MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. -- Sgt. Trevor McLaren watches the Marine take the narrow, wet steps leading up to the 3-meter-tall platform. The Marine looks back at him with unsure eyes, not knowing if he’s capable of the task, but Trevor has watched him, prepared him and trained him to face his fears.
For those not comfortable in the water, swim qualification can be a nerve-racking task, but having the instruction and careful over watch of Marines like McLaren can give Marines the confidence they need to complete the life-saving training.
“I’ve always liked teaching individuals, and this is something I was always good at, so I put the two together: swimming and teaching Marines,” said McLaren, a Marine Corps Instructor of Water Survival, and instructor trainer. “We are Marines, so we are amphibious by nature. We’re always going to be around the water no matter what,” said McLaren. “There may be a time where you find yourself in an aquatic environment, and if you don’t know how to swim with cammies and boots, then it’s a big deal. It’s a life-and-death situation.”
It’s those life-and-death scenarios that motivate McLaren to help Marines qualify in the Marine Corps Water Survival Program. The program consists of several real-life scenarios that force Marines to face any fears they may have in the pool, so if they are faced with the situation, they know how to face it calmly.
McLaren earned his MCIWS certification in May 2009 by completing the three-week course at Camp Johnson, N.C. While it may have been his first time in an instructor role, it was definitely not his first time in the pool.
“From when I was born until I was 18 years old, I was at the pool every summer,” said McLaren, a Klondike, Texas, native. “My parents ran a public pool, so I was in the water every day. The opportunity came up to be a water survival instructor, so I jumped at the occasion, and it led me to this point.”
Growing up in a small farming community like Klondike, McLaren got to know his neighbors very well. That feeling of kinship is one of the things that drew him to the Corps.
“It’s a school and 12 houses; a very small community,” McLaren said. “Coming from a small town like that, you knew everybody and how they were. The same thing with the Marine Corps; you know everybody because it’s a small community, and you’re able to work with each other as a team easily.”
Being able to work as a team is what enabled McLaren and his fellow instructor trainer, Sgt. Seth Handy, to jumpstart the instructor trainer program on Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. According to Handy, the base temporally stopped hosting instructor courses towards the end of 2006. After the two Marines got their certifications in 2011 and 2012, they helped start it back up.
“We’ve put in a lot of work; a lot of man hours. We work all the time, and he’s always there by my side,” Handy said. “He’s a great instructor, and one of his favorite things to do is teach Marines.”
Before every class begins, the instructors sit down and discuss who will be handling which portion of the course. McLaren’s love for teaching Marines always makes him take the instructional part of the course.
“The best part of it is actually being able to influence young Marines,” he said.
While teaching Marines to swim effectively is rewarding and something that he enjoys, it is also very demanding. One responsibility for McLaren and his fellow instructors is to qualify the Corps’ newest lieutenants currently attending The Basic School. That sometimes means class sizes of more than 300 Marines. While many of these lieutenants may be very capable in the water, others need more assistance in order to pass.
“It takes a lot of work to get someone from not being able to swim to being comfortable in the water,” McLaren said. “When they finally get it, and they finally learn how to swim and their comfortable in the water, … it’s very rewarding. They’re usually very grateful. Every time I see them out in town, they’re like, ‘Hey, you taught me to swim.’”
But it doesn’t come easy. Some Marines are more difficult to train than others, and that means that McLaren and his fellow instructors put in the extra time and energy until their Marines get it.
“You try to work with them, and work with them, and work with them, but it’s not catching. It can be frustrating at times, but you just need to learn that water is a scary place,” McLaren said. “Not everyone is used to that environment, so you need to slow down, pump the brakes and work with them even though it may take some time. There’s a lot of Saturdays; a lot of after-hours stuff, but as long as they can get it, it’s worth it.”
He knows it’s worth it because he knows the dangers Marines face downrange.
“There’s water in Afghanistan and Iraq too,” he said. “Even though it may be a desert environment, there’s still water there. Marines still drown in a desert environment from rivers, lakes, streams and canals. It could be anything.”
Cpl. Joe L. Wrightsman, an infantryman on his fourth combat deployment, died July 18, 2012, trying to save an Afghan policeman from drowning in Afghanistan’s Helmand River. McLaren hopes the skill sets he gives Marines will help put an end to tragedies like Wrightsman’s death.
“Being able to teach someone a skill that could one day save their life is very important,” McLaren said. “You need to learn the trades we teach in the pool, so when the real life situation happens, you can be prepared for it.”
Marine Takes Small-Town Skills to the Corps