Marlene Krpata was injured while serving in Iraq in 2006 and, following several surgeries, eventually had one leg amputated in 2011.
But that didn’t stop her diving two, and sometimes three, times a day last week while she vacationed in Cayman Brac. Ms Krpata, a former US army captain, was one of 16 disabled divers who came down with US-based not-for-profit organisation Dive Pirates.
Dive Pirates trains, equips and provides dive travel to individuals with disabilities and has been taking them to the Brac Reef Beach Resort in Cayman Brac every year since 2004.
Eight of the divers, including Ms Krpata, were on their first dive trip as certified divers, having completed the Scuba Schools International Classified Diver certification at home over the past year. The Classified Open Water Diver certification is an adapted programme for divers that addresses the specific needs of a disabled individual, trains to that specific disability and prepares the individual to dive with mainstream Open Water Divers. As many of the standard skills as possible are included in the curriculum and disabled divers train along with an adaptive buddy who is trained to assist with the skills the classified diver cannot perform alone.
Dive Pirates trains people with disabilities from all backgrounds to dive, but their focus is on injured ex-military personnel. Offering them dive training and travel is their way of saying thank you to the men and women who defend the US, says Executive Director of Dive Pirates Theresa Gomez.
Ms Krpata has always been a strong swimmer, and even following her amputation, she says she continues to swim.
She completed her dive training last year at home in San Diego and completed the regular swim test that able bodied individuals are required to complete for dive certification, with one leg.
“Because I swam a lot, the dive training wasn’t difficult. My left leg is strong enough to kick. The only problem was balance. When you achieve neutral buoyancy my amputated side would want to float up,” she said.
Once she mastered that, it was plain sailing, she said.
“Diving is probably the one thing that has helped me the most since getting back from Iraq,” she said.
“It’s both a physical and a mental thing. Physically, nothing hurts when I’m underwater. I feel natural. When I’m diving I’m just like everybody else. And mentally, because its so peaceful down there, it helps me to calm down and relaxes me.” It’s not only the act of diving but the whole process of becoming certified and joining the Dive Pirates trip that has given Ms Krpata a boost.
“When you leave the army, you lose a mission. You lose that camaraderie, your fellow army troops. Diving is like a new family group. Everyone is looking out for each other; there’s just a special bond you develop through scuba diving,” Ms Krpata said.
Meeting other ex-military people who were also injured in the line of duty created an instant bond, she says, and the fact they were able to share the experience of diving together only added to that. “There was a lot of diving this week, so I am looking forward to a little bit of a rest,” said Ms Krpata. “But I am also sad to be leaving. I will definitely be keeping in touch with the people I met this week and I will most definitely come back.”
The Brac Reef Beach Resort hosts two groups of disabled divers each year – Dive Pirates and Eels on Wheels – as well as some individuals with disabilities who travel there independently. The dive staff at the on site dive shop have all completed additional training to handle adaptive divers and several of the ground floor rooms were rebuilt to be wheelchair accessible following Hurricane Paloma.
“It was a great week and a wonderful group of people,” said Brac Reef General Manager Trudy Viers. “Lots of new friendships were made and there was just great camaraderie.”