MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C., Dec. 12, 2016 — These days, when Marine Corps Cpl. Aaron J. Rayburn is hauling a fellow Marine to safety across the water survival training pool, his days as an airframe mechanic seem like a lifetime away.
Rayburn now spends his days as a Marine combat instructor of water survival – commonly shortened to MCIWS, or “Mc-wiss” – helping Marines with their swim qualifications and teaching them how to survive in water.
He was not a complete stranger to water when he dove into MCIWS. He had a collateral duty as a certified aviation rescue swimmer in the days when VMR-1 still maintained a search-and-rescue mission. But even getting that far was a serious challenge.
“I grew up around a lake and thought I was an OK swimmer,” Rayburn said. “It was a big eye-opener the first time I tried to swim laps in a pool and ended up completely gassed and had nothing left. I eventually forced myself to keep doing it every day. My form improved, and I got better and better as time went on.”
“I was in the pool five, six, seven days a week for almost a year before I went to Aviation Rescue Swimmer’s School in Pensacola, Florida.”
In 2015, VMR-1’s search and rescue mission was ended due to budgetary constraints. But fortunately for some Marines, it gave them a chance to gain a secondary military occupational specialty. Rayburn took that opportunity to move up to MCIWS, which turned out to be a completely different ballgame.
“MCIWS school was physically harder than rescue school,” Rayburn said. “Instead of wearing jumpsuits and fins, here you wear boots and camouflage, rescuing other Marines in a flak jacket with sappy plates and a Kevlar helmet. I got destroyed in the pool every day.”
Rayburn recalled the challenges he faced attempting to reach this pinnacle level of swim instructor.
“I went through MCIWS School for the first time and failed the final test, a 1-mile swim, by 13 seconds,” he said. “And the standard is the standard, so I got dropped. Thankfully, my commanding officer sent me back again, and the next time I tried, I got it – 2 minutes faster than the time needed for my mile swim.”
A Life Skill
Rayburn said he lets people know that swimming isn’t just a Marine Corps skill, but that it’s also a life skill.
“You’re basically teaching other people how to survive, and that means a lot to me,” he said. “We uphold very high standards because we’re not going to let someone be in charge of potentially saving someone’s life if he or she is not qualified. Water is the ultimate equalizer.”
Rayburn said he believes most people who come to the pool and have trouble swimming are afraid of the water.
“Being personable is important,” he said. “Yelling at them won’t make them Michael Phelps, and they won’t get any better. Whether it’s someone you’re pulling under water in a training environment, or instructing someone who is doing a combat doggy paddle, being personable lets people want to come back and actually learn.”
Persistence is his key talent, Rayburn said.
“If it’s something that I have my heart set on, then I’m not going to give up and I’m going to push toward that, whether it’s being a good swimmer, good father or a good Marine,” he said. “People come here and say they can’t do this or can’t do that in the pool, and they’re wrong. You can do it if you come here every day and give it everything you have.”
By Cpl. Jason Jimenez