COAST GUARD AVIATION RESCUE SWIMMER BADGE

Sometimes called simply the Rescue Swimmer insignia, the Coast Guard’s Aviation Rescue Swimmer insignia is awarded to Coast Guard Personnel in the Aviation Survival Technician rating (AST) who have successfully completed both the Helicopter Rescue Swimmer Course held at Aviation Technical Training Center in Elizabeth City, North Carolina and the Coast Guard EMT School located at Technical Training Center Petaluma in California.

For millions of Americans, the phrase “Coast Guard rescue” is synonymous with heart-pounding images of life-and-death operations—wetsuit-clad divers plunging from helicopters into turbulent, often icy seas, battling white-capped waves to reach survivors and assist them into rescue baskets tethered from massive whirlybirds.

What they don’t realize, however, is that the notion of Coast Guard swimmers jumping into treacherous waters to affect a rescue was completely unheard of just as recently as 1983. It was on February 12 of that year that the Marine Electric, a tanker making its final voyage hauling granulated coal, sank off the coast of Virginia. Just three of the crew’s 34 members survived the frigid Atlantic waters—so cold that water froze on the facemask of a Navy rescue swimmer who had been called in after Coast Guard rescue efforts failed—and the tragedy highlighted the ineffectiveness of the Coast Guard at rescuing incapacitated victims in the water.

With the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 1984, Congress mandated that the Commandant of the Coast Guard establish a helicopter rescue swimmer program, starting a process that would eventually lead to one of the world’s premiere maritime rescue services. Initially trained at the U.S. Navy Rescue Swimmer School in Pensacola, Florida, the first rescue swimmers were drawn from the Aviation Survivalman (ASM) rating; the first two completed the four-week course in October, 1984. On March 5, 1985, they were joined by three other ASM Guardsmen at Air Station Elizabeth City in North Carolina as the Coast Guard’s first operational rescue swimmers. Just two months later, this team was credited with the first life saved by a rescue swimmer deployed into the water.

In 1999, the Coast Guard revamped its system of Aviation ratings, with the ASM rating morphing into the AST rating. In addition their rescue-swimming duties, AST Coast Guardsmen are also tasked with the inspection, maintenance, servicing, troubleshooting, and repair of a host of aircraft systems, including (but not limited to) emergency flotation equipment, oxygen, air/sea rescue kits, cargo-delivery and drag-parachute systems, protective clothing, and ordnance and pyrotechnic devices.
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