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JBLM soldiers dive with sharks

A unique way to handle anxiety

Sgt. Samuel Haro acknowledges the camera from the shark diving cage at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma. Photo credit: Christopher Fields

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The experience of swimming with sharks is one you're probably excited to do, curious about doing, or deathly afraid of. For soldiers at the Warrior Transition Battalion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the experience was exhilarating to say the least.

"This was quite an experience! Never in my life did I think I would get in the water with sharks," said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Keith Simmons. "There's a real peace (at the bottom of the tank) that's hard to explain. It's scary and peaceful at the same time, yet I came out with a sense of accomplishment."

The Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma hosts Operation Shark Dive in one of the largest aquariums in the Pacific Northwest. The aquarium is host to four different shark species: Nurse, Sandbar, Sand Tiger and Blacktip Reef.

The Army Recovery Care Program looks for different ways to help its soldiers deal with different physical, emotional or mental challenges. The shark experience combines the peace and tranquility of being in the water, with the fear and adrenaline of being up close and personal with one of the ocean's most dangerous predators. Retired Sgt. 1st Class David Iuli, JBLM WTB Adaptive Reconditioning Support Specialist, believes that combination can have unique benefits for some soldiers.

"One of the benefits (of the shark dive experience) is the adrenaline rush. We sometimes forget that some of our soldiers (at the WTB) are combat soldiers and one of the things that is missing is a daily or routine activity that allows them to feel alive," Iuli explained. "Some of our soldiers need and are looking for an adrenaline raising experience after being in the WTB for some time and I can't think of a better adrenaline rush than diving with sharks."

Being placed in an environment that is unfamiliar and one the soldier cannot control, can provide an opportunity for them to see things from a different perspective. The need to manage stress and control one's anxiety are also huge benefits to the Shark Dive experience.

Sgt. Samuel Haro found himself amazed at the size of the sharks when he saw them from the diving cage. "Those sharks are huge! I was anxious at first, then I used some breathing techniques to calm myself down," Haro said. The deep breathing technique taught during the scuba instruction can also be used to reduce stress and anxiety.

The emotional benefits of the Shark Dive experience are different for every soldier, but most come out of the water with a wonder and an excitement to explore more things in nature.

Iuli believes the Shark Dive removes the soldier from the stresses they may be dealing with, be it pain, surgeries, mental health or family issues, and gives them a chance to concentrate on themselves.

"While they're underwater in that cage, the soldier can hear every breath they take and it becomes a surreal and calming experience," Iuli said. "You really gain a true sense and appreciation for the wonders of the ocean and Mother Nature."

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