Three British war veterans recently joined a dozen wounded U.S. troops for the twice-yearly Warrior Dive in Key Largo in May that promotes scuba diving as a rehabilitative therapy, according to Reuters.
After half an hour of working to get quadriplegic British Royal Marine Dominic Lovett into a neoprene wetsuit, six scuba instructors helped him into the waters of the Florida keys to let him experience a temporary freedom from his disabilities.
Lovett was able to swim around the shallow lagoon with a motorized propeller hooked to his air tank, allowing his first ocean dive since he was paralyzed from the neck down during a military training accident 15 months before.
“Absolutely fantastic,” Lovett said. “Brilliant, absolutely brilliant…I’m so happy.”
It first began with a group of wounded soldiers from the 101st Airborne at the U.S. Army’s Fort Campbell in Kentucky, and has now expanded to include outpatients from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Vice president and training director for the International Association for Handicapped Divers, Fraser Bathgate, was brought to Fort Campbell in 2007 to train the wounded soldiers that formed the Eagle Divers club.
Key Largo merchants and veterans generously donated hotel rooms and boat rides, hosted barbecues and provided a bus with a wheelchair lift to show their gratitude for the troops’ service.
Kenny Wheeler of the Ocean Divers dive shop said, “We want to make this a true gift from the Upper Keys community.”
Bathgate, a Scotsman paralyzed from the waist down from a climbing accident in 1986, is also a co-founder of the newly created Deptherapy Foundation that provides scuba rehab to disabled British veterans and brought three Royal Marines to Key Largo.
A friend encouraged Bathgate to try diving and he loved it so much that after learning to rotate his hips enough to propel himself underwater he went on to become a certified instructor.
“I felt a freedom I hadn’t felt since I was in the chair,” the Edinburgh resident told Reuters.
“I was the first instructor to have qualified from a wheelchair,” said Bathgate, who has worked the last 15 years to train other instructors on how to work with disabled divers.
Being weightless under water, the injured are able to exercise atrophied muscles and gain cardiovascular strength without stressing joints, Deptherapy co-founder Martin Hannan said.
“I know this therapy works. I can see it in people’s eyes,” Hannan said.
The outings also give wounded soldiers the opportunity to meet with others who are dealing with the same issues and understand exactly what they’re going through.
Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans joke about how insurance companies refuse to pay for the prosthetic “swim legs” because they are considered merely recreational.
Two of the men chime, “Write your congressman!”, as an idea for how to acquire the dive-fins.
Most disabled divers are able to use regular diving gear by making minor adaptations, Bathgate said. Some amputees use special prosthetics or rig old ones to be used underwater.
Dive instructor Maria Greenfield of Norman, Oklahoma, discovered the hard way that she could not stay underwater without removing the cosmetic coverings from her prosthetic legs down to the metal skeleton.
“Boy are they buoyant! I was floating upside down,” joked Greenfield, whose lower legs had been crushed by a car.
Jeremy Stengel, a U.S. Marine corporal and “water fanatic” lost his left leg below the knee after being hit by an improvised explosive in Iraq. He now uses a prosthetic with a jointed ankle that can be locked with the toes pointed downward in order to allow him swim with dive fins.
“I kind of sit at the bottom and take it all in, watching everything go by. It’s relaxing,” Stengel said. “Trying to even out the weights is the only issue.”
Divers have to wear lead weights to keep them from floating to the surface. Stengel’s prosthetic leg weighs less than his natural right one, so in order to keep from rolling in the water, he has to add weight to his left side.
Lovett’s more debilitating injuries require more special gear. During cold-weather training in Norway, he jumped into a snow bank that turned out to be an ice bank crushing his spine.
The 21-year-old has very limited movement in his arms but absolutely none in his legs or torso. He swims with the help of a Pegasus Thruster, an underwater propeller powered by a battery the size of a coffee thermos. He had the control button attached to a glove which he can operate by pushing it against his chin.
Equipment maker Oceanic provided a dive mask with a data screen to allow him to see depth and air levels, which divers are usually able to view on handheld gauges.
Dive instructors swim in front of and on each side of him to keep him stable. The seas are too turbulent to risk taking him out by boat to the colorful coral reefs, so he is limited to practicing in a pool and the lagoon, where only a few transparent gray fish live.
Lovett’s spinal chord injuries make it difficult to regulate body temperatures, so Lovett is limited to 20 dives to prevent hypothermia..
“It’s an awful lot of work for 20 minutes, but it’s worth it,” said Bathgate. “The freedom he’s getting is immense compared to being dragged through the water by others. He’s in charge.”
Lovett declared it incredible “just to move under the water and go where I wanted to go.”