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JBLM diving program heals

Aquatic world beneath the surface of the Puget Sound open to injured soldiers

There’s an aquatic world beneath the surface of the Puget Sound that injured soldiers explore while earning scuba diving certifications. Photo by Julia Oliveri.

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ARLINGTON, Va. - There's an aquatic world beneath the surface of the Puget Sound that injured soldiers explore while earning scuba diving certifications. The unforgettable experience is part of Joint Base Lewis-McChord Soldier Recovery Unit's adaptive reconditioning program. For some, it's so much more than a certification program; it's a new outlet, a promising pastime or a unique pathway to connect with others.

The JBLM adaptive reconditioning program partnered with an organization that provides therapeutic scuba diving lessons for soldiers in the Army Recovery Care Program. Recreational Therapist and Diving Coordinator Heather Kreier said that the program is one of the first things that most soldiers sign up for at the SRU. Staff Sgt. Dimas Martinez, a soldier assigned to the JBLM SRU, said the instructor was personable and provided great information about scuba diving and the ocean.

"The instruction was just incredible," he said.

Martinez is one of a group of soldiers who earned advanced scuba diving certifications through the program after completing their basic certifications. In addition to the training, the program also helped him meet and connect with new people.

"It really gave me an outlet while I'm healing," Martinez said.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the program to shut down, but it reopened in August. The training is conducted in three phases over two weekends, starting with a classroom phase and an exam. During the pool phase, soldiers are taught and tested on the basics of scuba diving and proper utilization of their equipment. The final phase consists of four open water dives in the Puget Sound. Upon successful completion of the training, the soldiers receive a Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) Open Water Diver Certification.

Kreier explained that the initiative helps soldiers build trust and safe spaces through scuba diving with others. She described it as a quiet experience during which they must be one with their breathing, which makes it essentially a practice in relaxation.

"Recent successes have been from soldiers with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). There's something about getting a mask on," she said. "It's like a room inside yourself."

Kreier said that scuba diving training opens up a new activity that the soldiers may not have considered an option. She's seen participants gain some range of motion back and be able to do more things while in the water.

Some soldiers may not have attempted to earn scuba diving certifications because of the cost and time commitment, Kreier noted. The program offers training, certification and some equipment for free. Participants are also allowed to complete sessions on consecutive weekends, which prevents scheduling issues.

Martinez's training took place at Sunny Side Beach in Steilacoom, which he described as the perfect site for beginner scuba divers. While underwater, he saw crabs, octopuses and sea anemones.

At first, he was surprised because scuba diving was so much more fun than he anticipated. Now, he's a certified scuba diver and has his own gear.

"It's a real fun, confidence booster," he said.

For Martinez, the best part is the camaraderie. He joined a team on base and goes scuba diving every chance he gets. It's one way that he meets new friends and gets in a good workout.
All of the soldiers assigned to the SRU are recovering from something and through plunging into these activities, they find that they can overcome their injures with greater ease, Martinez said. He encourages those who have never been underwater to experience this dimension of the Earth.

"It's one of the most gratifying and exciting things I've ever done," Martinez said.

Spc. Michael Escobosa started scuba diving while assigned to the Joint Base Lewis-McChord SRU. He's continued his training and is now a divemaster candidate. During his dives, he's seen moon jellyfish, ratfish, sea cucumbers, sea anemones, sixgill sharks and whales.

"There's so much life underwater and it's really remarkable," he said.

Scuba diving allows him to go to a different place that most people won't see in their lives.

"I would say it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience, like going to the moon or going to space, and you absolutely have to experience it," Escobosa said.

The Army Warrior Care and Transition Program is now the Army Recovery Care Program. Although the name has changed, the mission remains the same: to provide quality complex case management to the Army's wounded, ill and injured soldiers.

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