Southern Wesleyan graduate devoted to lifesaving career
At left: Wes Price jumps out of a MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter during training as a rescue swimmer.
When disaster strikes at sea, the U.S. Coast Guard comes to the rescue.
And U.S. Coast Guard petty officer third class Wes Price, a 2004 recreation graduate from Southern Wesleyan University, is a welcome sight to boaters in distress.
Price currently serves as an aviation survival technician for the U.S. Coast Guard at an air station in Clearwater, Fla. He is among a small group of elite individuals called on when there’s an emergency at sea. Not only does Price have to be a good swimmer, he must be able to jump from a helicopter, sometimes in harsh weather and high surf, to carry victims to safety. Even in the best of conditions, such a rescue is challenging.
“I’ve jumped off high stuff my whole life,” Price said, adding that jumping out of helicopters is different because a swimmer must deal with the wind from the rotors, which can be comparable to dealing with hurricane force winds.
After graduating from Southern Wesleyan in Central, S.C., Price worked at Ridge Creek, an outdoor wilderness program for at-risk youth, where he taught leadership skills. While in the program, he worked alongside many retired military servicemen who influenced him to pursue service in one of the armed forces.
“I always felt I wanted to help people. I’ve always liked the military and the challenges,” Price said. He had considered becoming a Navy SEAL or Army Ranger, but felt those roles didn’t fit his personality. Wanting to challenge himself, Price entered the Coast Guard, where he began with basic training.
Price was then faced with a choice and decided to apply for the aviation survival technician program.
“I want to challenge myself. I love to swim and work out, so I decided to give it a shot,” Price said.
After waiting 10 months, Price received orders to enter the airman program. He was then sent to an air station in Atlantic City, N.J. for four months.
“I probably prayed more in two months at airman school than four years at Southern Wesleyan University,” Price said. “They trained me, yelled at me and there were rigorous workouts,” he said. The Coast Guard sends approximately 15 - 20 people to air stations, expecting 12 to actually enter training.
“I showed up with nine gentlemen in my class, which was 18 weeks long. It was very rigorous training – approximately one hour of sit-ups, an hour of push-ups, and a one-hour run. Then we were in the pool one-and-a-half hours. Then after lunch we returned to the pool for another three hours,” he said. Price, who was the only one in his class to successfully complete the training, said a lot of his classmates quit.
While exciting and challenging at times, Price’s duty isn’t always the stuff of high adventure movies or television shows.
“Sometimes you’re searching for something you can’t find, while other times the situation got resolved before you arrived,” he said. But one evening, 50 miles offshore, Price’s training paid off.
“There was this guy on a small fishing vessel who had a crushed arm. It was around 8 p.m. and very dark. We lowered a basket to pick him up. To complicate things, the hoist cable got caught on the boat. We were trying to decide whether to stay on scene or depart, because this situation is dangerous for a helicopter,” Price said. After the cable snag was resolved, Price was lowered into the water.
“I swam to the boat and told the crew we would have to put him in the water. I threw a rescue device over, swam to it, hooked it up, swam him to the helicopter, then took him out. Then I hoisted myself up,” Price said.
“We have to pull a survivor a certain way in the water, while all the time there’s rotor wash pounding you – spraying your face to the point that you can’t see. You just put him in the basket and yell instructions to him,” he said. In addition to harsh conditions, Price said rescue swimmers sometimes must also try to calm a victim’s fears or deal with a victim who isn’t compliant.
Price’s team periodically travels to the Bahamas for two-week search-and-rescue stints and to do medical evacuations for cruise ship passengers in need of urgent medical attention.
Dave Tolan, who leads Student Missions Fellowship at Southern Wesleyan University, recalled how Price stood out as a team player and a leader on campus. While at Southern Wesleyan, Price served as a resident assistant and loved playing intramural sports, especially football, Tolan said.
“We played together and prayed together, talked together and walked together,” Tolan said. “He was in a good group of friends, which was a big help. Price was a good friend, fun to be with. Guys enjoyed connecting with him. Price was able to set a goal and stick to it, and I think it was obvious in his training.”
Dr. Roger McKenzie, Southern Wesleyan University professor of religion, recalls Price as a student who cared about people – a key motivator for his career choice.
“One thing that doesn’t surprise me is that he coupled that with his desire to do bodybuilding. But rather than focus on himself, he’s focusing in a positive way for the benefit of others,” McKenzie said.
“He impressed me as reliable, dependable and calm under pressure,” said Daryl Couch, associate vice president of planning and assessment at Southern Wesleyan, who got to know Price when he became a resident assistant on campus.
“Price continues to enjoy pushing himself physically, emotionally and psychologically and he’s not afraid of a challenge at all,” Couch said.
Price is glad he chose to attend Southern Wesleyan, saying that the values instilled in him and the relationships he found are priceless. He recalled something Tolan said to him in a conversation years earlier.
“Dave Tolan said, ‘Whatever door you walk through, if you’re serving God, you’re doing what he’s asked you to do,’” Price recalled.
Price also remembers also a from John Eldridge in a book he read that God wants his people to come alive.
“Yes, it’s a battle. I’m not surrounded by the kind of people I had around me at Southern Wesleyan University, but I love it and I look forward to going to work. God has blessed me,” Price said.