SCUBA diving has been a window to another world for Dennis Cline, a disabled Army veteran and Tennessee native who received his Advanced Open Water Diver certification in mid-February at Taino Divers, in Rincon, Puerto Rico. “Learning how to scuba dive put me in a more positive frame of mind,” says Cline, who lost his left hand following an injury while deployed in the Middle East. “It’s shown me that life isn’t over. Now I’m looking forward to learning underwater photography and to diving when on vacation with my wife and children.”
Cline is one of over 300 disabled veterans who has become SCUBA certified through Soldiers Undertaking Disabled SCUBA or SUDS, a non-profit organization and chapter of Disabled Sports USA. The organization is based at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD. The program was founded in February 2007 by John Thompson, an Army veteran himself who wanted to ‘give back’ and who had worked for many years as a dive instructor in the Caribbean and at Taino Divers back in 2000.
“I went to have lunch at Walter Reed one day with a friend,” Thompson tells. “It was my first time in a military hospital. I was amazed at all the young men and women and their horrific injuries. I wanted to get involved. Since I’m a water guy, I started volunteering in the aquatic therapy pool and soon thought that scuba could help these veterans in their re-hab. I talked with the chief physical therapist, who was a certified diver, and she agreed.”
Veterans who want to participate in SUDS need to be compliant with medical and physical therapy appointments. They also need a prescription from their physician. Most are single or double amputees, some triple amputees, and others suffer from hearing loss, burn injuries or traumatic brain injury. Some start the SUDS program as soon as four months after being injured on the battlefield. Complete rehabilitation can take 18 months to two years. All initial pool training and academics take place in the Walter Reed pool. Then, the veterans are ready to go on a SUDS trip.
“We do six to eight big trips each year,” Thompson says. “We’ll go to Guantanamo in May, the Outer Banks off North Carolina in July, Curacao in September, Hawaii in October and the Turks & Caicos in December. In addition, I’ll often bring a couple of guys down to Puerto Rico for one-on-one instruction during a few weeks in the winter.”
Ten veterans, three dive instructors and one medical support person travel on the four-day five-night ‘big’ trips. Each day is planned with a purpose and involves training. For example, the first two days is when veterans receive their check out dives and certification. It’s also a time when they may learn how to put a fin on a prosthetic foot or slide from a wheelchair to a boat’s transom and then into the sea. The second two days are for fun diving.
“We heard humpback whales sing,” Cline tells of his trip to Puerto Rico in February. “How many people get to hear whales sing? We also saw reef sharks, moray eels and lion fish. It was incredible.”
Results of the SUDS program have proved amazing.
“When there’s been a serious injury, it can put you in a dark place,” Thompson tells. “Learning to SCUBA dive helps these veterans not only physically, but emotionally. It gives them confidence and boosts self-esteem.”
The SUDS program has also proven rewarding for those who assist with the program.
“To help facilitate the soldiers rehabilitation in such a positive way through SCUBA diving is the ultimate reward for me personally,” explains Greg Carson, who owns Taino Divers. “Just seeing what these guys are going through with their injuries and how they have such a positive attitude gives you a big reality check! I feel very proud and humble to give back to them such a small sacrifice for them sacrificing their lives to give us our freedom!”
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.