Patriot Profiles: ‘If someone goes down, I’m not going to stop until I find them’

This column presents “Patriot Profiles” to provide readers insight into the lives of our country’s heroes.

By Jeanne McKinney

A little over a year ago in January 2013, the Department of Defense announced the rescinding of a 1994 rule excluding women from combat. Former Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, stated that one of his priorities was “to remove as many barriers as possible for talented and qualified people to be able to serve this country in uniform.” He went on to say, “Women are already serving in a growing number of critical roles on and off the battlefield.”

Statistics show that more than 200,000 women currently serve in the U.S. Armed Forces. Naval Aircrewman Tactical Helicopter (AWR) 3rd Class Petty Officer Anieka Izeh demonstrates daily a willingness to fight to protect her fellow Americans.

So how does an Ohio girl from a family of eight with a degree in criminal justice end up working as a tactical mission system operator aboard an MH-60R (Romeo) helicopter? Izeh is also a rescue swimmer and one of a small number of females to achieve this arduous goal in the United States Navy.

Izeh started her career by dispelling a myth when a recruiter went around the room asking potential signers, “Do you want to be a rescue swimmer and jump out of helicopters?” Singling out Izeh, the recruiter asked, “Do you know how to swim?” Izeh was unaware of the stereotype that African Americans are not strong swimmers.

“Of course, I love to swim. How high are we jumping out?” she replied. “It’s pretty high,” the recruiter answered. “Alright, sign me up,” Izeh said. She knew from the outset it was a dangerous job, stating “I’m not afraid to die, so I’m more willing to put my life on the line to save someone else.” She’s also very religious, “I feel like I’ve done what is necessary to be in the good graces of God and that I’m continuing to live my life the way God would want me to live.”

Living took on new meaning at Air Crew School and the infamous Rescue Swimmer School. “It’s some of the worst training I’ve been put through,” she said. “There are days when I asked, ‘Why am I continually allowing my body to be pushed to its limits?’”

She nixed impulses to give up, believing, “Quitters never make it.” In college she ran track as a sprinter — doing one lap. “They [Navy trainers] had me running seven miles a day — up hills, in the sand, push-ups, sit-ups, swimming — nonstop.”

Izeh describes one of many training requirements she’s completed.

“My heart was pounding. It was so intense because I could fail and not make it as a rescue swimmer. Instead of me thinking it was a game, I thought of it as a real scenario.”

She jumps in the water and gets her mask and fins on, recounting, “You have your combative survivor, a dead survivor and willing survivor who will listen.”

One survivor started panicking, forcing her to use her man voice.

“Buddy, turn around, I need you to calm down.” She swims under the survivor, comes up and flips him around and he chills.

“I had a tight grip on him and he wasn’t going anywhere.” She adds, “The scariest part is [rescuing] an ejected pilot with a parachute. The wind can blow it up in the helicopter and the whole crew comes down.”

The rescue swimmer can also get stuck in the parachute lines.

“You have to swim away and make sure the survivor is clear of anything, so once you hook them up there’s nothing to pull them back. If you mess up and do something wrong or sly away from the training, you could potentially kill this person.”

Once AWR3 Izeh completes all her rescue training, her other responsibility as an aircrewman aboard the MH-60R multi-mission helicopter will rev up.

“I communicate with the pilots and manage the radar…letting them know if there’s another helo or airplane coming our way. In the event of an emergency, I back them up.”

Her primary mission is Anti-submarine Warfare (ASW) and Surface Warfare (SUW). She helps direct the pilot while detecting, classifying and attacking enemy subs.

Izeh says all the dangers of her job are not talked about. At Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) School her eyes were opened.

“I realized how important it is to have a good brief before you fly… and a back-up plan what to do if you need to ditch the aircraft. Because we are an attack platform — we’re going to be shot back at.

“I think we’re so blind, as students, looking at the glory of the job — jumping out and saving people, shooting guns — but there are times we may go down and get caught and tortured. I hope to God I never get caught.” Even this unthinkable possibility does not deter her.

It takes a mix of skills on dangerous missions. When asked if gender is a factor for certain assignments, Izeh says, “If it’s [between] me and another guy choosing which one they want to put in the helicopter and go over enemy lines for combat, I think they’re going to choose the guy, because he’s able, has more stamina – he’s stronger than me. The way men and women think are completely different. They [men] think more tactical. This is just me. We [women] can talk our way out of anything, but we’re not there to talk, we’re there to save people and pull them out.

“Keeping up with the guys is the hardest thing” as she proves herself at tactical and strenuous tasks. The guys are like family – her brothers. “They get on my nerves,” yet, “If someone goes down, I’m not going to stop until I find them. I feel they would do the same for me. If any crewman, any sailor, any person needs our help, we’re going to send out as many search people as we can.”

Gut-wrenching training pays off. “You never know when you’re going to have to exert your body to the fullest to try and save someone’s life,” says Izeh. It can be a hard decision when multiple people need saving. “In those types of situations, it’s God making up your mind and directing you where to go. Whoever is closest – you typically go for the most wounded person and get them up to the helicopter.”

AWR3 Izeh graduated as a rescue swimmer on Jan 31, so she is well on her way to taking on combat and its inherent risks. “I think they [the Navy] prepare us really well to know they can depend on us when it’s time to go out. I’m not going to think twice about jumping out of that helicopter. I’m definitely going to take care of my crew. If there’s anything that needs to be done, I’ll be the first to step up and do it.”

Naval Aircrewman 3rd Class Petty Officer Anieka Izeh joined the Navy to give back, saying, “I feel this country, even though it’s somewhat in turmoil, has offered me a lot. I didn’t want to take that for granted.”