Most Canadian students count final exams or thesis papers among their tougher challenges.
But at Canada's "hero" school, the Class of 2007 has just 10½ months to master skydiving, bush and Arctic survival in a Canadian winter or summer, mountain climbing, backcountry tracking, underwater diving, hoisting from helicopters and off cliffs, plus attain a higher proficiency than most professional paramedics at emergency medical aid.
Corporal Dan Bodden, one of 13 students who started in mid-August, said that enrolling in the Canadian Forces School of Search and Rescue, possibly the most obscure and dangerous educational institution in Canada, is "a dream come true . . . I have to pinch myself sometimes."
Cpl. Bodden, 38, joined the regular Forces in June after being accepted at the SAR school. In civilian life, he worked full-time as a registered massage therapist, helping people heal injuries and pains, and part time as a reservist with the Forces, as a port diver near Victoria.
Cpl. Bodden's class recently travelled to their school's home location, at the air force base in Comox on Vancouver Island, for a one-day break between being subjected to high-altitude hypoxia in a Winnipeg laboratory and heading out for backcountry survival training in the deep bush near Jarvis Lake, Alta.
After they graduate next June, they'll join the elite ranks of about 130 so-called SAR Techs in the Canadian Forces. SAR Techs are in one of the smallest military trades in Canada, said Chief Warrant Officer Andy Morris, head of the SAR school, and are one of Canada's elite military units along with Joint Task Force 2.
But unlike nearly every other part of Canada's military, those who work in Search and Rescue, including the pilots and navigators of dedicated SAR Cormorant helicopters and Buffalo and Hercules aircraft, never leave the country. "Ours is strictly a domestic operation," CWO Morris said.
The Canadian Forces is the only military in the world that maintains a branch dedicated entirely to domestic search and rescue, of civilians and members alike. It was begun at the urging of northern bush pilots just after the Second World War, and the level of specialization, including paramedical training in intubations and intravenous lines, has expanded since then. "I wouldn't want to guess how much it costs," CWO Morris said.
There are five main Search and Rescue stations: in Gander, Nfld., Greenwood, N.S., Trenton, Ont., Winnipeg and Comox. Two smaller operations, at Cold Lake, Alta., and Bagotville, Que., support F18 fighter planes, in case pilots eject, and respond to downed civilian aircraft.
Dedicated SAR aircraft include Cormorant and Griffon helicopters and Buffalo or Hercules airplanes, and at the main stations a team of air crew and SAR Techs is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They respond to thousands of emergency calls a year from people in such deep distress, or in such remote locations, that they cannot be rescued by municipal and volunteer search and rescue workers or the Coast Guard.
While the military's mandate is technically over land and water under federal jurisdiction, SAR Techs are sometimes asked to help other agencies. "There is no civilian organization that is paid to do what we do," CWO Morris said.
Occasionally, the air crew who fly their aircraft into danger, or the SAR Techs who plunge out of the air or dive into the water to the rescue, die or are injured. In July, three Armed Forces SAR members died and four were injured when a SAR Cormorant, practising lowering a SAR Tech to the deck of an auxiliary Coast Guard ship, plunged into the ocean near midnight off the coast of Nova Scotia.
The SAR school in Comox, in a new building which opened this year, is dedicated to Corporal Philip Young, who died in a helicopter crash in 1993.
Inside, the hallways are covered with framed medals received by SAR Techs, including a Cross of Valour and several each of the Medal of Bravery and Star of Courage.
The motto of the service is: "So that others may live."
But SAR specialists say they're uncomfortable with being called professional heroes. They point out that the men and women who keep their airborne rescue craft aloft frequently go above and beyond any normal sense of duty, and that, like police and firefighters who also go into danger, they're just doing their job.
"What some people find courageous, we've been trained to do," CWO Morris said. "But if you know what you're about to do could cost you your life, you're definitely taking a risk."
And while the risks are real, so is the thrill of work that requires skydiving, mountain climbing and dangling below aircraft, SAR Techs say. That thrill is partly what attracted CWO Morris to apply to become a SAR Tech from the infantry, in 1980. He still loves his work: "My God, I get to do this for a living, and I don't have to aim a gun at anybody."
SAR Techs tend to be risk takers, who spend their leisure time in sports that parallel their work. SAR Techs have climbed Mount Everest, said CWO Morris, and Cpl. Bodden, for example, is a long-time triathlete who placed fifth in the 2005 Ultraman triathlon in Hawaii.
Most applicants to the SAR school apply to transfer from another area in the regular military, and have served for at least four years, CWO Morris said.
Each year, dozens of applicants are screened by physicians for fitness, and by a board in Ottawa for overall qualifications. Only 24 are chosen for the short list, and in February, these men (and occasionally a woman) spend several weeks at Jarvis Lake, competing in gruelling tests. In June, as many as 13 are chosen.
Cpl. Bodden said he's happy to have traded his health-care office for the SAR Tech uniform of an orange jump suit and scarlet beret, and, despite having never parachuted, he is eager to skydive.
"I'm sure there will be some hairy moments," he said. He left civilian life, he added, because "I want to make a difference . . .
"And I wanted to go get bugs in my teeth."