Scuba Rejuvenation

Remember the magic you felt the first time you stuck a regulator in your mouth and took a breath underwater? That first taste of scuba means even more to some of our wounded veterans. To them it can literally be life changing.

According to U.S. Department of Defense reports, more than 47,000 of our military service members were wounded in Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq) and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) between 2001 and 2011. More than 1,300 personnel lost an arm or leg to combat injuries, and many others have become paraplegic or quadriplegic due to spinal-cord damage. We owe them a debt of gratitude that cannot be repaid, but it's nice to know that scuba-diving activities are helping out.

The use of scuba diving as a means of rehabilitation for military personnel injured in these wars cropped up more or less simultaneously in several locations around the country. It started around 2004, largely because a few individuals with diving experience cared enough to get involved. The Wounded Warrior Project was formed to provide various kinds of aid to wounded vets, hosting an adaptive water-sports festival of waterskiing, sailing, kayaking and fishing in New York. Henderson Aquatics donated custom-made wetsuits for the event, and Henderson vice president Joe Polak brought along Dave Reidenbach of the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA). After seeing the enthusiasm of the recovering soldiers for something besides routine hospital physical therapy, Reidenbach posed the question, "Why don't we get them scuba certified?"

For the first couple of years, DEMA arranged for scuba training at the festival, but as the program expanded, DEMA-member dive stores around the country donated their time, expertise and gear to make the instruction even more accessible. The marquee event of the program is an annual Bonaire trip. Each year a group of recovering veterans and their companions are treated to a week of diving in Bonaire, courtesy of Captain Don's Habitat, several local businesses and resources donated by the island of Bonaire. Captain Don's, Bonaire, the Wounded Warrior Project, Oceanic Worldwide, Disabled Sports USA and several other benefactors cover expenses.

About 40 veterans have made the trip so far, including Garth Roe, a Marine whose leg was shattered by gunfire in 2009 while serving with the 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalion in Afghanistan. "I was in therapy and still in rough shape the first time I used scuba in a pool," Roe said, "and it was such a relief. The pain didn't go away, but it dropped way down. And diving in the ocean is even better — it lets me forget about my injury for a while."

These vets really dive when they get to Bonaire. They are welcomed by Bonaire's lieutenant governor, who hosts a reception at his home, and by Jack Chalk, general manager of Captain Don's, who cooks up a huge Texas BBQ every year. The first couple of days are dedicated to finishing the divers' open-water training; then they take off on a three-dives-a-day schedule. Bonaire is particularly well suited to this program because the best diving is on the sheltered leeward side of the island. The calm conditions make the boat entries and exits much easier than if there were heavy seas with which to contend.

In 2007 John Thompson, an American Red Cross volunteer at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, launched another program. He suggested using scuba in the center's aquatic-therapy program, and the result is Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba (SUDS), which eventually became a subordinate chapter of Disabled Sports USA. With the Army and Navy facilities now combined at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., SUDS offers four-week scuba classes for up to six recuperating veterans at a time. Scuba Diving International (SDI) staff provides the training and materials.

Thompson capitalized on his own military contacts to organize SUDS trips to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Curacao, the Turks and Caicos, and wreck diving in North Carolina. About 300 wounded service men and women have taken part in SUDS training so far.

SUDS veteran Matt White was wounded in Afghanistan while on dismounted patrol with the 82nd Airborne Division, 4th Brigade, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment. White was the last man to jump a wall about a kilometer away from base when a concealed explosive device took off his right leg below the knee. He started scuba in the pool five months later. "Scuba is a great confidence builder," he said. "You can do what everyone else around you can do. There are no limitations, and that's a crucial thing when you're trying to adjust to losing your leg." Igor Macarov, a Humvee gunner with the 27th Engineer Battalion from Fort Bragg, N.C., who was wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade during an ambush in Afghanistan, explained that he loved how scuba took him away from the hospital world of surgery and physical therapy. "Amazement took over," he said. "I was amazed at what I could do with one leg and amazed at all the things I saw under water."

Diveheart Foundation is a nonprofit started by Jim Elliott to provide the scuba experience to anyone with disabilities. Diveheart recently took 15 soldiers from Fort Knox, Ky., to the pool for a chance at some submerged physical therapy as part of its Military Wounded program. That program includes dive trips to destinations including Cozumel and the Florida Keys.

Diveheart's adaptive instructors have worked extensively with paraplegic and quadriplegic divers. For vets with spinal-cord injuries, the body's increased output of serotonin at depth may be even more important than the zero-gravity-like environment. The mental benefits resulting from increased serotonin levels are undeniable, and doctors at Johns Hopkins speculate that it may even restore some physical function, at least temporarily.

Deptherapy likewise enables wounded veterans through scuba training. The inspiration and guidance for that organization comes from Fraser Bathgate, a Scottish mountain climber who was paralyzed in a tragic fall. He later became the first wheelchair-bound man to ever become a scuba instructor. With significant support from the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) and the dive community in Key Largo, groups of British and American disabled veterans have experienced the joy of submerging amid reefs rich with marine life. They dive with fins adapted to prosthetic legs and often tanks equipped with Pegasus Thruster devices to ease their progress through the water.

Unfortunately, there is not enough space here to mention all the other similar projects or all the generous commitments our wounded vets have received from dive-industry manufacturers and resort operators. The sad fact is there are far too many wounded for the available programs. In addition, there is no well-organized way for wounded veterans to get into these programs. Many are enrolled by word of mouth, and too many are left high and dry, without the benefits of scuba therapy.

As I spoke to these courageous veterans, it became apparent that scuba was an important part of their recovery but in a different way for each of them. For some it was excitement and challenge, and for others peace and equality. They all agreed on one thing, though. Scuba gave them back a little of what they gave so much to defend: freedom.
Learn More
Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba (SUDS)
Wounded Warrior Project

© Alert Diver — Summer 2012