ELIZABETH CITY, NC – Imagine jumping into the Atlantic Ocean from a helicopter hovering 10 feet above the water – where swells can quickly double or triple the distance of the jump.
Darren Hicks, a 2006 graduate of Oroville High School doesn’t have to imagine – that was his reward for completing the U.S. Coast Guard’s elite Rescue Swimming Program – an actual jump from a hovering helicopter. Before that point Hicks had practiced from a fixed tower under controlled situations at the Coast Guard’s training school at Elisabeth City, North Carolina.
“A week before graduation we got to do our first freefall from a helicopter. The helicopter is hovering at 10 feet, but it varies depending on the conditions,” Hicks said. “You learn to watch the wave because if you jump at the top of the wave it is a lot closer than if you jump in the trough.”
He said the freefall was “kind of like a congratulations” saying we could advance from the school’s tower jump.
Hick’s journey from joining the Coast Guard to becoming one of the country’s few AST (Aviation Survival Technician) Rescue Swimmers began with the 18 week-long Airman Program at the Operational Air Station in North Bend, Ore. There he worked out with rescue swimmers to prepare him for the high level of swimming skills he would need.
Then it was on to Elisabeth City, N.C. for four months of rescue swimmer training.
“We trained under multiple rescue scenarios in a pool in a controlled environment,” he said.
Some of the training involved his teachers, rescue swimmers themselves, acting in “combative and non-compliant” ways.
“Basically they were trying to drown you,” said Hicks.
His congratulatory freefall from the helicopter wasn’t his first experience with the Coast Guard’s choppers.
“In the Airman Program they used me as a “duck’ and they would lower me and swim away… they used me as a training dummy,” he said.
Hicks, the son of Mike and Karen Hicks of Oroville, taught himself swimming.
“We were at some friends in Oroville who had a pool and he just jumped in and started swimming. And of course we always had the lake close by,” said his mother.
“I saw the big kids jump off the diving board and I just jumped in too,” recalls Hicks, speaking from California where he is attending the Coast Guard’s Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) training.
“I always loved the water, swimming in Lake Osoyoos, jumping off the cliffs at Blue Lake,” he said. “I’ve always been an adrenaline junky.”
During the EMT School Hicks will learn what normally takes six months in three weeks.
“The Coast Guard compacts it and for three weeks you are force fed the material. I have to pass the course to stand duty as a rescue swimmer,” he said.
He has classes from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day “with lots of homework on top of the classes” which keeps him up studying until 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. every night.
He said he would soon begin riding along as a basic EMT with an Oakland Ambulance Crew.
“I’ll get to go on calls… I’m looking forward to that…it will be fun,” he said.
After finishing his EMT training he will head back to Elisabeth City where he will be based and called on to perform rescues, as well as other duties as an AST. He and his fellow Rescue Swimmers are often called on to jump from or repel from helicopters when performing rescues at sea.
The Coast Guard’s Rescue Swimmers also aid in rescues after natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.
Hicks said he can see himself in the Coast Guard for the long haul.
“I’d like to make a career of it. I could do it for the next 20 years as long as I keep up my physical training,” he said.
In the future, once he had the experience, he would like to teach other rescue swimmers like his instructors taught him.
“I really looked up to those guys… they’re your enemy and they’re your friend,” he said.
While at Oroville High School he liked sports, especially football and basketball. His favorite subject was history and he especially liked George Thornton’s classes.
“As soon as I’m qualified and have been doing this for awhile I’d like to take college courses in history on the GI Bill,” he said.
After he completes the EMT class Hicks will get a chance to come home in early October to see family and friends.
“I’d like to thank them for all the support they have given me… they helped motivate me and keep me going,” he said. “There was never a point where I was going to give up, just points where I wasn’t sure I was going to pass a test. My dad would just say “suck it up’ and I’d get through it.”
His dad was in the Navy and now works at the U.S. Port of Entry as a supervisor. His mother is a stay-at-home mom.
“We could not be prouder. Now if we can just get our daughters into the military,” said his dad with a smile.
“The entire time they were trying to get the guys to give up… I’m just so proud of him for not giving up,” adds his mom.
“Out of his Rescue Swimmer class of 24 only two made it through the training, which is low as usually around 50 percent succeed. This is only the second time they’ve had a graduating class of only two,” said his mom, adding that her son made the decision to go into the Coast Guard when he was only 12.
“Only two of us graduated, me and another guy… it was pretty intense,” said Hicks.
He said his best friend, the late Justin Reese, was also an inspiration for him to succeed.
“It is coming up on a year since he passed away. He definitely inspired me to do things I would not have normally done,” said Hicks.