By Shannon Huffman Polson
Sara Faulkner’s stunning accomplishment of being the first woman to graduate from the Coast Guard's Helicopter Rescue Swimmer School's grueling 16-week training program, (two Coast Guard women, Kelly Mogk and Jody Vanderhyden, preceded her, graduating from the Navy's program in 1986 and 1989, respectively), and then work as a rescue swimmer, came about partly by coincidence. “I’m an actual valley girl,” says Sara Faulkner, early on in our conversation. “I grew up in LA, but I was really disenchanted by all that LA represented. I knew by junior high that I wouldn’t stick around.”
Sara grew up with three siblings, two older sisters and a twin brother. She says swimming came naturally, living in L.A. with a pool in the backyard, and endless days at the beach. “In high school, I was running cross-country with a friend, and we were complaining about how hot it was. We decided to join the swim team. I tried out, made it, and I loved it.”
Making the team wasn’t enough though, and the way she attacked the swim team is how she lives her life.
“I started out in the slowest lane because I hadn’t swam competitively,” she says. She worked hard, became the fastest in her lane, was moved up to the next fastest lane, then started the process over until by the end of the season she made varsity.
She laughs about her drive. “I think it’s because I have a twin brother and I didn’t want him feeling like he was better than I was because he was a boy.”
The swim team was just the first step. In high school, Faulkner heard about the Sea Cadets, a U.S. Naval Sea Cadet program that drilled at a nearby Naval Base. She signed up. “We were the Betsy Ross division,” she says, “The only all-female division. We competed against all the other Sea Cadet units which were all co-ed, and we always kicked butt.”
On a cadet trip to Seattle on the USS Kitty Hawk, Faulkner talked to the Naval rescue swimmers. They advised her against the Navy, saying that they only sat on helicopters, flying circles around carriers while the jets flew in case of emergency. “If you want to be a real rescue swimmer,” they said, “Join the Coast Guard.” That's just what she did.
“They said that there were no female rescue swimmers, and alluded to the fact that there never would be, explaining that they had broken away from the Navy rescue swimmers twelve years prior and had higher standards.” Faulkner was, as she says, “pissed". "I immediately envisioned myself as the first woman to make it through.”
After waiting four and a half years for a training slot, and extending in the Coast Guard just to keep her name on the list, she was assigned a training slot. She was assigned to work with a group of rescue swimmers before her training began. “Half were cool about me being there, and half weren’t,” she said, adding that the half that thought it was cool, didn't think she'd make it through. She started training as one of nine students. By the end of the training, only five remained.
As soon as the sixteen-week course began, both students and instructors started talking. “They’d talk about the girls who had almost made it but failed,” Faulkner says. “Part of me thought that I could see that happening, but part of me doubted it. When you show up, you look around and wonder who will be there at the end, and you just pray you’ll be one of the last ones standing. I never let them know I knew they were screwing with me. I’d play right back, and just grin. The instructors were like gods…I had to play the game.”
On the final test, the instructors pulled in one swimmer at a time to the pool area for a multiple survivor scenario. “There was a lot of noise, screams and pounding. The test is as much psychological as it is physical.”
Then it was over.
“When you pass, they rip off your shirt,” she says. “I was stunned that I’d passed. I didn’t want to make it if I couldn’t do it. I didn't want any favors, but they’d made it harder for me. After graduation, the senior chief pulled me aside and told me all the rumors were right. He wasn’t going to let a female graduate because he didn’t think they could do the job, but I’d changed his mind.”
That was validating to Faulkner, but also a warning she didn’t yet recognize.
Faulkner’s last duty assignment was in Clearwater, Florida, one of the busiest Naval Air Stations in the country. “We flew a lot there,” Faulkner says. “One night we were called out when a 63’ sailing vessel lost its sails in a storm in the Bahamas, and then lost its engine. It was dead in the water. They called for the Coast Guard and only had a little remote radio and even that battery was failing. It was night, and there were fifteen-foot seas with swells to twenty feet, wind gusting to forty-five knots. I dropped into the water, but the waves were pulling the boat away from me. I’ve never swum so hard in my life.
I saw a rope hanging down from the stern and treated for it, but got swept under the hull of the boat. It started coming back down on top of me and I had a very calm thought, that I hope Jimmy would be able to pick up my body with the basket. I knew I was dead. I forced my body to stay soft, and let myself be pushed down. The next wave pushed me underneath the boat again. I pushed off the port side and swam over to the boat. I have never been so tired.”
Faulkner secured the first passenger in a basket to be pulled into the helicopter and used the sling augmented double pick-up (SADPU) for the other two. By the time she had brought all three passengers to the helicopter, the day was dawning.
Her hardest challenge came in another form, and when I talk to her the week after she retires, she is willing to discuss it.
“I was sexually harassed in my first unit,” she says. “I didn’t do anything about it. The shop supervisor was a cool guy, and people liked him, but everyone started to get uncomfortable. After a year, I filed a complaint.” After she filed her complaint, things got worse. “The command made my life a living hell,” she says. The competitive fighter of a swimmer almost didn’t come into work one day. “Then he was booked on assault charges,” she says, “and then my own command tried to get me kicked out of the Coast Guard. The reprisals were worse than the assault.
"I was sent against my will to a Navy hospital to be analyzed at a psych ward, and then to my district admiral who tried to bribe me. He told me if I dropped my complaint, he’d reassign me, but was going to send me to a unit without rescue swimmers. I think he was shocked; I said no. I was a rescue swimmer. That’s where I wanted to work. She went back to her unit.
After a follow-up assignment proved similarly challenging, Faulkner almost left the Coast Guard. “Then another command master chief who came from another aviation specialty talked to me,” she says, “and convinced me to stay. He told me I was a role model for other women."
But it was the beginning of a career-long struggle.
“Every single station I have had to fight to be treated equally,” Faulkner says, with noticeable emotion.
Still, Faulkner is grateful for many of her experiences. “It’s an awesome job, and adventurous,” she says. “I’ve been to the South Pole, done an important job, but I wouldn’t candy coat it. You have to be aware of the other half of things. I hope things are better now with the new chiefs but…” she pauses. “There are so many cool stories to tell, but I wouldn’t want a daughter of mine to go through what I did. I’d tell anyone who wants it: You go girl…but watch out.””
Faulkner clearly has grit. Here’s her definition: “Grit is standing firm in the face of adversity. Persevering. For me, I just wasn’t going to quit.” She believes grit is inside every person, but that it can be developed, too.
“I kept my eye on the goal,” she says of her own successes. “I knew the requirements, and I made sure I exceeded them every time.”
Faulkner plans to use the G.I. Bill to go back to school to become a wildlife conservation biologist and hopes to use her search and rescue training for anti-poaching work in Africa. “The animals are another kind of survivors,” she says.
When Faulkner retired, she took with her 25% of the female Coast Guard rescue swimmers. Only three women serve as rescue swimmers today.