Soldier Stories: ‘Have to be tougher than the boys’
This column presents soldier stories to provide readers insight into the lives of our country’s heroes.
By Jeanne McKinney
ContributorThe job of Aviation Rescue Swimmers is to save lives across the globe. They have to jump from a helicopter in all weather conditions into any kind of sea to get victims to the rescue basket. Penetrating viscous water at high speeds has to be precise to avoid injury or being knocked unconscious. During intense storms, the jump has to be timed to hit the crest of large waves – to keep out of deep troughs. Pitted against the powerful sea – they swim “So Others May Live.”
For Naval Aircrewman Third Class Laura Munger, it’s a day’s work at Naval Base, San Diego, North Island. She falls within the .01 percent of women in the Navy who go through the elite rescue swimmer training. When Munger graduated, she was #28 of all female rescue swimmers ever in the history of the program. From small town Kyle, Texas, where getting a Target is big news, Munger spent some time at college before finding her true North. In 2009, her career compass pointed at Navy boot camp and she graduated with honors. Then it was on to Air Crew Candidate School and rescue swimmer training that would push her past her limits – to breaking points.
“It’s a very tough school. You have many questions running through your head, asking ‘What am I doing here and Why did I join?’ The Navy enticed with a promise of world travel and a ‘chance to make myself a better person — with a better future.’” For five weeks in Pensacola, Fla., rescue swimmer trainees work out and swim at a grueling pace —doing things they never thought they could do. The only female in her class of 14, Munger says, “If you want to play with the boys, you have to act like one. But at the same time, I’m not sitting at a desk. I get to go outside every day and watch the sun rise and set from 500 feet in the air. It’s amazing.”
The Navy and Coast Guard are the only branches that allow women to serve as rescue swimmers. Munger relates: “I ran cross country and track in high school, but that was nothing compared to this. I didn’t realize how physically strong I could be.” She could barely do 10 pushups in the beginning — now she can easily do 50-60. Maintaining a die-hard positive attitude and staying mentally prepared kept her motivated to push through. “If you start thinking I can’t do it, then you won’t. Sounds crazy, but I was excited to go to Rescue Swimmer School every day.”
Munger loved all her instructors and said they put the pressure on “so when you’re put on the spot in a real rescue, you can get the job done safely. The victim has a lot of trust in you. That trust pushes you even more to be able to help that person survive.”
It took more than intense physical conditioning when she classed up and became team leader. “They all had to sit there and listen and take orders from me,” says a humble, yet resilient Munger. “It’s easier for a male to take an order from another male, especially at this rate (rank) because they don’t want to feel like they are weak or being dominated by a girl. You have to be a little bit tougher than some of the guys, being a female.”
Munger went on to A WA school (more basic training), ending up in Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron (HS-10) to get ready to join the fleet. She went through a training syllabus to learn airframes SH-60E and SH-60F (both Seahawk helicopters) and again graduated with honors. In addition to being a Rescue Swimmer, she’s a Fleet
Replacement Aircrewman (FRAC) — in control of everything in back of the helo. This is crucial for landing on ships. Imagine trying to land a helicopter on a floating runway that could be pitching and yawing with the sea. Day or night, pilots can’t see the tail wheel so Aircrewmen look back and tell the pilots it’s all clear. ”You’re the eyes in back of their heads,” says Munger, smiling.
“You have to be on top of your game. The Aircrewman’s creed is ‘Whether I’m hot, cold, or tired, I will not fail my crew.’ It doesn’t matter what situation you’re in, you and your crew are one and have to work together.”
When this interview took place, Munger had just come in from a four-and-a-half- hour Torpedo exercise flight (Torpex), doing the work she’ll do at her next command, HS -14 in Japan. I was amazed at this blonde-haired Southern belle with a soft-spoken voice who’d been out dropping Torpedoes in the ocean – tracking them for the pilots. Munger and her helo crew members do all kinds of missions over the water, including logistics, anti-submarine and search and rescue (SAR). Details are classified.
In the hanger, I saw her big bird — an SH-60F “Seahawk.” I peered into the little compartment where she sits and stared through the door she christens with courage each jump. Her face was beaming in her flight gear. Munger looked on top of her game.
A helo blade whirling next to us was deafening. Although a special padded helmet protects the ears, she says, “You have to get used to it.” Used to loud noise and always ready for an ejected pilot, someone who went overboard, or a boat in distress in the middle of the ocean.
Like many young women, Munger plans on getting married and having children, “hoping they’ll view the military the same way she does and want to join.” The things she’s been taught she’ll teach her children – “the leadership, the strength, the motivation, the determination.”
Munger’s eyes twinkled when talking about her Navy career and would tell other women who might be thinking of joining to “Go for it. If I can do it, there’s another girl out there that can do it, too.”
For this she-warrior, trained to conquer the sea, there was no hesitation to my question – if it’s your life or theirs? “You do your job selflessly. You’re there to save lives.”