Navy rescue swimmer enjoys adrenaline rush
ABOARD THE USS ENTERPRISE — He grew up in Detroit, the nation’s automotive capital, far from the ocean, but by age 18, Petty Officer 2nd Class Brent P. Blackwell knew he wanted to be a search and rescue swimmer in the Navy.
“I went to the recruiter. He said, ‘Do you think you can keep up?’ To make it into the school, you have to be tested. I told him I’ve been a water baby all my life.”
Five years later, Blackwell, 23, is an aviation systems warfare operator with Jacksonville, Fla.-based Helicopter Antisubmarine Squadron 11. The job description includes rescue swimmer.
Currently embarked with his squadron aboard the USS Enterprise in the Arabian Sea, Blackwell flew his first combat missions in Iraq in June.
Several of the helo crews were in Basra province supporting British helicopters, conducting troop insertions and extractions, convoy support and airfield reconnaissance.
“We were the only crew to actually get shot at,” Blackwell said. “It was small arms fire, an AK-47. You see a flash … as soon as I called ‘Small arms, break right,’ our pilots broke right, they shot behind us. Our pilots take good care of us.”
No swimming was called for in Iraq, but Blackwell rescued a sailor during his last cruise with the USS Enterprise in 2004.
“We were swapping out crews. We were on the deck” when it happened, he said. He stripped down to his wet suit and jumped in. At first, he couldn’t see the white-clad sailor in the ship’s foamy white wake, but he was eventually able to grab onto him and the two were pulled from the water by one of the squadron’s SH-60F Sea Hawks.
“My adrenaline was pumping. My heart rate was up,” he said of his first real-world rescue.
And that’s exactly what he loves most about his job: “Most AWs (aviation systems warfare operators) are adrenaline junkies,” he said. “We go skydiving. We love action.”
The thrill-seeking gene apparently runs in the family. Blackwell’s identical twin, Brennan, does the same job in the Navy, just in a different-model helicopter and for a different squadron, Helicopter Squadron Light 46 at Naval Station Mayport, Fla.
The brothers enlisted shortly before Sept. 11, 2001, as part of a buddy program, where they could stay together all the way through boot camp. That included about two years of aircrew, rescue swimmer and aviation warfare school before they split up, Blackwell said.
Their parents get a little worried about their sons, Blackwell said, but mostly “they’re happy if we’re happy.”
Prior to becoming a naval aviation warrior, Blackwell said the most dangerous thing he had done was swimming with sharks in the Bahamas and skydiving.
The adrenaline rush is comparable to flying combat missions, even rescuing a sailor in the open sea, he said: “You never know what’s going to happen.”