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Scuba Therapy for Wounded War Vets

Scuba is a form of therapy for many divers.

For some vets, scuba is an escape from the pressures and demands of everyday life; for others it simply provides an opportunity for peace and quiet rarely found on land. Scuba also acts as a more literal form of therapy for those living with physical disabilities, and has proved particularly valuable when used as a recovery tool for wounded war veterans. According to U.S. Department of Defense records, over 1,300 soldiers lost an arm or leg during active service in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2011. The number of wounded personnel suffering from paralysis due to spinal-cord damage, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and reduced mobility as a result of severe injury is even higher. Most of these veterans are ultimately sent to one of two rehabilitation facilities on their return home, either the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, or the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. Adaptive sports programs feature prominently as part of the rehabilitation process offered at both facilities, with therapists at each center recognizing scuba diving as one of the most successful ways of achieving some level of both physical and mental recovery.

Scuba Therapy for Wounded War Vets

The benefits of therapeutic scuba are manifold. The weightlessness resulting from immersion in water allows the participant a respite from the chronic pain of a recent injury. Simultaneously, the increased resistance of water to movement improves muscle strength, so veterans can make more progress with less pain through diving than with land-based rehabilitative sports. It’s been proven over the years that diving helps with muscle strength, increases endurance and balance, heightens mobility, reduces overall pain and improves blood flow. In 2011, PADI worked in conjunction with the Cody Unser First Step Foundation, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury to conduct a 6-week study evaluating the benefits of diving for war veterans with paralysis. The trial, which was carried out in the Cayman Islands with the help of 10 paralyzed soldiers, showed improvement averages including a 15 percent drop in muscle spasticity, a 10 percent increase in light-touch sensitivity and a 5 percent increase in sensitivity to pinprick. Specialists in spinal-cord injury at Johns Hopkins even think that diving may temporarily restore some physical function to paralyzed veterans as a result of the body’s increased output of serotonin under pressure.

Increased serotonin levels also contribute to the emotional benefits of therapeutic scuba diving. Rehabilitative scuba not only aids physical recovery, but can also improve veterans’ mental health to such an extent that the symptoms of PTSD are often alleviated. Diving also helps ease the mental trauma of finding oneself suddenly physically handicapped; for many soldiers, the realization that losing a limb doesn’t necessarily preclude them from adventurous pursuits is key in restoring self-confidence and positivity. In 2007, scuba instructor John Thompson set up Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba (SUDS), which is run by Red Cross volunteers and which uses therapeutic scuba to provide rehabilitation opportunities for soldiers at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and Brooke Army Medical Center. According to Thompson, “diving is a catalyst…a confidence booster. It’s tough for someone physically active who comes home missing a limb or two. Then they discover they can dive as well as anyone else.” Underwater, decreased pain and increased quietude allow veterans to focus on their recovery and regain a sense of control over their future. Most importantly, diving is a natural antidote to the sense of isolation that often afflicts wounded soldiers. Many veterans suffering life-altering injuries attest to the difficulty of reintegrating with society and family on their return home, but the inclusiveness of the dive community and the close bond of the buddy system help them to overcome feelings of social detachment.

SUDS offers 4-week scuba classes for wounded veterans and organizes dive trips to destinations like Curacao, Cuba and North Carolina. Since the program’s inception, it has helped over 300 servicemen and women to achieve varying levels of mental and physical recovery. Since then, SUDS has become a subsidiary chapter of Disabled Sports USA and continues to help veterans through rehabilitative diving. There are several other organizations dedicated to the concept of therapeutic scuba, including the Wounded Warrior Project and Deptherapy. The former organizes an annual diving trip to Bonaire for recuperating soldiers, while the latter offers twice-yearly dive training modules for British war veterans in Key Largo. Scotsman Fraser Bathgate, the vice president and training director for the International Association of Handicapped Divers, founded Deptherapy. As the victim of a climbing accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down, Bathgate knows the curative properties of diving for body and soul alike.

Participants in these programs often require modified equipment to facilitate their disabilities, from fins adapted for prosthetic legs to cylinders fitted with motorized propellers to aid propulsion through the water. In 2009, Deptherapy helped Royal Marine Dominic Lovett to experience the underwater world after he became paralyzed from the neck down. To facilitate this, Lovett needed a cylinder propeller controlled with his chin and a dive mask especially created by Oceanic that displayed his depth and air consumption on a data screen. For 20 minutes, he was able to experience freedom of movement, something made impossible by his extreme quadriplegia. The bravery of soldiers like Lovett, the vision of organizations like SUDS and Deptherapy, and the generosity of the dive community that supports them are truly inspiring. Their achievements prove not only the value of therapeutic scuba, but also the ability of the human race to overcome obstacles that seem insurmountable.