For one former Marine, scuba diving is much more than a sport. “I feel like I’m complete again,” says the veteran, who lost a leg while serving in Iraq. Recovery was long and difficult, but scuba diving has opened a whole new world to him.
When he straps on his diving leg, fins and gear, he can slip into the water, gliding effortlessly, exploring and interacting with sea creatures, and enjoying the peaceful quiet of the underwater realm.
He’s not alone.
More than 1,500 U.S. veterans have lost arms or legs during tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan to date. As many have discovered, scuba diving is therapeutic for body and soul.
It offers a weightless environment that is conducive to strengthening muscles and the cardiovascular system, and increasing mobility and confidence. For those coping with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression issues, it’s freeing to turn their attention entirely on learning to dive. In fact, a Johns Hopkins Hospital study showed that wounded veterans who went on several dives in a week’s time reduced symptoms of depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder by 15 percent.
Thanks to places such as Underwater Connection in Colorado Springs, Colo., more veterans have a chance to experience the advantages of scuba diving than ever before.
Founded in 1989, UWC is a five-star PADI facility. (The Professional Association of Diving Instructors is a leading scuba diving training organization.) Having outgrown its old building, UWC moved to a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility this summer.
With the new location came more offerings. Now, besides scuba certification classes, UWC also teaches whitewater kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, swimming and triathlon (aquatic).
Its VA Program is geared toward soldiers who want to use their military benefits to take scuba diving certification courses. Participants can be active duty, retired, or separated from the military due to disability.
“The goal is to spread the joy of being underwater,” explains Ryan Adee, UWC educational director, scuba. “Some want it for a new career, others for fun.”
The UWC program offers certifications for rescue diver, divemaster, CPR/first aid instructor and scuba instructor. To enroll, a participant first must be certified as an open water diver, but if they’re not, UWC will help, and military discounts for the open water diver course are available.
Which certification a person decides to pursue is an individual decision.
The Underwater Connection’s VA Program began approximately 3½ years ago and quite a few of its scuba instructors were former military personnel, as were others on staff.
“We thought it would be a good idea to be more involved with the military. There are five military installations near Colorado Springs,” says Adee, a former Army corporal himself.
Vets find out about the program in various ways. About a year ago, the facility conducted a sizable newspaper campaign, and it’s also promoted on the UWC website.
“There’s a lot of word of mouth at the [military] installations,” Adee notes, adding that more than 10 vets have finished the program so far. No females have yet gone through the training, he says, but “we are waiting on VA approval papers for one.”
This VA Program was the brainchild of Robert “Doug” Beardslee, store manager at the time and now store course director, and Troy Juth, store owner.
Scuba diving instruction occurs in a classroom at the large UWC retail building and in a 40-by-30-foot indoor pool. Outings on the open water also are scheduled. Those classes are taught at three locations: Blue Hole of Santa Rosa, N.M.; Aurora Reservoir in Colorado; and Homestead Crater in Utah.
“Every year, Colorado is in the top three diving areas per capita. In this state, there are a lot of outdoor [sports] people, so we try to offer things for that demographic, too,” Adee says. He’s been with UWC three years, serving as a repair technician and scuba instructor as well as his current position of educational director, scuba. Prior to this, he was in roofing and small construction, but when UWC needed help, he says he got certified and came aboard.
Considering Adee’s military roots, it seems only natural that he would find his way to UWC and its VA Program. His father was on active duty in the Air Force until retiring in May. His mother was “a very dedicated stay-at-home mom” who now works at the Air Force base as a civilian contractor dealing with military contracts. And Adee’s wife, Samantha, recently separated from the Air Force, where she was a captain.
All in the family, indeed.