Search and Rescue Savvy Senior

Staff Writer: Ashlyn Richardson

The students at Woodstock High are nothing less than exceptional. From being talented thespians to gifted athletes, all the Wolverines excel at what they do. Emily Whittaker, a senior at Woodstock, is no exception to this rule. As a search and rescue volunteer, she speaks volumes to the abilities of the Wolverines. Her passion for helping others combined with her love for the military and ROTC skills is expressed throughout the interview as she tells about her experience in the following interview.

AR: When did you first start volunteering for searches and rescues? 

EW: I became a member of the Civil Air Patrol at 12 years old, the minimum age for joining. I did not get into search and rescue until much later, when I was about 14.

AR: What exactly is a search and rescue volunteer/what do you do? 

EW: Search and rescue volunteers are like wilderness first responders, we are sent out to remote locations for days at a time to search for a missing aircraft, or person. Sometimes we are sent to more urban areas or airports for non-distress missions. But, I normally am sent out into the wilderness for days at a time with my team if the need arises.

AR: Does being a volunteer require any sort of training? If so, how extensive is it. What kind of personal training do you have?

EW: To become a ground team member (the ‘boots on the ground’) you have to take and pass numerous tests, as well have extensive knowledge on medical conditions, and injuries. You must know how to properly treat them. You must have adequate survival skills, such as fire building, shelter building, and food and water procurement. Some ground team members have a radio license, and I currently possess one myself. As the training increases, so does the difficulty. You must know how to convert between different coordinate systems, grid systems, and be able to do math without a calculator. You must be able to recognize and react to air-to-ground signals and respond appropriately to them. Repelling and knowledge with ropes is also needed. Civil Air Patrol has quite a few search and rescue schools around the nation, and in June of 2014, I attended Hawk Mountain Ranger School in Kempton, Pennsylvania; and graduated as a Ranger Second Class. It is the highest qualification you can graduate with your first year there. During my stay, I had to demonstrate the tasks I already knew from my experience, as well as demonstrate ‘ranger qualification specific’ tasks, such as proper patient packaging for transport to a hospital, extensive knowledge of repelling knots and additional medical knowledge. Often times, I will participate in Field Training Exercises and Search and Rescue Exercises. These are overnight trips, often in the mountains somewhere, where I practice, relearn, and learn skills and advance my training. The field training exercises I attend are often very physically demanding and stressful; and knowing our leaders, they will do anything to try and trip us up and see how we figure our way out of things. You never have a boring FTX. Sometimes, they’ll hand you some sort of worksheet with some map working problems, and some confusing math at 2 in the morning and make you do it while you are barely awake. Although these are stressful and I often only get around 6 hours of sleep to last me an entire weekend, it keeps my skills sharp and at the ready; so when the time comes and they need me for a real life situation, I’m prepared to run on little sleep and be expected to be alert and coherent enough to preform tasks.

AR: What inspired you to become a search and rescue volunteer?

EW: I’ll honestly say that I just wanted to be a hero and rescue people, or at least be able to give closure to families who lose their loved ones in a missing aircraft or missing personnel search. It’s rewarding, even though it is one of the most stressful things to do.

AR: Have you done any missions? If you have done multiple ones, which has been your favorite?

EW: I have been asked to come on numerous active missions, but there were really only two that I actually got to go on because usually, when my team and I are called, they usually just need support, and the mission is often brought to a close before we even depart to the field headquarters for tasking. However, on the 26-30th of September back in 2014, I got a call that would honestly forever impact my life. It was the end of September break, and there had been an old World War Two airplane that went missing down in Eufala, Alabama. The search had already been going on for a week, and I had known about it, but what I didn’t know was that Alabama had exhausted their resources looking for the aircraft, and were reaching out to other states for help. I was there for 5 days, and it was one of the most stressful yet rewarding things I had ever done. The first day, the search was massive, complete with helicopters and airplanes and just about anything you could think of. It was an awesome feeling. It was hot, and the brush and overgrowth was horrid. There were briars everywhere and some of the briars were so sharp, that they were puncturing my leather gloves. We made it to some sort of swamp at midday and the reeds were over my head. The spiders were as big as my hand and I was inhaling all kinds of dust and spores from the plants around me. At the end of the day, I was starving, and literally shaking with hunger, since I hadn’t had time to really eat. The second day, (Sunday) though, many people ended up going home because school was starting back the next day; so all that was left was my ground team and I. Some of our friends came from up in north Georgia later that day to assist us, and from then on out, we were the only teams left. We went through horrid brush, fell into 14 foot deep ravines, my friend got hit in the eye with a briar, and we were dead beat tired when night came. All this time, there were no showers, and nowhere to sleep. We often slept outside at the airfield, which was where the command center was. It really is nice to be so far away from the cities and be able to gaze up at the sky and see the beautiful Milky Way. It was a nice winding down time. The only time I slept in an actual bed was Monday night, when they let us sleep in a volunteer firefighter station. I was so tired that I didn’t really remember much. But two of my friends had their birthday that day, so the firefighters took it upon themselves to go out and buy them some cake; which was also nice. On Tuesday, the aircraft was found, and it had unfortunately been in the water. A civilian boater had found aircraft pieces and contacted the authorities. We left that night, on a long ride back home to Georgia. I got home at 1 o’clock Wednesday morning, went to bed at 3, got up at 5 and got dressed in my ROTC uniform and showed up to school to take the Writing Test, which all juniors had to take. It was an honor to spend 5 days on mission with my ground team family, and I will certainly never forget the part I played in that mission, and how grateful the family had been for our support. I don’t care how tired and sore and beat up and bruised I was. I did my part, and I put in my best effort to help. No one can ever take that away from me.
AR: How do you feel when you are volunteering? Are you scared? Is it an adrenaline rush? 

EW: I get this “it’s just another day at the office” feel. I kind of psych myself out, and just delve straight into it. There have been moments where I have felt like my heart dropped into my stomach, and there have been times when it is 4 in the morning and we are still on the move, and I’m running on fumes, but I’m never scared. It’s an adrenaline rush, but in a different aspect. It helps with shrugging off injuries as well.

AR: Is it common for kids you age to volunteer or do you generally work with individuals who are senior to you? If so, have you made friends doing this?

EW: It’s definitely not common for someone like me to be an active participant in the search and rescue field. People are shocked whenever I talk about it. I normally work with adults and teenagers alike. The good thing about ground team is that in the field, rank doesn’t matter. The amount of experience you have does. Our ground team leaders are often ex-military, though. My ground team and I are like family. Our ages can vary, as our leaders are usually in their 30’s, but my best friends are in the 15-19 age range. We would do anything for each other. We take care of each other, we hang out often and we really are a tight knit group. I definitely enjoy the people I work with and no matter what, I have a bond with them that is unbreakable. There’s just this special friendship that forms when you suffer through things together.

AR: How did you initially feel when you began your work? 

EW: I was excited and very nervous, because I felt like I had something to prove. I was a short little 14 year old when I first started, and the gear I carried was ridiculously heavy. I was trying to be a show off. However, I eventually relaxed as I got more and more comfortable with my new friends and the nervous feeling went away

AR: Do you plan to continue your work after high school? 

EW: I definitely plan to keep doing search and rescue after high school, but I will be going into the military so that will probably conflict.

AR: Do you have a career path in mind that would incorporate your search and rescue skills?

EW: I aspire to join the military, and the skills I know now will definitely just be an added bonus to my resume. I’m so undecided on what I want to do, but I do know that the skills I have learned could prove to be vital to me at some point in my military career.

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