Three men sat stranded aboard their small boat, tossed around by 12-foot seas as their engine failed and a strong current swept them farther from their port in Saipan.
They had planned to be out just a couple of hours on a fishing trip. Instead, they drifted away overnight, carried for nearly 24 hours into the stormy north Pacific Ocean.
Mark Loomis OTD ’17 was stationed nearby in Guam with the U.S. Navy. As a search-and-rescue swimmer and helicopter crew chief, he was trained for just this situation.
Loomis was crew chief on this rescue operation — his first — searching the horizon from the starboard side of an H-60 helicopter.
“We searched all day and into the evening,” he said. “Probably eight hours, getting fuel a couple of times, just going back and forth.”
About 30 minutes before the night shift would take over the search, the sky began to darken.
“All the sudden, my swimmer and I saw a signal flare shoot up and light the sky a few miles away on the port side of the helicopter,” he said. “I kept the location in sight and verbally guided the pilots.”
The helicopter flew overhead as Loomis scoped out the situation. He decided on a 15-foot swimmer deployment — the quickest way to get his swimmer in the water safely — but after a routine jump, a strong current kept pushing the swimmer farther from the boat.
Eventually, Loomis decided on another tactic, lowering a rescue hook and flying the swimmer directly to the boat with his own flight controls and rescue hoist system.
From the water, the swimmer hooked each survivor to the line, and Loomis hoisted them safely into the helicopter, hovering 70 feet overhead.
“We gave first aid, hailed the Saipan airport ambulance on the radio, and flew them back to safety,” Loomis said. “They were rattled. They had drifted about 12 miles into the deep blue, but we got them.
“That was my best day in the Navy.”
Loomis spent more than 10 years in the Navy, including his post in Guam and two detachments to the Middle East before a stint as a helicopter aircrew instructor in San Diego.
Today, he is a third-year student in the Pacific University School of Occupational Therapy, working toward a doctorate to launch a civilian career that he hopes will allow him to help other veterans transition into civilian life.
Loomis grew up in Tuscon, Ariz., a star high-school golfer who had his eye on a future with the sport.
Then came 9/11.
His father had served in the Coast Guard during Vietnam. His grandfather — an optometrist who earned his own doctorate from Pacific University back in 1949 — was in the Navy in World War II.
No one was explicit in their expectations, but military service was in his blood.
“My dad made a couple of nudges, sort of, ‘Hey son, it’s time to step up,’ but he didn’t come out and say it. I just knew it,” Loomis said. “It turned out the Navy needed helicopter rescue swimmers at that time. I said, ‘If that’s what you need, I’m your guy.’”
Aviation rescue swimmers are perhaps best known as part of the Coast Guard, but the Navy was the first branch to establish the job. The Coast Guard, Loomis said, had a two-year waiting period, but the Navy needed swimmers immediately.
It’s an intense job, and the attrition rate at rescue swimmer school is high. The training not only includes swimming and physical fitness tests, but also open ocean survival, helicopter systems operation, and survival-evasion-resistance-and-escape tactics for behind enemy lines.
Navy AIRRs, as they are classified, jump out of helicopters into dangerous waters and rappel to remote crash sites to save lives. As aviation warfare systems operators, they also must qualify as crew chiefs, which requires additional training and puts them in charge of missions beyond search-and-rescue, such as combat missions, logistics, and medical evacuations.
Loomis’ first station was in Guam, and from there, he was sent on two seven-month deployments to the Middle East for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
“The Northern Arabian Gulf became my new home, just flying missions in and around Iraq, flying tactical support inland and search-and-rescue for jets and different helicopters that were on our ship or in our battle group,” he said.
“In the rescue swimmer community, we have a saying, ‘Their worst day is our best day.’”
Some missions, like that first rescue as crew chief, embodied the rescue swimmer motto: “So others may live.”
Others did not have happy endings, but, he said, still provided valuable learning experiences.
He focuses on the successes, the achievements, and the lives saved.
“In the rescue swimmer community, we have a saying, ‘Their worst day is our best day.’ I guess it’s bragging rights, when you can debrief, ‘We found them in time, we got them out alive.’
“No one’s keeping score, as long as people get saved. But the faster you are, the more efficient you are as a crew, the better the outcome. It’s something you take pride in.”
While aboard the USS Essex, for example, he took part in a unified assistance effort in Indonesia following the 2004 tsunami that devastated the region.
“I’d never seen full-size ships that were flipped over. Flying into that area, it was like a checkerboard that never ended. Everyone was thinking, ‘What is that?’ As we got closer, we saw they were concrete pads where houses used to be, just wiped out. It was a pretty unforgettable scene,” he said.
“We just flew our tails off. I hadn’t ever flown 12-, 13-hour days nonstop before. We have limits, but we pushed the limits for them, since we were doing such great work, saving lives and helping so many people.”
Loomis’ decorations include a green and white ribbon representing his Commendation Medal in honor of his work in Indonesia, as well as a maroon Humanitarian Service Medal. He also has two Achievement Medals related to specific rescue missions.
“It’s odd, though, now, to watch people respond to such stories with awe. In my mind, I was just doing my job. It was my duty,” he said. “In the Navy, you’re not special. Everyone has their duty.”
In 2012, Loomis decided to hang up his uniform in order to spend more time with his young family.
Shortly after arriving in Guam back in 2004, he had mailed a family heirloom ring to his high school sweetheart, Lucy, back in Arizona, along with a written marriage proposal.
“She called me on the phone when she got it and said, ‘I do, I do! Let’s do it.’”
He flew her to Guam, and they were married at Two Lover’s Point, a cliff that towers over the Pacific Ocean. She was 19; he had just turned 20.
Twelve years later, Mark and Lucy Loomis have two children: Sarah, 8, and Elijah Roland, 3.
“In boot camp, they told us, ‘You can’t pack your family in your sea bag,’” Loomis said. “I knew my next tour was going to be on deployment overseas again, saying goodbye for a year or more. We knew the door was closing for the Navy and opening for us to spend more time together and switch gears.”
Loomis looked carefully for his next career, friends and family pointing him to a health profession.
“My mom and grandma had occupational therapy for different reasons, and they said, ‘You should look into this.’ I had another Navy buddy who was hurt on active duty. He had a hand and arm injury and a TBI (traumatic brain injury), and he said great things about his OT.
“I did my homework on it and decided it was an excellent fit for me.”
Pacific University already held a place in Loomis’ family lore. After serving in World War II, his grandfather, Roland Loomis, had gone to Pacific to become an optometrist. A newspaper clipping shows Roland on graduation day in 1949, with his wife, daughter, and 3-week-old son — Loomis’ father Roland Jr. — on the Forest Grove Campus.
“Growing up, seeing that picture on the wall, his degree from Pacific, made an impact on me,” Loomis said. “I’ve always wanted to come back and live where my dad was born.”
It didn’t hurt that Pacific had one of only 11 doctoral level occupational programs in the country at the time.
“I wanted to have the highest level of education that I could,” Loomis said.
After two years of coursework at Pacific’s Hillsboro Campus, Loomis and his family have returned to San Diego, where he will complete his practicum rotations — 12 weeks in a post-acute rehabilitation setting and 12 weeks in a school setting.
He will wrap up with a doctoral capstone, which he hopes to complete with the Veterans Administration, examining the factors that may lead veterans to go through the VA housing program but return to homelessness.
“That’s a question I haven’t found an answer to from the veterans’ perspective,” he said. “I would love to help identify that and improve the VA’s housing program to tailor that more specifically to meet the needs of veterans to help them stay housed and achieve long-term housing stability.”
Eventually, he would like to work with the VA professionally, providing support for veterans transitioning into civilian life.
“As a veteran, you really connect with other veterans, with the language you speak and the bonds you have,” Loomis said. “I think I’d be very effective working with veterans after I graduate. You understand each other.”