Petty Officer 2nd Class Brandon Horton emphasizes the importance of paying attention to details during buddy-towing drills at Naval Air Station Pensacola’s Rescue Swimmer School. US Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Brien Aho.
The 2021 Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s USO Tour landed at Naval Air Station Pensacola on Sunday after a brief stop at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Despite fresh sunburns from the Caribbean sun, the tour members showed up ready to rock. Literally.
Country-rock duo LoCash wasted no time in getting the crowd of eager sailors, airmen, and Marines rowdy. LoCash — comprising Chris Lucas and Preston Brust — got the young service members so fired up that a group of junior enlisted Marines began tossing a sailor into the air. One of the senior airmen quickly shut down the involuntary crowd surfing, but that didn’t stop the troops from having a good time.
Before LoCash took the stage, the current Miss America, Camille Schrier, introduced the tour and got the troops fired up. After a brief period of instruction on how to properly walk like a beauty pageant contestant (including the participation of a young sailor confined to a wheelchair with a broken foot) comedian Taylor Williamson took to the stage and let loose with a set that pulled no punches.
“When I was young, I wanted to grow up to be a master chief,” Williamson began. “But I decided I didn’t want to end up as just another fat guy with a dirty coffee mug.” With that, he had the crowd hooked.
While many service members have memories of being “voluntold” to attend an event, the troops in Pensacola were genuinely enthusiastic for the USO show.
“We’re excited to see the musicians and Miss America,” one aviation electrician told Coffee or Die Magazine. “My older brother was a Marine, and the USO visited his unit in Afghanistan. It’s cool to finally see a tour for myself.”
Before LoCash finished its set, Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten — the vice chairman — and Ramon Colon-Lopez, senior enlisted adviser to the chairman, took the stage. While Colon-Lopez riffed on guitar, Hyten provided some backup vocals to an electrified version of the country classic, “I’ll Fly Away.” The audience of enlisted troops roared in approval.
After finishing their second USO performance of the day, the tour members were eager to catch some sleep before another busy schedule aboard NAS Pensacola.
The following morning, tour members were given an exclusive tour of Aviation Rescue Swimmer School. Inside the schoolhouse, a large sign displayed the Rescue Swimmer motto: So Others May Live. After meeting instructors and students, the tour members came to understand the gravity of the selfless creed by which the sailors live.
Tour members also visited an indoor training facility that houses a million-gallon pool complete with a wave maker, sea-spray simulator, strobes, and sound equipment that can replicate the rough seas the successful students will someday operate in.
Hyten and Colon-Lopez spoke with the recent graduates of Class 2113.
Colon-Lopez commended the group on the grit and determination required to earn an elite title like Rescue Swimmer. “I see guys like this,” he said to the graduates, gesturing to the shortest of them. “And then guys like dandruff-shampoo over here — all head and shoulders, no neck,” he said, pointing to another heavily muscled graduate. “It’s heart — not physical stature — that matters most,” he concluded.
Colon-Lopez — an Air Force Pararescueman by trade — went on to commend the graduates for choosing such a selfless and grueling job.
Hyten asked the class what drove them to want to be Aviation Rescue Swimmers.
“We’re here because we want to help people,” one of the new graduates quickly shouted.
His classmates nodded in agreement. They went on to describe some of the training requirements they go through during the course, including being members of the unofficial “no-pop” club. During a 25-meter swim in full rescue kit, those students who complete the distance without popping above the surface for a breath claim the special title.
Grueling swim regimen aside, students said their biggest fear was finding themselves in “the shark tank” — the nickname given to the instructors’ offices. Having to report to the shark tank is a punishment worse than any amount of training in the water, the students said.
Before the tour members left the facility, the leading chief petty officer of the school, Waylon Wolf, reminded tour members of the caliber of men and women who graduate.
“We don’t just send anyone back out through those doors,” he told Coffee or Die. “Every student who graduates as an Aviation Rescue Swimmer is fully prepared to stand that watch.”
The team then moved on to visit with the sailors and airmen who build bombs. Inside the John Finn Aviation Ordnance Hangar — part of the second-largest building in Florida, just slightly smaller than the building that houses NASA’s space shuttles — Hyten spoke with a class of sailors learning how to properly assemble ordnance attached to a variety of naval aircraft.
The troops were visibly excited to be speaking with a four-star general and the DOD’s senior enlisted airman, but not quite as excited as they were to show Miss America how to take apart one of the Navy’s deadliest weapons. While Schrier turned wrenches on bombs, Williamson kept the troops laughing.
Following a quick demonstration of the radar equipment essential to aviators landing and taking off from aircraft carriers, the team had lunch at the chow hall. There, the general’s staff and the USO’s celebrity talent were able to mingle with more troops. Once again, young sailors and airmen bashfully approached Schrier for selfies.
After lunch, Hyten and the entire USO entourage boarded their C-17 and took off for Washington, home of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, where they will fuel up with some coffee and get to work for another performance.
Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.
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