TRAVERSE CITY — Coast Guard AST1 Jodi Williams lost count of the number of swimming rescues she’s done, but her first is still among the most memorable.
It occurred about 2 a.m. during a 2004 storm in the Channel Islands off Los Angeles. Three men had run aground in a storm on rocks at the base of a cliff.
As the helicopter hovered over the rescue site, Williams, then 21, looked down at the cold, dark sea. Whitecaps foamed in 15-foot waves. She clipped herself to the drop line. A down draft from the cliff prevented the chopper from setting her down next to the boat, so she was hoisted to an outcropping about 15 yards away.
She flashed her light toward the grounded boat and saw a big hole in its hull and the two brothers. One with a broken leg sat on the wreck.
"That’s when I had my ‘Ta-Dah, Here Comes the Coast Guard Moment’ ” she said.
Williams resolutely strode to the boat, not watching her feet. She stepped in a hole.
“And I fell flat on my face, she said, laughing.
So much for Ta-Dah moments.
The men were brothers. They told her they and their father had washed off the boat in the storm and waves pushed him into a nearby cave. She found and rescued the father after several tense moments.
Williams, now 32, is one of four women in the Guard’s 300 cadre of rescue swimmers at 23 air stations around the nation. She also is one of the 12 rescue swimmers serving at Coast Guard Air Station.
Williams couldn’t swim when she joined the Coast Guard in 1999 right after high school. Now in the 14th year of her Coast Guard career, she initially trained and served as a dental technician at Air Station Borinquen in Puerto Rico.
Rescue swimming is one of the Coast Guard’s most hazardous jobs. It involves helicopters, raging storms, heavy seas, ice-cold waters, floating debris, sometimes combative and frightened survivors, and unfriendly drug runners who dump their illegal cargo when they spot a Coast Guard vessel.
Williams is an avid jogger and participated in many races while stationed in Puerto Rico and met many ASTs, or aviation survival technicians. Several asked if she ever had considered AST and rescue swimming training. Others suggested that she apply.
The dentist she worked with had a friend who offered to teach her swimming basics during lunch breaks and after work every day for two weeks. She also had a two-a-half year wait for an opening in the training program.
Becoming a rescue swimmer is no easy task even for good swimmers. It is considered an elite Coast Guard’s program with the most challenging physical fitness standards of all U.S. military services. Men and women trainees have to meet the same physical requirements. About 75 rescue swimmers are trained a year. Fewer than half make it.
Though Williams initially couldn’t swim, she knew she met other important requirements for the job. She was comfortable in the water. She could keep a cool head in stressful situations. She is not a quitter.
In fact, if you ask her what it takes to be a rescue swimmer, she answers with four words: “The No-Quit Factor.”
“I’m a firm believer that it’s a mind thing,” she said. “What they’re looking for is a mental toughness. There’s no one thing that makes a good rescue swimmer. We’re all different. What rescue swimmers have in common is that we don’t buckle under pressure and we don’t quit.”
Her year-and-half of training included four months of airman training, six months airman duty, four months in aviation survival technicians training, plus an intensive four-weeks of emergency medical technician training.
Today, AST1 Jodi Williams is one of the 12 rescue swimmers at Air Station Traverse City who serve as one of four members on the of helicopter rescue crews. The other three members are the pilot, co-pilot and flight technician:
The 12 rescue swimmers at Air Station Traverse City have several duties. They are part of four-person crews, and when not flying they inspect, maintain and repair rescue, survival and EMT medical equipment on the choppers.
They also continue intensive water and/or land physical fitness and survival training to maintain strength and skill. Requirements are the same for men and women.
Williams also is a mother. She and husband, Asa, have three sons: Boone, 6, in first grade; Redding, 5, in kindergarten, and Weston, 1, in day care. They met in the Coast Guard when they were both stationed in Los Angeles in 2004 and married eight years ago. They moved to Traverse City in July from San Diego.
Asa, a Coast Guard flight mechanic for six years, earned his bachelor’s and master’s teaching degrees in San Diego. He is substitute K-5 school teacher, mostly in the Traverse City Area Public Schools.
Juggling their work, dad and mom schedules can be challenging, but they’re used to team work, they said.
She and Asa talk occasionally about the dangers of her job but don’t dwell on it.
Like many working mothers, Jodi said she feels pulled sometime by family and job responsibilities.
“I know being a mom is the most important thing, but I also want to pull my own weight at work,” she said. “I’m lucky to have a husband who likes being home with the baby. He’s great with the kids and comfortable with them.”
Her hobbies and interests have changed since having children. Her home life revolves around their school activities and soccer. She’s currently making three Halloween turtle costumes for their boys.