In 1984, a year after the deadly capsize and sinking of the 605-foot ship Marine Electric in a winter storm, Congress directed the Coast Guard to “establish a helicopter rescue swimming program for the purpose of training selected Coast Guard personnel in rescue swimming skills.”
Twenty nine years later, the first female rescue swimmer has advanced to the rank of chief petty officer.
CPO Karen Voorhees is now part of history, and after the announcement of her promotion, she spoke about raising “smarter and stronger” young women.
“I think that if we treated our girls with the same respect and initiative that we treat boys and expect them to live up to the standards we set for them instead of lowering the standards for the girls to meet, I think we will do much better, and I think we will have a lot more females in the military, in aviation, just running the world,” Voorhees said during an interview May 15.
Click play to watch the Voorhees interview
As the rescue swimmer program was developed, concerns were raised about whether it would be open to women. The challenging aviation survivalman rating would become even more demanding because of the physical requirements of performing the duties of a rescue swimmer. In addition, no other service allowed women in similar programs at the time.
The Coast Guard decided that any physical fitness standards would be both “mission-specific” and gender-blind, which means women who possessed the strength and stamina were eligible to become rescue swimmers.
“In 1976 we had the first female graduate from Aviation Survivalman School,” Capt. Joe Kimball, commanding officer of Air Station Miami, said in a statement. “In 1986 we had the first female graduate from a Navy rescue swimmer school. Twenty-seven years later we have the first aviation survival technician promoted to the rank of chief petty officer.”