Injured army veterans find freedom beneath the waves

The Dive Pirates Foundation, which trains people with disabilities to scuba dive, is on its 12th trip to Cayman Brac.

When John Kennedy returned from serving in the Gulf War, he was a different man than the ultra-fit soldier who had left Las Vegas to fight for his country.

It started with numbness in his limbs that spread through his body over the years, leaving him in a wheelchair.

“It was a 180-degree turnaround, the whole world just dropped out from underneath me,” he recalls.

Medics initially diagnosed Gulf War Syndrome, a chronic unexplained illness that affected thousands of veterans of the war in Iraq and Kuwait. In 2004 he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

It was hard to accept for someone who, up to that point, had lived a fast-paced, energetic life.

Now, more than 20 years later, sitting on a dive boat in Cayman Brac, he feels his life has turned around again.

John Kennedy prepares to dive with wife and adaptive dive buddy Brigette.
John Kennedy prepares to dive with wife and adaptive dive buddy Brigette.

“I’ve got to tell you, buddy, it has given me a reason to live,” he says of learning to scuba dive with the Dive Pirates, a U.S. voluntary organization that introduces the sport to disabled divers, particularly military veterans.

“It was incredible, I felt like I had left this world,” Mr. Kennedy said. “It was like a complete weight off my shoulders. There was no pain, I could breathe better off the tank. I felt weightless, with all the pressure off my spine.

“I think the veterans association ought to prescribe this to injured vets. This is 100 percent better than any drugs, better than pain medication, better than any kind of therapy.”

Mr. Kennedy, 60, is now on his second trip to the Brac with the Dive Pirates and plans to keep coming and diving as long as he can. Each year the organization funds new divers to go through training, culminating in a trip to the Brac’s Reef Resort to dive in the Caribbean Sea.

Charles Davis was among a group of 12 divers experiencing the sport for the first time over the past two weeks.

A quadriplegic since breaking his neck in three places in a motorcycle accident at the age of 21, Mr. Davis, from Houston, Texas, recalls, “I went out one night and woke up several days later in the hospital and my whole life had changed.”

Now 47, he says discovering scuba diving has given him a new perspective on living with his injuries.

Charles Davis, who has been in a wheelchair since being involved in a motorcycle accident at the age of 21, describes diving for the first time in Cayman Brac as a 'life-changing event.'
Charles Davis, who has been in a wheelchair since being involved in a motorcycle accident at the age of 21, describes diving for the first time in Cayman Brac as a ‘life-changing event.’

“I have a good friend who also broke his neck [in] 1994 and he has been trying to get me to do this for a couple of years,” he said. “To be honest, I was scared. I didn’t think it was possible for me.

“Now there are all these other things that I have always wanted to do and never thought I could that are suddenly possible for me. It has changed my outlook.”

Like many first-time divers, Mr. Davis was amazed by the beauty of the marine life on Cayman’s reefs.

“We were down there for 35 minutes but it felt like two minutes,” he says of his first dive.

It also freed him, for a short while, from the constraints of his injuries.

“It was total liberation,” he said. “It was a little scary at first, but once I went in the water, it is so therapeutic. It is hard to explain, you go from a life of pain and chronic fatigue and then in the water you are almost weightless. It was a life-changing event.”

Theresa Cortez, director of communications for the Dive Pirates Foundation, has heard similar stories many times over the past 12 yeas. The Dive Pirates have brought 60 new divers and many returning divers to the Brac in that time.

“So many say it has changed their lives. If they come back and dive with us again, that’s when you know they are really hooked,” said Ms. Cortez.

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