Written by Petty Officer 3rd Class Connie Terrell
Listening to the helicopter’s rotor blades slice through the night sky while watching his feet dangle above the turbulent water, the words “never quit,” repeated over and over in his head.
Never quit – words Seaman Derrian Duryea repeated to himself before high school swim meets and now words he lives by as a Coast Guardsman.
Duryea felt a surge of adrenaline rush through his body as the helicopter’s hoist lifted him from the edge of the door to the water below.
Once in the water he watched Petty Officer 1st Class Rob Williams descend from the helicopter.
Williams, a Coast Guard aviation survival technician stationed in San Diego, was on his way to “rescue” Duryea, who was playing the role of a victim in distress during training.
“I could totally see what it might be like to be a survivor,” Duryea said. “Seeing the swimmer come down … from a survivor’s prospective it has to be the best feeling to see them coming to rescue you. It reaffirmed that being a rescue swimmer is what I want to do.”
Coast Guard aviation survival technicians, also known as rescue swimmers, are put into some of the most dangerous situations to save lives.
To prepare prospective ASTs for what they might encounter during a real-world rescue, they must complete one of the most grueling military courses – AST “A” school. The 18-week course pushes trainees to their physical and mental brinks at the Rescue Swimmer Training Facility, in Elizabeth City, N.C., followed by three weeks of emergency medical technician training at Training Center Petaluma in Northern California.
Since Duryea’s road to get to “A” school was paved with plenty of twist and turns, he knows a lot about pushing himself and never quitting.
From a young age Duryea had a strong desire to serve his country. He wanted to attend a military academy that would train and prepare him for a job he could also do after his military career. Duryea has always loved the water and really liked the Coast Guard’s lifesaving and humanitarian missions. After weighing his options, Duryea decided the Coast Guard was the best fit for him.
Ten days after graduating high school, he set sail for the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., with the hope of getting a degree and becoming a Coast Guard officer. He was also able to pursue his love of competitive swimming by joining the Academy’s swim team.
During the summer following his freshman year Duryea got his first taste of what the Coast Guard was like outside of a classroom when he spent half of the summer in Miami. Within 24 hours of arriving at Coast Guard Station Miami Beach, Duryea and the station crew were chasing down suspected smugglers.
When he wasn’t working with the station, Duryea could be found talking with the aviators at Coast Guard Air Station Miami learning about the roles of pilots and ASTs.
Even though he could see himself as a rescue swimmer, only enlisted servicemembers are eligible for the job and Duryea was on track to become an officer. So instead, he focused on graduating from the Academy and possibly becoming a pilot, a profession only open to officers.
He spent the other half of his summer aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Eagle, a seagoing classroom for approximately 175 cadets and instructors from the Academy.
When the summer was over, Duryea returned to the Academy. However, during his sophomore year his grades started to slip.
Even though years of competitive swimming had taught Duryea time management skills, he struggled to manage his schoolwork and swim team commitments.
“The Academy isn’t like a regular college,” said Rear Adm. Sandra Stosz, the superintendent of the Coast Guard Academy. “It’s a lot of time management. Once you fall behind, it’s really hard to recover from that.”
Duryea returned from a swim meet to learn he was being disenrolled from the Academy for his academics.
“All I could think about was ‘I don’t want to lose the Coast Guard,’” Duryea said.
He began the appeal process to stay in school. He drafted a memo to the superintendent with supporting documentation on why he should be allowed to stay and had several supporters back him up.
While the Academy staff worked with Duryea to identify a way he could remain in the Coast Guard, a new school year started. His grades improved, but it was awkward for him to start classes again, knowing he may have to leave the Academy.
During the lengthy appeal process, Duryea was temporarily assigned to the Coast Guard Cutter Eagle for four months. However, because he was in the process of being disenrolled, this time he wasn’t serving as a cadet – he was part of the crew.
Duryea said being part of the crew was very different from being a cadet. The classes he once attended as a student, he had to teach to cadets as a crewman.
The entire time aboard the cutter he had no idea if he was going to be allowed to stay in the service he loved so much.
When Duryea returned to school, he learned his fate. Much to his dismay, his appeal was denied.
“My heart sank,” Duryea said. “I think about that moment – how easy it would be for someone in my position to give up. But I wasn’t going to stop fighting until all of my resources had been exhausted.”
Stosz said a lot of people may have accepted the defeat, however Duryea didn’t.
“He is a motivated, passionate, smart, driven young person who’s passionate about the Coast Guard,” she said. “He just didn’t want to leave.”
Stosz and the Academy staff could see Duryea’s dedication and commitment and looked for a way to keep him in the Coast Guard.
Together Stosz and the staff came up with a solution so he could remain in the service, but not as a cadet or an Academy graduate.
Enlisted boot camp at Training Center Cape May, N.J., was his only option and his last hope of staying in the Coast Guard.
“With as few people they take, I was really fortunate to be able to go there,” Duryea said. “Going in I kept an open mind. I knew it would be tough and challenging, but I knew it’d be an experience I’d carry with me my whole career.”
Duryea, assigned to Juliet 188 Company, said he often wondered what he had gotten himself into when he first arrived at recruit training.
He said there were challenges, but it also provided him with great leadership experiences.
Duryea completed boot camp as an honor graduate, an award presented to the recruit who demonstrated the highest level of performance in all facets of basic training for their company. Upon graduating, he received orders to the Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell in San Diego.
Duryea dove into things head first at his new duty station.
He quickly completed all his required competencies and qualified as a cutter rescue swimmer and armed sentry where he provided extra protection for the cutter in foreign ports. He was also put in charge of rescue and survival gear maintenance and started a program where his shipmates could shadow rescue swimmers at Sector San Diego to learn more about the job and prepare for AST “A” school.
During Duryea’s first deployment, he and the crew of the 378-foot High Endurance cutter interdicted 1,300 pounds of cocaine, apprehended three suspected smugglers and rescued 10 mariners.
One of the rescues involved the fishing vessel Calypso’s crew of four. The mariners had been stranded for 10 days and were critically low on food and water.
“If we hadn’t gotten there or if no one had found them … it would have made for a different story,” Duryea said. “To save those fishermen … it’s a good feeling.”
Duryea hopes mariners will one day rely on him to come to their rescue.
Duryea left the Boutwell for AST “A” school in June and, if he makes it through the rigorous training program, he’s scheduled to graduate in December 2014.
“It’s been an incredible ride,” Duryea said. “I’ve been so fortunate to go from being a cadet to enlisted. I always have an end goal and I’m working on it every day. I’ll keep going until I make it – as many times as it takes, I’m not going to stop trying.”