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Injured Veterans Get a Lift by Diving

By Kathleen Hom
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Physical therapy can be mentally exhausting and physically challenging. However, some injured veterans are managing to have their therapy and some fun, too. They're learning to dive as part of Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba, or SUDS, a program run by Red Cross volunteers at Bethesda's National Naval Medical Center and Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

"Water is the great equalizer," says SUDS's president, John Thompson. "When you get them in the water, they don't have to deal with gravity. The pressure on prosthetics and the pain goes away."

But scuba diving still isn't easy. "I was a little nervous," says Shane Heath, a 29-year-old double amputee who's retired from the Army and living in Silver Spring. "It's not entirely natural to breathe underwater." And that's not to mention the equipment adaptations that veterans have to experiment with: Heath's SUDS instructors, for example, modified a motorized device that serves as a handheld propeller.

No matter the challenge, learning to dive offers some physical benefits. It has proved useful for Colin Luck, a Marine from Leesburg who's awaiting a medical discharge. Before joining SUDS, 20-year-old Luck, who suffers from the effects of multiple fractures, says "it was difficult to run down the basketball court and do sports . . . difficult to go to the gym and do a normal weightlifting workout." Afterward, he regained some mobility and is now working on getting certified to scuba through underwater wrecks.

Most important, for a lot of veterans, it's mentally uplifting. "When you come out with serious injuries, a lot of times when you wake up, you wonder how much your life is going to change, how much you're going to be limited in what you want to do," Heath says. "Programs like this help. . . . Just because I'm injured doesn't mean I can't do what anyone else is doing."

In its almost three years of existence, SUDS has worked with more than 150 injured veterans, offering not only instruction in the pool but also other information and assistance in becoming certified divers. Thompson, who has relocated to Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, has started a SUDS post in his new city.

Ultimately, this experience gives veterans "freedom they have in water that they don't have on land," Thompson says. "When they're in the warm, clear, blue ocean water and they see the fish and the reefs [during dive trips], they've got this grin from ear to ear. It's a good feeling to see that."

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