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Local joins elite group

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HOIST: A rescue swimmer with the U.S. Coast Guard is lifted into an MH-60 Jayhawk during hoist training. Huntington native and Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Park completed identical training during Aviation Survival Training “A” School, a six-month-long program that has a high attrition rate, where less than 50 percent of admittees graduate.
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HOLD ON: Park hangs from a basket during a pool training session. Rescue swimmers are tested to their limits throughout the day with both land and water training, but a majority of their time is spent in the pool during boot camp.
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HELICOPTER: A helicopter flies in position, which is about 15 feet above the water, as Parkhoists a “survivor” from the water during training.
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JUMP: The helicopter spray creates a rainbow as a rescue swimmer from Park’s graudating class jumps into the water below. As a standard, rescue swimmers aren’t allowed to jump from more than 15 feet in the air.
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PARK: Aviation Survival Technician 3rd Class Nathan Park, left, poses for a picture with his friend shortly after a drill during “A” School. Twenty-four people began the program but only ten graduated, including Park, onApril 5.

by Andrew Maciejewski - amaciejewski@h-ponline.com

Not many people are willing to jump out of a helicopter into near-freezing water, braving hurricane force winds, 20 foot waves and a nearly two-story drop.

Actually, there are only 320 people currently willing to do it in the U.S., and one of them grew up right here in Huntington.

Aviation Survival Technician 3rd Class Nathan Parks is No. 974 of an elite group of rescue swimmers who’ve graduated from the Coast Guard’s Helicopter Rescue Swimmer School since it was created.

Of the 24 individuals who began the six-month-long program last year, only ten graduated with Park on April 5.

“It was an amazing feeling because I’ve been training for this for so long,” Parks said. “To actually make it into this elite rescue swimmer program is a truly awesome feeling. I had some of the best and worst times of my life while going through the training in Elizabeth City. My faith is what allowed me to ultimately come out victorious.”

The path to graduation wasn’t easy. There are three phases, with the first eight-week phase focusing on building the “don’t quit” mentality the swimmers need before they try to save lives in hostile conditions.

“The instructors push you to your limits, physically and mentally, to see if you’re going to break under pressure,” Parks said.

Parks said the instructors get in your face while you’re performing physical tests, saying things like, “This can all be over if you just ring the bell.”

Three days a week consist of completing “the grinder,” which begins at 7 a.m. and involves doing “endless amounts of push-ups, sit-ups, burpees and other physical tests before transitioning into a cardio workout consisting of long runs, versa climber drills, rowing and sled drags.

Around 9 a.m., they begin their first of two pool trainings.

“The pool, being the bread and butter of our job, was where we were challenged the most,” Parks said. “The ability to hold your breathe while performing underwater tasks is a foreign concept to a lot of people, and the instructors make sure to ingrain that feeling.”

Parks said you’re taught to become comfortable with being uncomfortable, since members of the elite group have to live up to the moto, “So Others May Live.”

“You have to be at your best when someone is at their worst,” Parks said. “We are definitely the last resort for some of those people.”

On off days, the group learned about body nutrition and muscle regeneration along with technical training, like learning how to pack rafts and sewing riser assemblies. Park said only 10 percent of their job involves jumping out of helicopters and 90 percent of the time is spent maintaining all of the equipment and systems that deal with life support.

Since Indiana doesn’t have a large coastline, Park said he found out about the Coast Guard during spring break. Unfortunately, a broken ankle in eighth grade nearly stopped him from reaching his goal, since the injury disqualified him from enlisting, but he put in a waiver and waited until he finally got the call from a recruiter.

Shortly after, he was on his way to Cape May to act as a dummy during a training, where he got to be hoisted down into the water from a Jayhawk.

“That was one of the coolest things I had ever done, so I knew at that point that I had chosen the right thing,” he said.

Nearly six months later, he was the one tasked to be the rescuer during his “Hero Flight,” where he got his first experience of actually jumping out of a helicopter.

“You push out and away from the helicopter, and the rotor wash is really, really intense,” he reminisced. “It creates hurricane winds that are coming down directly on top of you… It’s an amazing feeling to be able to jump out of a helicopter for the first time. It’s just one of those things where you see all of the videos, you know that is what you are training for, but when you’re actually in the moment, everything is muscle memory.”

Park left Huntington today, April 13, to arrive for his first duty as a rescue swimmer in Mobile, Ala., where he will gain qualification and train to become an EMT, since rescue swimmer’s job’s aren’t complete until they provide medical treatment to any rescued people.

It is likely that Park will be tasked with saving victims of hurricanes or other disasters, where he will put all of his training to the test.

“I look forward to being the first on scene and putting all of the training to use as I live out the rescue swimmer motto, “So Others May Live,” he said.