Wounded American Vets Experience SCUBA
By Steve Moss
SCUBA diving has been a lifelong passion of mine. I started SCUBA while stationed with the 374TAW at Clark AB, RPI in the 1980s. It is one of the most relaxing activities I’ve ever been able to enjoy.
Recently I was heard about a new program called WAVES, which stands for Wounded American Vets Experience SCUBA. Intrigued with such a concept, I wanted to learn more.
WAVES started when Steve Rubin and Jon Schumacher were talking one day. Jon is a former Marine who lost both legs and most of his left hand while on a dismounted patrol in Afghanistan. While patrolling a tree line, he stepped on and triggered an IED. During the conversation Jon found out that Steve is a PADI SCUBA instructor and commented how he would like to try SCUBA.
Steve began the research into what teaching SCUBA to a disabled vet really entailed. Soon he and several other instructors and dive masters travelled out to Denver to meet with instructors from the Handicap SCUBA Association (HSA). The team completed the training to become HSA Instructors, Dive Masters and HSA Dive Buddies.
After meeting Steve and Jon, I became involved in the WAVES Project and set out to learn as much about the therapy as I could, which was thoroughly studied by neurologists from Johns Hopkins and the Kennedy Krieger’s International Center for Spinal Cord Injury. They conducted a small trial study with 10 vets in the Cayman Islands. The study showed amazing results after only 4 days and 10 dives. The participants in the study we’re all veterans who had become paralyzed during their service and who also suffer from PTSD. The results were nothing short of miraculous. One hundred percent of the study participants showed an improvement in neurologic function. The improvement is equal to what would normally be expected after 6-12 month of task based rehab. The same participants also showed an 80% – 100% reduction in PTSD symptoms during final examinations at the close of the study 6 weeks after diving proving, in some degree, that the physiological and psychological benefits of SCUBA are real and measureable.
The physiological results of the Johns Hopkins study on SCUBA and spinal cord injuries so surprised the doctors involved that they are working hard to understand why it worked so well. Another study at Hopkins supports the use of hyperbaric oxygen treatment for wound care, as well as many other injuries. Being underwater at depth, provides many of the same benefits as the much more expensive hyperbaric oxygen treatments found at hospitals.
Using SCUBA to help with PTSD is less of a mystery. SCUBA presents the diver with an interesting dichotomy. On one hand you’re weightless, in a very relaxing environment, “looking at all the cool stuff.” On the other hand it’s a very task loaded activity. As a diver you must control your breathing, monitor buoyancy, and watch out for your buddy. You have to keep an eye out (in a fully 3D environment by the way) to make sure you don’t inadvertently touch something and injure it, or conversely touch something and injure yourself. I’m told by our divers that the task loading is similar to that of a combat situation, but without the fear.
When you confine someone, who has been a fully able bodied person to a wheel chair, you take away a level of freedom they have been used to all their life. One diver tells it this way. One of the study divers says, “When I’m in my chair, I can’t go across this field, that gravel, or that beach. On SCUBA, I am just like everyone else in the water. I can go anywhere I want, when I want and am not constrained.” Having the ability, even if only temporarily, to be just like everyone else is a great boost to the vet’s self-esteem.
However, more studies are being conducted to better to understand the effect it has on veterans suffering from PTSD or traumatic brain injury (TBI) as well as those who are paralyzed, or have suffered amputations.
The first class of WAVES Project was in April 2014 with the first student in the first class being Jon Schumacher. Since that first class, WAVES has certified over 30 divers and their buddies. The divers represent all 5 service branches. Unlike many veterans support groups we don’t limit our outreach to only Post 911 Vets, the tours of duty of our divers range from Afghanistan and Iraq to Vietnam.
Diving is a social sport and all divers are supposed to dive with a buddy. Those with a disability typically have a higher reliance on their dive buddy than normal.The dive buddy can be a spouse or longtime friend, because we all know, the families and friends of wounded vets are affected in some part by the injury. Caring for those who are physically disabled, or are suffering from PTSD, carries its own level of stress. This stress, if not managed well, can cause irreparable damage to the family unit. WAVES believes that by including the buddy in the program at no cost, they are helping the whole family, not just the vet.
WAVES provides all the instruction, course materials, equipment, boat fees, etc. to the vet and their dive buddy at no cost. Even though local dive stores donate rental gear for participants and the instructors have donated their time, the cost is still about $800.
With Steve Rubin continuing to enlist the help of a few friends and contacts in the local business community, the group has continued to expand as more and more people are volunteering their time and skills. As more vets work their way through the program, many of them stay with WAVES and help spread the word about the great work that is being done.
Our criteria is pretty simple, if you were injured during the line of duty, we would like to help.
Number one question or statement we hear is, “I don’t have use of my legs, I’m confined to a wheel chair, and I can’t swim, and you want me to think about SCUBA.” Because of the affiliation with the HSA, virtually no one need be excluded. If a vet is disabled to the point that they can’t do all the skills required by PADI (the world’s leading scuba diver training organization), WAVES has the option to certify with HSA instead. HSA has three levels of certification available to divers with disabilities. As long as the vet can be made comfortable in the water, they are a candidate for WAVES. Photo is former Marine buddies Nico and Brendon ready for open water class dive number 4.
If you know of a wounded vet who might benefit from our program, please have them reach out to our site and fill in an application. Currently we’re serving southern California (soon in Maryland), but we welcome applications from all over the nation. It helps us understand where we need to add more WAVES chapters.
If you are a SCUBA professional, or know of one who might be interested in helping, please reach out to Steve Rubin. If you’re not in southern California, we’re working to expand our reach via regional chapters.
Steve’s Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Our limiting factor for reaching as many vets as we can, is funding. Government support is overwhelmed, we need to step up and help our fellow brothers-in-arms. If you feel this is a worthwhile cause, please consider a donation. Every dollar helps. Many people have found it easiest to set up an automatic monthly donation of $5.
WAVES Project is a federal 501 c3 non-profit organization, so your donations are tax deductible. Our goal is that 90% of our donations go directly to getting vets into the water.
If you would like more information on the WAVES Project please see our site.
Thanks for helping a wounded warrior reach the water.
When not writing bios and blog articles for the WAVES Project, Steve is the Director of Custom Application Development for a major semi-conductor manufacturer in southern California.