Diving opens new world
for wounded vets
For Alert Diver Magazine
By BOB STERNER
Thanks to the success of a program organized by the Wounded
Warrior Project, more veterans will get opportunities to
overcome severe war injuries through scuba training this year.
Al Giordano, deputy executive director of the Wounded Warrior
Project, said scuba is a phenomenal activity for these veterans. “I
imagine we’ll have training programs all over the country and
then send veterans periodically to warm destinations for their
open-water tests,” Giordano said.
The Jacksonville, Fla.-based nonprofit organization partners with
Disabled Sports USA to get disabled veterans out of hospital beds
and on with their lives. Downhill skiing, fishing, swimming,
bicycling and waterskiing are among the activities regularly
offered to stimulate veterans physically and mentally.
Disabled Sports USA is a national nonprofit, 501(c)(3)
organization established in 1967 by disabled Vietnam veterans to
serve the war-injured.
Scuba became an offering when the Diving Equipment &
Marketing Association’s “try scuba” pool was set up to provide
swimming lessons at an Adaptive Water Sports Festival last
summer on Long Island, N.Y.
Stew Snyder, a course director for the Handicapped Scuba
Association and a festival volunteer, said talk soon turned to
scuba diving. Said Snyder: “We thought, ‘Why not help these
kids get certified?’ ”
After receiving additional training at private pools and spending
time studying the coursework in their home communities, six
veterans flew to Bonaire to take open-water check-out dives and
to explore the reefs there as newly certified divers.
Their responses were glowing.
Cristian Valle, a 23-year-old Hayward, Calif., native who lost
both legs to an improvised bomb in Iraq, said the diving
experience opened up a whole new world. “I’ve learned that I
can do things despite my disability that I never would have
thought about doing even without the disability,” Valle said.
For Justin Leon, 22, Redding, Calif., the trip fulfilled a long-held
dream. “Since I was little, I’ve always loved the water,” Leon
said. “This seemed like an opportunity to go have an adventure
and to see what’s down there underwater.”
Diving helped Dean Schwartz, a 24-year-old from Keysville, Va.,
break down multiple barriers. “One of my biggest fears has
always been drowning,” Schwartz said. “I figured if I can do this
and overcome that fear, it’ll give me a new level of freedom. My
missing leg doesn’t matter much underwater.”
A few dives made Schwartz so optimist for the future that he
proposed to Emily Fipps, his girlfriend of three years, as the sun
set on Bonaire. They hope to pursue more diving as best they can
while he works toward a degree in business.
Only Schwartz raised a strong family background in military
service background as a reason for joining the armed forces.
Earning benefits as veterans to get ahead in life played heavily in
their decisions to join the military.
Diving was just one of a series of epiphanies for Adam Bugg, 21,
of Billings, Mo. He joined the U.S. Army to escape his small
hometown in Texas. He enjoyed seeing the world until a roadside
bomb shattered his legs. Active in many sports before his injury,
he never considered diving until the Adaptive Water Sports
“I’d been lying in the hospital thinking, ‘I’ve got to do
something,’ ” Bugg said. “I didn’t like physical therapy: I wanted
to get out and do something fun.”
Bugg was so moved by diving that he now has a direction to
pursue when he returns to Missouri State University this year. “I
really like diving, so I’m looking at studying marine biology,” he
said. “I’ve heard the science classes are tough, but if I can
© Bob Sterner
Adam Kisielewski giant strides as Tim
Boots watches, then Adam glides
underwater; Tim flashes a victory over
his injury and then flips out; Tim hefts
tank to Dean Schwartz, who beams
after popping the question to Emily
Fipps. Of course, she said YES!
overcome this disability, I can overcome
anything.” Bugg hopes to dive as much as
possible, since the exercise and the higher level of
oxygen it delivers to tissues may help him save his
Tim Boots, a 25-year old from Carleton, Pa., said
that although diving and other activities are helpful,
he admits that sometimes his war wounds bog him
down mentally. “There’s nothing I can do about
them,” Boots said. “It’s something that we’ve just
got to get past. Fortunately, we’re getting a lot of
support from the country and the people with the
Wounded Warrior Project.”
Modern warfare is keeping Giordano much busier
than he’d like.
“More people are coming home with severe
injuries,” he said. “The wounded-to-dead ratio is
the highest ever. More soldiers are surviving
because of medical advances, and the courage and
conviction of the medical corps. We have a larger
population of severely injured people who will have
to carry on with their lives for another 50, 60 or
“Their courage, integrity and character are
amazing. They aren’t looking for sympathy. They
aren’t feeling sorry for themselves. They’re
worried about their buddies who are still back
there in the battlefield.”
Get help on line
Learn about diving events and other programs of the Wounded Warrior Project at
www.woundedwarriorproject.org; the Disabled Sports USA at www.dsusa.org; and the Handicapped Scuba
Association at www.hsascuba.com.
HSA trains instructors and assistants to work with and to provide scuba certifications to persons with
disabilities. HSA instructor certifications are supplemental, which means someone must be an instructor
through a reputable certification agency. HSA has special training to help an instructor teach divers with