Water Survival Course

More than 20 Marines and sailors each swam 27 miles, escaped from the clutches of staff noncommissioned officers who wanted to drag them underwater, and passed written and practical application exams to earn their Marine Combat Instructor Water Survival qualification at the Aquatic Center July 12-28.

Upon completion of the MCIWS course, the service members were certified to administer swim qualification for their unit.

Not only is it practical to hold an MCIWS swim qualification, but prestigious as well according to Gunnery Sgt. Tim Sisson, the director of water survival for the Expeditionary Warfare Training Group, Pacific.

“It’s been told, and I fully believe, that (the MCIWS course) ranks in the top five of the most physically demanding courses in the Marine Corps,” Sisson said.
Marine Combat Instructor Water Survival Course students perform a dragon boat exercise during a water aerobics session at the Camp Schwab Aquatic Center July 19. Water aerobics sessions are part of the conditioning and strengthening portion of the course and consisted of swimming different strokes above water and underwater, strength-training activities in the water and exercises along the edges of the pool.

Marine Combat Instructor Water Survival Course students perform a dragon boat exercise during a water aerobics session at the Camp Schwab Aquatic Center July 19. Water aerobics sessions are part of the conditioning and strengthening portion of the course and consisted of swimming different strokes above water and underwater, strength-training activities in the water and exercises along the edges of the pool.

“The only easy day was ‘yesterday,'” agreed Lt. j.g. J.D. John, an MCWIS student and liaison officer for 3rd Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment. “Every day just gets harder and harder.”

The challenge begins before the course starts. Prospective students are required to be Water Survival Qualified and complete a pre-test demonstrating their level of fitness in the water.

The pre-test includes a 500-meter swim in less than 13 minutes, 25-meter underwater swim and a 50-meter brick tow. The brick tow requires a person to carry a ten-pound brick out of the water while swimming a designated distance.

Twenty-six students passed the pre-test and were admitted in the course, although not all of them completed the training.

The first week of the course is focused on conditioning, swimming fundamentals and rescue techniques, but the toughest part of the course was training day five according to Sisson. On this day the students are required to save a simulated frantic drowning victim who drags them underwater. The student must demonstrate pressure point applications to relieve themself of the drowning victim and then swim the victim to safety. One can survive 3 minutes without air. If a student does not pass this practical application testing, they are refreshed on the techniques and allowed one more opportunity to show proficiency before being dropped from the course.

The second week of the MCIWS course was devoted to the teaching aspect of the course. Students learned cardiorespiratory resuscitation and rescue breathing, additional types of rescues for drowning victims and furthered the skills they learned during the first week of class. This includes rescuing a drowning victim with the additional burden of all their combat gear.

The final week consisted of evaluations, including showing proficiency in the water with their hands or feet tied together. This technique is designed to instill confidence in the students and in the methods they learned during the course, Sisson said.

“It shows them that if they use the fundamentals we teach they can survive in the water even if they’re tied up.” Sisson said.

To graduate and earn the MCIWS swim qualification, students must also give a 20-minute lecture on a swimming topic of their choice, show proficiency of different strokes in the pool and perform other specific tasks to prove their competency in the water.

“My goal was to come out here so I could train Marines and sailors to be fighters,” John said. “So they could live to fight another day and then go back home to their families.”

The instructors

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.