Sawyer Alberi is used to survival mode — she even welcomes it.
With a passion for adventure, she has made a career of helping people survive, from injuries in war zones and wilderness, and ground zero on 9/11, to her own tactics to last for six months in Antarctica.
What many people would consider daring or even a bit crazy has always drawn Sawyer, an adjunct professor in Johnson State College’s Wellness & Alternative Medicine program since 2001.
“If I had to sit at a desk and do the same thing for eight hours every day, I’d hate it,” she says. She used to think that, “If I didn’t die by the time I was 35, I didn’t have enough fun in my life. It’s about having a good time and making every moment matter.”
Her moments have focused on taking advantage of opportunities in a wild mix of jobs: women’s crew coach, operations manager at an executive retreat, veterinarian’s assistant, U.S. Forest Service wildland firefighter, Coast Guard deck watch officer and Vermont National Guard medic, among others.
After serving in the Coast Guard in the early 1990s, Sawyer, a U.S. Coast Guard Academy management major, tested a lot of waters. “I did as many different things as I possibly could in as many different places as I possibly could, wherever the winds blew me. I lived out of my car for a while. I did seasonal work,” she says.
Now Sawyer teaches freelance journalists in war zones how to respond to medical emergencies on the battlefield for the New York-based nonprofit Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC). She also is the lead instructor for Wilderness Medical Associates International, a Portland, Maine-based company that teaches backcountry medicine to doctors, first responders, international travelers and kids at summer camps.
In Sawyer’s hands, what she calls the discipline of survival is an art that she has taught and practiced on nearly every continent.
A California native and the youngest of seven children, her interest in medicine may have been influenced partly by her mother, who was a school nurse for 50 years, and a sister who is a nurse.
In Vermont — where Sawyer had friends and moved in 2001 after tiring of a corporate job in Rhode Island — she was a medic and taught mountaineering at the Army Mountain Warfare School in Jericho.
As an Emergency Medical Technician-Paramedic, Sawyer worked for the Vermont Army National Guard as a flight medic in Iraq in 2006 and a combat medic in Afghanistan in 2010. She treated a range of emergencies: children with burns and other injuries from convoy explosions, soldiers with their legs blown off, illnesses, broken bones.
“There are patients I will never forget, patients I will see every night in my dreams. There’s this notion that you can go to war and never be changed by it, and that’s ridiculous,” says Sawyer, 47, now retired from the National Guard.
During Operation Iraqi Freedom, she worked “outside the wire,” or in unprotected zones, and carried a gun. “You’re out there, and you hope you don’t get shot at,” she says.
“Trauma is very satisfying work because it’s easy to understand in terms of how to fix things,” Sawyer says. “It’s easy to do a good job.”
Training freelance war correspondents is a way to give back.
“War is bad…Being able to take something we learned in the National Guard in some of the worst conditions on the planet, use that in my civilian life and help other people live it is an awesome process… I have this crazy military experience,” she says. “Bringing what I’ve learned to the journalists is one way I’ve been able to get some good out of it.”
As lead instructor for RISC’s battlefield medical response course, Sawyer’s trainings resemble a movie set: simulated sulfurous smoke, artificial blood and taped sounds of explosions, screaming, trucks, gunshots and helicopters.
“We create a war zone and try to make it as real as possible,” she says.
Journalists learn lifesaving techniques, including how to stop bleeding and treat hypothermia, and how to prevent and address such common traveler’s ailments as diarrhea. They leave with a first aid kit that contains a tourniquet and other items.
Sawyer has taught hundreds of journalists around the globe who report on the world’s hotspots, including Syria, Libya, Congo, the Middle East and Kenya.
As war correspondents, “Almost every single person in the class each time has been gassed with tear gas and kidnapped,” she says. “It’s a fantastic teaching challenge to create a curriculum that’s valuable to these folks…who are bringing us the news every day.”
Sometimes survival requires collaboration, which Sawyer experienced during her three-year stint on the USS Tahoma in the Coast Guard.
“Everyone on a ship has a job to do, and you trust everyone to do it, or you are in serious trouble. Those situations can be very grounding, emotionally safe and build lifetime friendships,” she says.
She has practiced survival skills as far afield as Antarctica, where she worked for a company that provided support for government-funded research teams in the early ’90s. It was a short walk from her South Pole sleeping quarters to the kitchen, where she worked.
“But it was so cold that if you forgot to cover all of yourself, you got frostbite. The penalties for not doing your job or even daily tasks like dressing yourself properly were very real and immediate,” Sawyer says. “It really reinforced one of the things I love, the process of survival.”
Her students through Wilderness Medical Associates haven’t been tear-gassed or kidnapped like the war correspondents. They range from people planning hiking trips with grandchildren and outdoor guides who need first-aid certification to safari travelers, teens at summer camps and doctors trekking to Mount Everest with a group.
“It’s a treat as an educator to teach such a variety of people. My life has really been enriched by my students,” Sawyer says.
That includes her JSC classes. “The JSC students are just so cool. It’s a privilege to deal with young adults who are trying to find their way,” she says. “It keeps you young.”
One of her teaching interests is gender studies, influenced partly by her experiences at the Coast Guard Academy and in the military and forest service.
“I’ve spent a good portion of my life in male-dominated fields,” Sawyer says. “As a woman, I’ve been discriminated against for most of my life… I’ve always been an advocate for women.”
She has worked with the Vermont National Guard and U.S. State Department on integrating women more smoothly into military service and combat roles. “Just because women cry doesn’t mean they can’t be steely-eyed killers,” she says. “Men cry, too.”
In contrast to Sawyer’s globetrotting for trainings in flash-point areas, her home couldn’t seem much farther from battlefields and steely-eyed killers in combat. She and her wife live on a farm, where they raise Bernese mountain dogs.
Even Sawyer enjoys chilling out sometimes.
“The farm is very serene, very quiet, very boring,” she says. “I have a horse that I love, and we listen to her eat.”