Walter Reed uses scuba to help amputees
By Seamus O’Connor - Staff writer
Posted : Thursday Jun 14, 2007 20:33:33 EDT

A new program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., is helping amputees rehabilitate and learn a skill that challenges even the most able-bodied.

Called Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba Diving, or SUDS, the program increases amputees’ strength and coordination and teaches them a hobby for life. It’s the brainchild of John W. Thompson, a former Outward Bound instructor who is certified by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors and the Handicapped Scuba Association.

“Many things are just easier to do in the water for amputees,” Thompson said.

One of the 25 troops to enter the program since February is Sgt. Darrell “J.R.” Salzman, an infantryman with the Wisconsin Army National Guard. Salzman was a world-class outdoor athlete, winning 14 medals in ESPN’s Great Outdoor Games for his lumberjack skills and taking the 2005 ESPY Award for Best Outdoor Sports Athlete. That was before a bomb blew off his right arm below his elbow and the ring finger on his left hand. Salzman was pulling convoy duty in when it happened.

“One second I’m sitting in the vehicle telling my driver something,” Salzman said. “Next, I’m waking up. My whole body hurts. My arm hurts. Everything got really loud. I had lost my arm. ... I was reaching for something at the time. Had I not been reaching for it, I just would have had some injuries on my left hand. But I had my arm up, and I lost my arm.”

A lifelong swimmer, Salzman is adjusting to his new abilities and challenges.

“I had never scuba-dived before in my life,” said Salzman, a lifelong swimmer. “It’s a whole other world. I can pretty much do everything in the pool that I could do before, with my injuries.”

The benefits go beyond the physical, according to Salzman’s wife Josie.

“It’s definitely boosted his confidence,” she said. “He got in the water and he can do it just fine, just like any other person.”

Thompson plans to take his current SUDS class of six to Bonaire, a Caribbean island in the Netherlands Antilles, in August for open-water dives required for certification.