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Search and rescue leaves no stone unturned

The Kitsap County unit of Washington Explorer Search and Rescue (WESAR) has been trekking through the wilderness at all hours of the day and night since 1978.

The organization volunteers its time to search for lost people and aircraft, rescue injured persons, assist in evidence searches and help with natural disasters.

WESAR’s Kitsap unit has about 80 human and 15 canine members. The group recently came together July 13-16 on Wildcat Lake Road for training exercises.

Brooks Hanford has been a WESAR volunteer for 34 years. He was so impressed with the young members of the unit that he decided to write a letter to the group.

“I was so impressed with the youngsters and the way they carried themselves with the dogs that I wrote a letter and all of a sudden I was one,” Hanford said with a smile.

Adults and young people ages 14-20 comprise the search and rescue group. Dog handlers make the decision to train their dogs in search and rescue and join the organization.

“The dog comes pretty well trained,” Hanford said. “It takes about two years to get the handler on board.”

The unit is registered with the Boy Scouts of America and the Washington State Department of Emergency Management (DEM). Certified WESAR members are called upon by law enforcement agencies and national parks for authorized DEM missions within the county and state.

“They will dispatch us and we will work with whatever county that needs us,” Hanford said. “When you’re a certified brush monkey you are welcome almost anywhere.”

Bruce Ramey joined WESAR’s Kitsap unit 13 years ago. He drove his then 14-year-old daughter to a meeting and never left the group.

“My neighbor was in the unit and my daughter decided she wanted to join,” Ramey said. “I gave her a ride to the meeting and I never left.”

Ramey serves as an operations leader and oversees many searches. He has worked with his 9-year-old Schnauzer named Sampson for seven years. Ramey vividly recalls his first find with Sampson. An 88-year-old man was lost in the woods in Olalla for four-five days when they located him.

“When you actually have a search where you save a life, that’s a good feeling,” Ramey said.

Ramey, a mortgage loan officer, balances work and search and rescue. He and his wife own Acceptance Capital Mortgage Corporation in Silverdale and dashes out the door to attend a search if necessary.

“If I get a call, I just walk out the door,” Ramey chuckled.

The Kitsap unit of WESAR found critical evidence to prosecute the Green River serial killer in 2003. Gary L. Ridgway admitted to killing 48 women between 1982 and 1985. The Kitsap County team found the “first identifiable remains of a Green River victim in 20 years,” according to Hanford.

“A 15-year-old girl from the Kitsap unit made a key find so they were able to put him away,” Ramey said.

Hanford said the Kitsap unit has found evidence to successfully prosecute six capital murder cases in the past 13-14 years.

WESAR’s Kitsap unit actively recruits new members at various community activities. The organization’s members include a doctor, judge, Navy engineer and housing contractor.

“We all come together for this same common interest,” Hanford said. “There is no mold for these kind of positions.”

Hanford and Ramey enjoy training young search and rescue members. WESAR certifies about 90 percent of the young people who begin training, according to Hanford.

“It’s thrilling to take these 14-year-olds and see their sense of self-worth and leadership evolve,” he said.

During this summer’s training session, the Kitsap unit received two calls July 15 to assist in searches. The first search was the recovery of Thomas Graham, a Silverdale man who died July 14 while hiking the Mount Jupiter Trail in Jefferson County. Shortly after that call, the Kitsap unit received another call regarding a search for a 5-year-old boy on Erland’s Point Road in Bremerton. The group had to make a choice between the recovery and a live rescue.

“Anytime there’s a balance between in county and out of county, we’ll stay in county,” Ramey said.

The Kitsap unit rushed to Bremerton to locate the boy. He was missing for four-and-a-half hours before he wandered into someone’s yard and the homeowners called 911.

“We were closing in on his location from both sides using information from the dogs,” Ramey said.

The Kitsap unit of WESAR is a non-profit group supported entirely by donations. Ramey said members may spend thousands of dollars on equipment each year. He estimates the Kitsap unit spends $20,000 a year “to keep things going.”

For more information about WESAR’s Kitsap Unit or to donate money to the organization, visit the Web site at www.kitsapesar.com.

“The less time we spend fund-raising, the more time we can spend training,” Ramey said.

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