As a group, they have been to Cayman a handful of times, but every trip is new, bringing wounded U.S. military veterans to dive at the Central Caribbean Marine Institute, Compass Point and Ocean Frontiers.
The latest weeklong trip started June 17, when a dozen veterans, suffering from back injuries, chronic pain, depression as part of post-traumatic stress disorder, and other disabilities, traveled to CCMI with Virginia-based Diving with Heroes, founded in May 2014 by veteran Joe Brickey and his daughter Jill Brickey Hottel, executive director of the organization.
Scuba diving appears to help, relieving stress and pressure to physical injuries, especially the spine, and opening a diverse and silent world to men and women damaged in myriad ways in brutal conflicts.
“We are unlocking the treasures contained in the underwater world and sharing them with those who have fought so valiantly to secure and defend our freedom,” according to the Diving with Heroes website. “Theirs is the great sacrifice and we are honoring them for it.”
Scott Vadnais, Diving with Heroes director of communications, and a 22-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, led the June trip, the sixth to Cayman and the second to CCMI. He said most veterans gain diving certifications through the Wounded Warriors organization, “but then have nowhere to go.” They often find their way to Diving with Heroes.
“We saw a need,” Mr. Vadnais said. “The guys have the training, but nothing further. It’s all about pain relief and treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Ethan Hughes, 42, born in Indianapolis, Indiana, spent almost 22 years in the U.S. Army, retiring on Aug. 1, 2015. A veteran of one 1996 tour in Egypt’s Sinai, a 2006-2008 Operation Freedom tour in Iraq and a 2010-2011 Enduring Freedom tour in Afghanistan, he sustained injuries in the latter two tours of duty.
He initially learned to dive in Sharm El-Sheikh, at the southernmost tip of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, but when he retired, he pursued diving full time.
“Being buoyant gives the ability for less pain and lessens the pressure on the spine,” Mr. Hughes said. The relief lasts for short periods of time.
“If you stay at 60 degrees, over multiple dives for, let’s say, three days, you’ll be in less pain for three days.
“It’s therapeutic for chronic pain and for PTSD,” boosted by the weightless environment, Mr. Hughes said.
After returning to Indianapolis on June 24, he said, he hopes to return to Cayman, either rejoining the Diving with Heroes team or, ideally, as a full-time CCMI volunteer.
Divemate and fellow veteran Christopher Borger, 30, was born in Levittown, next door to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but grew up in Jacksonville, Florida.
His first job, he said, was at a Jacksonville dive shop where he became a commercial diver doing salvage, recovery, surveying and clearing, eventually gaining his divemaster license.
He joined the army in 2004, and did two deployments in Iraq during seven years of service. He suffered from PTSD and injuries to his lower back.
“They said I was not able to perform jobs anymore. I wanted to stay overseas and do private contracting,” he said, but plans fell apart “and I sank into a deep depression.
“I couldn’t keep a job for two years and got into drinking heavily. I got a service dog, and that helped, and then I discovered scuba diving, and it’s all I want to do now.”
Diving, he said, “absolutely helps. In water, my back relaxes, with no aches and no suffering.”
It also blocks out “white noise,” Mr. Borger said, describing an acute nervous sensitivity to urban stress and relentless over-stimulation.
“It’s distracting. It’s hard to focus. It’s frustrating. I get angry and that leads to depression,” he said, “but when I get into the water, it blocks all the static. It’s peaceful.
“I’ve been doing it now for two-and-a-half years and this is all I want to do. I’ve had more than 300 dives,” he said.