goggles as he was carefully lowered down into the raging ocean, scanning the water for survivors. Coast guardsmen are not allowed to jump out of the helicopter at night, for safety reasons. The brave rescue swimmer recounted his descent that evening. "I disconnect the hook, give them a signal I'm okay and then they hoist the cable back up."
Aware of the hazardous conditions he works in, Opsal said that night was particularly challenging due to weather. "Those conditions were pretty bad, it was solid 10 foot swells and it was really windy."
Meanwhile, two 47-foot motor life boat crews from Coast Guard Stations Cape May and Indian River, Delaware, were also deployed to the scene to assist the air crew.
Swimming in the murky ocean water, dodging debris and trying to make his way to potential survivors, Opsal located one of the men and recalls his approach. "I talked to him and he was somewhat coherent and then I got him, but the swells were so bad I couldn't get him in the rescue basket because he was too hypothermic. His body was too stiff, so I ended up taking him to the 47 foot life boat. The crew there helped me pull him on deck and then we did a hoist right off of the back of the boat - me and him into the helicopter."
Facing Fear Daily
Having practiced search and rescue operations so many times, Opsal says responding has become second nature to him, despite being in perilous situations with only seconds to think. In addition to his knowledge and experience, he says, "Training just kicks in, we do this all the time." He continued, saying his main concern during this rescue was to, "Get him out of the water as soon as possible and get him to the hospital and that was all I was really thinking about."
This was Opsal's first save, a truly courageous rescue he will remember for the rest of his life. Eric Hopkins, the man this heroic coast guardsman saved, had the opportunity to thank his rescuer in person by presenting Opsal with a written thank you letter. During the awards ceremony, Opsal also received a Coast Guard Commendation Medal. After the rare reunion, Opsal said he was happy to see that Hopkins made a full recovery. "It was a cool experience seeing him, because when I was with him the first time, he was in bad shape-he could barely talk."
Swimming to the aid of people in trouble, Opsal's main goal is to locate and rescue survivors. His unique job creates an adrenaline rush, motivating him to face fear on a daily basis. A gratifying component of Opsal's career is having the opportunity to help others. When asked about saving people in this special line of work, he humbly answered, "Definitely rewarding, really rewarding. Not very many people get to do that."
While this is a high-risk job, Opsal draws strength and endurance from his desire to make a difference in the world. It's all in a day's work as a United States Coast Guard rescue swimmer.
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