These days, when 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. But it was only a year ago when the Marine Transport Squadron 1 Marine found himself looking at a chance to shed his coveralls and turn in his tools for a completely new kind of career helping fellow service members prepare for one of the most dangerous environments known to man.
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.
Rayburn 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," said Rayburn. "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 ball game.
MCIWS school was physically harder than rescue school. Instead of wearing jump suits 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 recalls 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 one mile swim, by 13 seconds," said Rayburn. "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. Two minutes faster than the time needed for my mile swim."
"I let people know that swimming isn’t just a Marine Corps skill, but a life skill."
"You’re basically teaching other people how to survive, and that means a lot to me," said Rayburn. "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 believes most people who come to the pool and have trouble swimming are afraid of the water. "Being personable is important," said Rayburn. "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." According to Rayburn, his key talent is persistence.
"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," said Rayburn. "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."