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Marine Recruits - Sink or Swim
by U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Shane Manson
October 3, 2020

Underwater is one of the few times in people's lives that they aren’t able to breathe; and for those unaccustomed, it can be a frightening situation.

On Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, nobody knows this better than the Marine Corps Instructors of Water Survival, or MCIWS, the resident experts in the services’ amphibious roots and traditions.

U.S. Marine Corps recruits with Fox Company, 2nd Recruit Training Battalion, conduct swim qualification at the combat training pool on Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, SC on September 29, 2020. After demonstrations, recruits are tested on their ability to jump into deep water, shed proper equipment, and tread water in full utilities. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Shane Manson)
U.S. Marine Corps recruits with Fox Company, 2nd Recruit Training Battalion, conduct swim qualification at the combat training pool on Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, SC on September 29, 2020. After demonstrations, recruits are tested on their ability to jump into deep water, shed proper equipment, and tread water in full utilities. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Shane Manson)

MCIWS undergo three weeks of brutal training in water rescue and swim instruction, and are required to pass tests in first aid, combat rescue, timed 500 and 1,500 meter swims and more. Many candidates opt to take an additional three to four week physical conditioning course before even beginning the MCIWS course due to its physical demands. On Parris Island MCIWS staff are selected during Drill Instructor School based upon swimming skill and processed through to attempt the MCIWS course.

Staff Sgt. Johnathan Cobb, the Staff Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge of the Swim Tank, oversees both swim qualification classes and all MCIWS training for the depot. For the instructors, the teaching aspect of swim week is considerably more focused on helping the recruits stay calm and gain confidence in the water.

Staff Sgt. Jonathan Cobb swims at the combat training pool on Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, SC on September 17, 2020. Marine Corps Instructors of Water Survival undergo three weeks of training in water rescue and swim instruction, and are tested in multiple categories in swimming proficiency. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Marine Corps photos by Cpl. Shane Manson)
Staff Sgt. Jonathan Cobb swims at the combat training pool on Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, SC on September 17, 2020. Marine Corps Instructors of Water Survival undergo three weeks of training in water rescue and swim instruction, and are tested in multiple categories in swimming proficiency. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Marine Corps photos by Cpl. Shane Manson)

“It’s not that the recruits don’t know how to swim, it’s that they panic in a new environment,” said Cobb. “It’s our job to tailor ourselves to each recruit, and use the learning style that works for them.”

This mentality is applied through all aspects of swim week; an instructor patiently talking a recruit into the headspace to take on the high-dive, to instructors swimming along, giving enthusiastic encouragement to recruits during the 25-meter shallow water assessment.

For many recruits this will be their first time swimming under full combat load or in utility uniform, and this pool is not a sink-or-swim environment. The instructors enforce stress-free teaching techniques that cater to the less buoyant recruits, and take every safety precaution to instill confidence for those new to the terrain. After the first day at the pool, recruits struggling to grasp swimming concepts are provided with additional training in order to pass and move on in recruit training.

A U.S. Marine Corps recruit with India Company, 1st Recruit Training Battalion, conducts swim qualification at the combat training pool on Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, SC on September 15, 2020. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Shane Manson)
A U.S. Marine Corps recruit with India Company, 1st Recruit Training Battalion, conducts swim qualification at the combat training pool on Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, SC on September 15, 2020. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Shane Manson)

Despite being among the best swimmers in the military, the instructors constantly put themselves into the shoes (or boots) of recruits who’ve never been in the water, to gain perspective on how challenging the concept is. It’s this concept that they use to mentor recruits from never swimming to completing their Basic Swimming Course, a requirement to earn the title Marine.

“The best feeling that I get teaching recruits is helping someone overcome a fear of the unknown,” said Cobb.

For the instructors, it’s just another day at work. For the recruits, it’s an experience that they’ll remember for a lifetime.

“They show up Monday, absolutely terrified of the water and we work with them and see their confidence build as they get more comfortable” he said. “By the time they qualify and leave, they walk away knowing that they overcame their fears.”

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