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thedrifter
08-24-06, 08:22 AM
Thursday, August 24, 2006
From Marines to sub-Marines
The hot, dry sands of Iraq inspire Marines to scuba dive off O.C. shores.
DAVID WHITING
Register columnist
dwhiting@ocregister.com

Before Joseph Whiteman learned the secret beachfront parking spots in Laguna Beach, before he spent three weeks in a hospital in Germany, before 17 pieces of shrapnel tore into his head, he and his buddies made a pact in the dry desert heat of Iraq.

If – when really – they got home to Southern California, they would spend hours doing just the opposite of sitting in the middle of a vast expanse of sand heated to well over 100 degrees.

They would scuba dive.

It was the kind of promise many make. And many break. But they were warriors in a land of sweat, of danger, of blood.

No one had ever been diving. But each knew that someday they would breathe underwater, they would be wet, even cold. And afterward, they would share the secrets of the sea, just as they had shared under the stars half a world away.

The day that almost snatched away the dream broke for the young men who had spent months in near-impossible conditions during the early months of the war. It was August 18, 2003, and the Marines in the light-armored vehicle felt sluggish, bellies full, after one of the few hot breakfasts they'd had since leaving Kuwait.

South of Baghdad, they were crossing a bridge when an explosive device ripped into the vehicle. Six men were injured. Whiteman was hit bad. Three pieces of shrapnel lodged in the frontal lobe of his brain. But, miraculously, no one was killed. And while Whiteman and two others would lose sight in one of their eyes, no one would become blind.

Sean Kendall was lucky. He took shrapnel to his face and shoulder, but he got to keep both eyes. And he never lost sight of the dream to scuba.

"Joe had so many surgeries we couldn't do a class right away," Kendall said this week. Now a contractor, the Fontana man waited patiently so he and Whiteman could take classes together.

Their first class was last year – two years after the explosion that still causes the men to call one another on Aug. 18. The first time they got wet and cold together was in the waters off Orange County. Now, they dive every few weeks.

For Kendall, it's a chance to connect to some of the best aspects of military life: community, maintaining your gear, challenge, relying on friends.

"With Joe, I know every couple of kicks he's looking for me," Kendall said after I ran into the two Marines between dives at Shaw's Cove, north of Laguna's Main Beach. "I know he'll have his wits about him. I know there's not going to be any kind of drama."

His favorite dive so far has been off an oilrig near San Pedro. He and Whiteman went down to about 125 feet, slowly ascending in crystal clear water they found about 40 feet down where plankton disappear. Kendall likened it to a space walk – except with really big fish.

Whiteman, 27, now living in La Quinta and working as a safety manager for a contracting company, says scuba diving is everything he imagined during those early days in the Iraq war.

"It's a complete and total release from everything that's going on," Whitman said. "You're completely at peace with just the ambient noise of the water. It's a window or portal into a different reality that everyone takes for granted."

After Whiteman and Kendall finish diving off their favorite beach, there are a few reminders to take nothing for granted. Playing on the sand are Kendall's wife, Julee, and his daughter, Jessica, just 8 months old.

Ellie