Rise to the occasion: why some need jobs that would terrify most
Updated: May 2
By Jon Sosner
Blasting its way through the frigid February night air, sideways rain, and thunderous clouds, the spotlight lit up a debris field full of fishing equipment and life jackets, bobbing in and out of the water as the waves came crashing down on top of them. The only thing missing from the life jackets were the people that were supposed to be wearing them.
This is the moment that Rescue Swimmer Jack Marsh had been preparing for since enlisting in the Coast Guard nearly four years before. A few moments after discovering the trail of floating destruction, he found himself hanging out of the side of a helicopter suspended by a cable, only a hair thicker than a standard pencil, being lowered into the Atlantic Ocean.
Swimming through 15-foot seas of icy waters, miles off the Cape Hatteras shore, he only had one thing on his mind: reach the life raft and pray that the fishermen were not only inside, but also still breathing.
While this would be a nightmare scenario for most people, to someone like Marsh, this is nothing short of a dream come true. In fact, the idea of working a mundane 9-5 job where you go home and sleep in your warm bed every night is far more terrifying to him than risking his life jumping out of helicopters into waters dauntingly referred to as “the Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
Petty Officer 1st Class Rob Simpson, an aviation survival technician, performs a direct deployment from a MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter to the ice in Grand Traverse Bay, Traverse City, Michigan, Feb. 27, 2018. Crews from Air Station Traverse city were conducting ice rescue training. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Seaman Brendan Stainfield
But why? Why must some people live on the edge while others prefer to only experience that through the TV in their living rooms? How does the stress affect them? Why can they perform under such highly stressful conditions? The answer to those questions is complex, varying from person to person, but many common themes come to light when looking at this issue at a deeper level.
Back to the start
In order to find the origins of these personalities that seem to thrive under extreme stress, it can be traced all the way back to infancy. Research suggests that there are tangible differences in brain chemistry that differentiates people who handle stress well and people who handle stress poorly.
“You can take two children in preschool, and present some sort of unexpected event, like a stranger walking in the room, or building a castle and the castle falls over,” said Dr. Jen Wright, a professor at the College of Charleston who specializes in the psychology of war and conflict. “Some children will respond to that, and their nervous system will have very minimal activity. They'll just be surprised perhaps, and they'll take it really calmly.”
The children who handle new stimulation well are more likely to become adults who function at an even and balanced level in highly stressful situations. On the other side of that coin, the children who do not react to new stimulation in such a way are often the ones who try to avoid those situations.
“Other kids get really, really agitated,” Dr. Wright said. “Their sympathetic nervous systems get hyper kicked up, and they’ll internally think to themselves ‘Oh, my God, there's a stranger. What does that mean? Who is this person? Is something bad going to happen?’ It mainly comes down to threat perception, as in the degree to which we perceive something new as a threat, as opposed to something new, exciting, and novel.”
Those traits that are found in early childhood will often take hold and develop throughout the adolescent and teenage years, channeling their way into a full-blown career.
“My whole life I knew I wanted to be a Marine,” said James*, a critical skills operator with Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, otherwise known as MARSOC, the Marine Corps’ special forces division. “I knew I wanted to be in the fight. Growing up I would watch videos nonstop about the Marines who were over in Afghanistan and what they were up to. It always seemed so exciting to me.”
*James’ name has been changed to shield his identity, as he is currently an active duty Special Operations Marine.
What’s it take?
One thing about these high-stress jobs that is critical to note is that the more dangerous and stressful the job is, the more elite the community tends to be.
“Up until a few years ago the attrition rate for AST (Aviation Survival Technician) school was around 85%. If 100 people started, only 15 would graduate,” said Marsh, who also served as a rescue swimmer instructor during his time in the Coast Guard. “The people who are successful here are, by and large, type A personalities. These people want to be the best and be surrounded by the best. When people hear things like, 85% of people who attempt the class fail, most people go ‘hmm I don’t think I’m going to try that.’ When rescue swimmers hear that, they get excited, because they know that if they pass, then they are part of something truly elite.”
Students at the Search and Rescue Swimmer School at Naval Base San Diego conduct water entry exercises. The students are participating in a four-week course where instructors teach various rescue techniques and swimming exercises. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Dominique Pineiro/Released)
While the training can be excruciating, filled with mental and physical exhaustion, bumps, bruises and everything in between, the experience tends to become a point of pride.
“There really is this brotherhood and sisterhood of suffering,” said Graham McGinnis, a rescue swimmer with the Coast Guard. “The mutual grueling experience that I’ve been through recognizes the grueling experience that you went through.”
Becoming a member of these elite communities does not come easy, and you must have skills far beyond physical strength to succeed.
“Quite frankly, you could be Michael Phelps and the physical training would [eventually] break you down,” Marsh said. “Anyone can have a great attitude on 8 hours of sleep and a good breakfast, but how about when you’ve been in a pool for hours and are so exhausted that you can barely keep your head above the water? Are you going to quit then? Are you going to lash out at your teammates?”
Marsh adds that background does not necessarily dictate whether or not someone will be successful in training.
“I’ve seen Division 1 college swimmers, football players, triathlon and marathon runners all quit,” he said. “They might have a much higher threshold for physical exhaustion, but once they hit it, they just quit. I’d much rather have someone who moves a little bit slower but gives it 100% all the time than a guy who’s a freak athlete but quits when it gets tough."
While the exclusivity of the community might be one of the initial attractions to these elite, high-stress jobs, it is often the community itself that keeps them around for years to come.
“With any elite organization there is a very tight-knit community,” said James. “For us, we’re an elite organization within an elite organization. When you spend so much time together in tough situations you get pretty close. We have to trust each other with our lives, and we do.”
The only option
Many of the men and women in these communities share a variety of different motivations that led them down that path. However, every person that gets involved in a community like this has their own personal reasons that led them to where they ended up.
“I knew that I wanted to be a Marine for most of my life but as I got older, I realized that service was really important to me,” James said. “My dad taught me and my brother that if you want to truly be successful you need to find a way to serve. That could mean being a lawyer, a doctor, firefighter or in my case the military, but you need to find a way to give back to your community. By being a Marine I feel like I’m doing that while also working my dream job.”
For others, being surrounded by those who bring out the best in them, encouraged them to continue striving to be the best they could be.
“With a job like that, you don’t just fall into it,” said Marsh. “You don’t wake up one day and think ‘how did I end up here?’ If you want that job, you have to commit to being great every day for years and years. There are no bad rescue swimmers. Everyone wants to be there and everyone challenges each other every day.”
Every person has a different set of needs that must be met in order for them to obtain at least some level of satisfaction. For those in high-stress jobs, this can be difficult to replicate outside of their world.
“Some people need the high of doing things that are inherently riskier, some people just need lots of stimulation,” said Dr. Wright. “For other people, too much stimulation is overwhelming, and they need things to slow down and be calmer. A big part of it is just sensory processing, and if you’re someone who needs a lot of stimulation, it's going to be hard to do some nine-to-five job where you’re not actively stimulated.”
Being in the position to have a real impact on the lives of others is one of the main motivations that keep them going as well. For Jack Marsh, the only time he genuinely felt fear in his rescue swimmer career was that first trip to the Graveyard of the Atlantic, all those years ago. Marsh was able to not only locate, but rescue and save the lives of all four fishermen on that fateful February night.
“I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to leave the world better than I found it,” Marsh said, misty eyed and with a lump in his throat. “If I could have a positive impact and save one person’s life, that’s all I ever really wanted to accomplish. Everything after that first save was a bonus.”
"I've missed birthdays anniversaries, holidays...you name it, I've missed it."
Though these jobs may be exciting and fulfilling, there are reasons that they are not for everyone. From danger of serious injury and death to an overwhelming amount of pressure and stress, the people who work these jobs put their bodies and minds on the line every day they go to work.
For some, the danger of the job pales in comparison to the long term, secondary effects that such a job can have.
“Obviously, there’s the possibility of being injured or killed but that’s something that we all knew about when we signed up,” James said, almost dismissively. "The worst part is definitely being away from family. I’ve missed birthdays, anniversaries, holidays…you name it, I’ve missed it.”
During the course of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, research has exploded in fields related to long-term trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from exposure to high-stress events.
“When you’re exposed to such high levels of trauma, there’s a lot of hypervigilance involved that basically is a recipe for PTSD,” said Dr. Wright. “For any amount of time when you've got that kind of stress, and it goes on repeatedly, you've got a system that is creating feedback loops that are wanting to close, but the hypervigilance won’t let it.”
Studies have shown that approximately 500,000 veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have been formally diagnosed with some form of PTSD. While hundreds of thousands of people have been exposed to similar trauma, interestingly, some people handle it far better than others.
While much of it goes back to the infant reacting or not reacting to their castle being knocked down, perhaps more of this resilience can be attributed to the narrative and the context of any given traumatic event.
“One of the things that we're discovering from people coming back from Iraq, for example, is that there's a particularly vicious form of PTSD,” said Dr. Wright. “It's called moral injury, where if the narrative is, ‘I've been a bad person, I've done terrible things, and I'm never going to be able to come back from that.’”
For those who suffer from this form of PTSD, they tend to handle it poorly and engage in a number of harmful behaviors upon their return into everyday society. On the other hand, using the narrative in a positive way can make dramatic differences in how the mind and body reacts to trauma.
"Sometimes I wish my brain could forget some of the things that my eyes have seen."
“One of the really interesting things that's happening in Ukraine right now is you see this really strong emergence of nationalism with patriotism— they're fighting to save their country, they're fighting for freedom,” Dr. Wright said. “If you believe in what you’re fighting for, then that is fundamentally different than fighting just because your government told you to, where you don't even know what you’re fighting for. Saying to yourself ‘I don't even know why I'm here. I don't know why I'm killing these people’ is going to have a much greater toll on the soldiers.”
This not only pertains to combat, but also the things that you might see while trying to save someone.
“When you work in a job like this, you will see some pretty gruesome and depressing things,” Marsh said. “There’s just no way around it. Sometimes I wish my brain could forget some of the things my eyes have seen, but that’s not the way it works.”
Even though he did not necessarily fear the consequences of his job, Marsh was always acutely aware of the dangers that could be waiting for him around any corner.
“I think that to some point it didn’t matter,” he said. “I knew that my work was important, and I knew that even if I was injured or killed, it would be while doing a job I loved while serving my community and doing my best to make a difference. That’s how I would justify it.”
A U.S. Marine assigned to the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) conduct a live-fire exercise, as part of exercise Juniper Cobra, March 11, 2018. The 26th MEU is participating in Juniper Cobra with the Israeli Defense Force in order to improve interoperability and hone both forces’ skills in a variety of environments. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jon Sosner/Released)
Knowing full-well the long-term dangers of working in a high-stress job, nearly everyone in the field agrees that there must be a way to work through the things that they have seen and experienced, as to not keep it dangerously bottled up inside.
Approximately 22 veterans a day commit suicide, and nearly 6% of first responders have attempted suicide at some point in their lives. Finding ways to help themselves, as well as their peers is something that has gotten much more attention in recent years.
“Everyone handles stress differently,” said James. “I think a lot of it is finding an outlet for the stress, but more importantly, finding a productive outlet. For me, I love exercising. Running and CrossFit have been lifesavers.”
While James has found his productive outlet, others have not been as lucky.
“You hear stories about guys who have an outlet but it’s something like drinking a fifth of whiskey five nights a week, which obviously hurts them, but probably hurts their family more,” he said.
These detrimental behaviors can, unfortunately, have a compounding effect when it comes to the health and family of those affected.
“Your brain can essentially get stuck in the trauma, which can lead to many different difficulties. There's a high degree of drug addiction and alcoholism,” Dr. Wright said. “People start using [drugs and alcohol] and self-medicating to try to feel better. It breaks up a lot of families and causes people to want to just really isolate or engage in lots of risky behaviors.”
One of the worst things to do, however, seems to be to push their experiences down, not talking about it, in the hopes that it will just go away.
“Some people just seem to be more protected from experiencing PTSD at all,” said Dr. Wright. “They may just make a transition back into daily life, away from the trauma, just more successfully.”
The people who go out of their way to seek help, whether that be through things like therapy or support groups, tend to have more positive outcomes.
“A lot of people want to clam up and they don't want to deal with it, and that's when problems start,” said Dr. Wright. “To have a therapeutic approach of actively addressing it and actively talking about it, actively engaging with what happened that seems to help them heal a lot.”
While reaching out for help can be a formal measure, there are also fairly easy ways to address these problems as well.
“There are professionals who can help tremendously, but more so, there are your peers. Who better to talk to than someone who has gone through it?” asked Marsh. “No one is able to just brush this stuff off. Sure, some people have found better ways to cope with it, but I can guarantee you that no one who has truly experienced the things we’ve seen is unaffected.”
A rescue swimmer from Coast Guard Sector San Diego is lowered from an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter down to a cliff at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton during training, Oct., 24, 2013. The training helps keep the aircrews proficient in the event they are needed to rescue someone from a cliff side. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Connie Gawrelli.
Regardless of the negatives that come along with these high-stress jobs, the people who work them every day are able to put them aside and show up to work every day for a job that they love. Some people prefer comfort and some prefer the opposite. At the end of the day, life satisfaction comes from many different factors, but finding a career that you are passionate about can certainly help.
“We’d be flying around Alaska or Hawaii, seeing the most incredible things in the world, and I remember I would sit there and take it all in, thinking to myself about what my life would be like if I was doing someone else’s taxes with my dad back in Ohio,” Marsh said. “In some sense, I feel like maybe I just never grew up…and I’m alright with that. I did what I loved for 25 years and I would never trade it for the world.”