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Lessons from beneath: adaptive scuba diving becomes important outlet for wounded warriors.

Even though the retired staff sergeant was interested in adaptive scuba diving, one obstacle was in the way, and it wasn't his amputated right leg. Keith Morlan was terrified of drowning.

This phobia, which pre-dated both his motorcycle accident in 2007 and further injuries during a deployment to Afghanistan, made Morlan skeptical when he was introduced to adaptive scuba diving while undergoing rehabilitation at the Center for the Intrepid, part of the San Antonio Military Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

"When I was first introduced to scuba diving, I had my nervousness because of my phobia about drowning," said Morlan, who medically retired from his Air Force cable antenna maintenance career in 2011. "But my therapist told me about how we would sit in the classroom and talk about how we were going to scuba dive, the equipment we wear, and the warning signs if we were to expect any trouble. I think for a lot of us in the class who all had surgery for our amputations, life as we knew it had changed forever, but I think this gave us a sense that we were not the only ones going through what we were going through. We could actually do a lot more than we thought we could do."

In Spring Lake, located at the headwaters of the San Marcos River in south central Texas, as well as in the Gulf of Mexico during a trip to Panama City Beach, Fla., the following week, the wounded warrior divers discovered a sense of self-confidence and awareness that can sometimes be difficult to find in activities on the surface. In the water, it mattered so little that they were missing a limb that all six divers left their prosthetic arms and legs on the dock.

"I don't believe today we have anybody who's using a prosthetic underwater," said Mark Heniser, a Center for the Intrepid physical therapist. "We have done that in the past, and we can adapt to that. But for the most part, they do far better by leaving their arm or leg on the dock and just learn how to swim with one arm or leg. They can control their buoyancy better. The bottom line is an artificial limb, even if it's an aid on the surface, is an anchor under water."

The program is a partnership with Duggan Diving in nearby Universal City, Texas, and also sponsored by the Air Warriors Foundation and a local organization called Red River Rats, along with The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment on the Texas State University campus in San Marcos.

The divers receive four nights of classroom instruction, followed by three nights of diving in the base swimming pool and four dives in two days in open water at Spring Lake, part of The Meadows' management plan. The divers who made their certification dive practiced donning and taking off their masks, rescuing a diver in distress and an unconscious diver, fixing gear underwater, and navigation with a compass, both on the surface and beneath.

The dive in the clear waters of Spring Lake was the culmination of the veterans' National Association for Underwater Instructors adaptive scuba diving certification through the Center for the Intrepid. The center has taught scuba diving to more than 600 wounded and injured service members since the program's inception in 2005, Heniser said.

"Adaptive scuba diving really gives these guys a true sense of accomplishment and self-confidence, in that they can do this sport, and scuba is a sport, as well as any able-bodied person," Heniser said. "What we actually do is we put them through a regular scuba program and then help them to adapt.

"But for me, personally, it's become very gratifying over the years to see some of these guys I may see in their beds two or three days after they were injured," he said. "Then, over the course of several months, I see them learn to walk and run, we get them into the pool for the first time without their limbs, and then they progress to something like scuba. It's almost like seeing someone in your family grow. It is even more gratifying to be contacted three or four years later by someone thanking me or our organization for getting them started because they've just been on a scuba trip with their wives in Florida, Hawaii or the Caribbean because this is one sport they can do throughout their lives."

Since his introduction to adaptive scuba diving, Morlan still has his phobia of the water, but like his recovery from injury, he's learned to adapt. He has added whitewater kayaking to adaptive scuba.

"I haven't overcome my fear of drowning, but I have become a lot more relaxed around the water," Morlan said. "I don't think you really know what you can do unless you try it. With scuba diving, you obviously have the air tanks, but it's allowed me to be able to interact more with the water.

"Under the water, once you can clear your ears and the pressure goes away, you feel the tranquility of hearing the ocean water because all you hear are the bubbles coming out of the respirator. It's soothing that you just get to hang out and be relaxed in the water. After learning different kicks and different styles, I was really surprised I was able to overcome my fear and enjoy it because I was able to maneuver around as if I had no disability at all."
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Author:Roughton, Randy
Date:Nov 1, 2014
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