There’s really no other way to put it: Roxanna Morton is one bad grandma. Although her youthful appearance belies her age, the 70-year-old retired this week from Malibu Search and Rescue after 30 years on the team.
“Rocky,” as she’s known, has rappelled out of helicopters and down cliffs, climbed up mountains and waded through streams in all hours of the night in an effort to find missing or injured people and, unfortunately, sometimes to recover their bodies. But, as Morton pointed out, many rescues are successful “and the people are so happy to see you and you get them home safe to their families.”
As a reserve sheriff’s deputy, she’s had to draw her weapon once, but not use it—“which is nice,” according to grandmother of six.
But now, after three decades of volunteering on MSAR, she is stepping down.
“I gave up all my peace officer standing,” she said. “I had to turn in all my gear, badge and gun.” When asked what her oldest grandsons think about their bubbe carrying a sidearm, Morton replied, “They love it.”
It was a big surprise to her husband and two nearly-grown children when the Thousand Oaks resident informed her family she would be attending the sheriff’s training academy, then at age 40.
“However, they were very supportive,” Morton said. “I think my husband didn’t know what hit him, but he wasn’t going to stop me from following my dream.” Morton was one of only two women at the time in her academy. Soon after making the force, she went to school for six years to become a nurse practitioner which came in handy during rescues.
Morton has no idea how many hours she’s served in three decades with MSAR. She typically worked 20 hours a month, which included keeping up to date on training, shooting skills and patrol—all unpaid volunteer hours. At times she was away from home for two- to three-day stretches. She worked nearly non-stop for the two-week period of the Woolsey Fire, even though her own neighborhood was under evacuation.
Reflecting on her incredible career, Morton said she learned and experienced more than she ever thought possible.
“My time on MSAR was mindboggling,” she said. “It was nothing I had ever experienced before. It broadened my life beyond anything I could even comprehend. It gave me life experiences. I learned outdoor skills that were just not part of my environment. Nobody I knew did these things: search and rescue, driving a truck, carrying a gun. It was the people who kept me going because I felt so privileged to be part of the group. If you had a problem in the middle of the night, who would you call? I had a full team I could call. If I had an emergency in the middle of the night, I knew people who would come out and help me.” Morton laughed when reminded that she was one of those people who would be called in the middle of the night to help a stranger—a lost hiker or someone who had tumbled down a cliff.
Morton recalled one Christmas when she joined the rescue of a group of hikers in Malibu Creek State Park. After hours of searching well into the evening, the group was found, tired, grateful and hungry. But as a female on the rescue scene, Morton knew what was needed when she offered toilet paper: “You should’ve seen the smiles on everyone’s faces.”
Morton’s friend and MSAR team leader, David Katz, had nothing but praise for his co-worker.
“I have a close professional and personal connection to Rocky for many reasons, including that we graduated the academy together in 1990, we worked side by side together for 30 years, most recently on the Calabasas helicopter crash and we both lost our spouses to cancer within a year of each other,” Katz said. “Rocky is an amazing woman, a fearless deputy sheriff, a Billy Goat hiker, a trailblazing mentor and just a damn great human. We will miss her terribly.”
Katz added that Morton would be receiving a special honor from her longtime teammates.
“Rocky will be only the fourth Malibu SAR team member in our 43-year history to have his or her rescue designator retired by the team,” Katz said. “’R08’ will never be used again by Malibu SAR for a rescue operator. It is a fitting honor for a deserving teammate who devoted three decades of life so others may live.”
Morton encouraged others who may be considering a call to service to join MSAR.
“It was amazing,” she said.