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04-11-08, 01:51 PM
Wounded vets experience Keys’ underwater wonders

BY DAVID GOODHUE, dgoodhue@keysreporter.com

For six days in April, 10 soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division and four Marines, all wounded veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, got a chance to leave behind the rigors of military life and the sadness of army hospitals to dive the blue waters off Key Largo.

The soldiers’ and Marines’ wounds vary in severity. Most are able to walk without assistance, and in fact most appear to be healthy and able-bodied. But talk to each one, and you’ll find out they’ve dealt with difficulties and hardships — both mental and physical — that few would care to imagine.

Almost all, like Staff Sgt. Todd Shaw, have been wounded multiple times — mostly from improvised explosive devices — and sent back into combat.

“I’ve been blown up 15 times,” he said.

Sgt. Ted Reesman, 33, said he was wounded nine times. His wounds left him with nerve damage in his right leg, frontal lobe damage, “behavioral changes” and impaired cognitive skills.

Twenty-two-year-old Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jeremy Stengel lost his left leg from an improvised explosive device blast. Doctors haven’t decided if they will amputate his right leg, which was left badly mangled after the attack.

At first glance, you wouldn’t know Army Spc. Glenn Gentles was wounded. That is unless he took off his sunglasses and you’d see he still has a piece of shrapnel lodged in one eye socket. When Gentles exits the water and removes his tinted swim goggles, someone has to hand him his sunglasses before he can open his eyes.

The servicemen were brought to the Keys through the efforts of the Wounded Warriors project at Fort Campbell, Ky., a nonprofit organization that helps veterans adjust to life after being wounded, and Fraser Bathgate, a Scottish diver, himself in a wheelchair since 1986, who is vice president and director of training at the International Association of Handicapped Divers.

“I was asked to train dive instructors at Fort Campbell,” Bathgate said. “I had a concept in my head about bringing wounded soldiers to the Keys to dive.”

Bathgate went to Key Largo’s Ocean Divers, whose staff he’s known for many years. “They agreed to help us out,” he said. “It’s a dream come true.”

Bathgate, who’s been involved with the Wounded Warriors dive program for more than a year, said diving is the ideal sport for those with disabilities, especially those confined to wheelchairs.

“Diving is the only sport where you can leave the wheelchair behind and get a 360-degree perspective. You’re not tied to the wheelchair anymore,” he said.

From working with wounded soldiers at Fort Campbell, Bathgate also said he discovered diving was a good activity for those suffering from painful injuries.

“I had one soldier say to me when he’s in the water, he doesn’t hurt anymore.”

Jack Dalby, a retired Army Special Forces diver and Wounded Warriors dive instructor, said some of the men have flourished since the program began at Fort Campbell.

“Some of the guys are getting to the professional level,” he said.

Indeed, Sgt. Shaw said he hoped to finish the final stages of divemaster certification through the Professional Association of Diving Instructors by the end of his trip to Key Largo.

Bathgate, Ocean Divers and Wounded Warriors raised the money to fly the soldiers and some of their family members to the Keys and give them lodging through donations. Ocean Divers took them out on two dive trips at no cost.

“The only thing they’ve had to pay for since they’ve been here is beer,” Bathgate said. The soldiers also tipped the crew of their dive boat, the Santana.

Keys residents also contributed at the last minute after hearing from word of mouth and Clear Channel Radio’s Mark Mills that some of the Marines airfare had fallenthrough.

Most of the soldiers were flown down from their base at Fort Campbell, Ky. The Marines are from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and Camp LeJeune, S.C.

Amazing Molasses Reef

The first spot on the servicemen’s April 6 dive trip was White Bank Dry Rocks, on the southern tip of the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary.

A few of the men and some of their wives had some difficulties determining how much weight was required to stay down in the bouyant saltwater, but they quickly got the hang of it, enough for Lou Howell, captain of the Santana, to determine they were ready for Molasses Reef, a world-renowned dive spot in the marine sanctuary.

While White Bank piqued their interest, the soldiers and Marines said they were amazed by Molasses.

“I saw more color than I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” said Sgt. Adam Schoenwald. “My saltwater aquarium has nothing compared to this.”

The 32-year old Schoenwald, who was introduced to diving at a quarry at Fort Campbell, said his trip to Key Largo has him thinking about making a career out of diving when he leaves the Army.

The rest of the group was just as impressed.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Sgt. Joseph Elmore.

Marine Sgt. Matthew Brouseau, 22, agreed. “It was beautiful. I saw a lot of big fish and I saw a stingray.” Brouseau was the only member of the group wounded in Afghanistan. He broke his pelvis after the building he ran into was attacked and exploded. He had to be dug out of the rubble by his comrades.

Bathgate said he’s involved with the program not only as a way to give back to the soldiers for sacrificing for their county, but also because he says their country isn’t doing enough to thank them, or even take care of them in their time of need.

“The program teaches the guys to look after themselves because no one is looking after them properly,” he said. “The military isn’t doing enough. Their attitude is, ‘you’ve been blown up, you’re done, so long.’ I can’t understand how you can leave them behind like that.”

Other than the impressive undersea scenery of the Keys, the soldiers and Marines on the trip say they were also overwhelmed by the hospitality they received from Ocean Divers and several other businesses in the Upper Keys.

“It’s humbling. These guys taking care of us and taking us out here, it’s tremendous. They’ve treated us like rock stars,” said 26-year old Marine Sgt. Stanley Mayer.

Several websites provide information about programs for wounded veterans: www.woundedwarriors.org, www.iahd.org, www.supportourwoundedsoldiers.com.