When John Thompson got his scuba diving certification in the mid-90s, little did he know that later he would be helping wounded service members take the plunge to learn how to scuba dive.
Thompson, Executive Director and Founder of a non-profit group called Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba (SUDS), says they use scuba diving and other adaptive sports to help wounded warriors facilitate the rehabilitation process and help them build their confidence and self-esteem that they may have lost from their injury.
SUDS, established in 2007, is based at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
The SUDS mission is designed to help improve the lives of wounded, ill and injured service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. By training the warriors in a challenging and rewarding activity, not only can it help facilitate the rehabilitation process, but it can also promote mobility.
Offering this opportunity provides the service member with a sport they can enjoy during their rehabilitation and throughout their life.
Thompson says that most of their participants were active duty service members when things were pretty heavy with Iraq and Afghanistan.
They travel to locations including Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Hawaii, U. S. Virgin Islands, Curacao, Florida, North Carolina, Turks & Caicos, and Texas. They also take a group down to Guantanamo, Cuba once a year.
Thompson says that one thing that surprised him is that it’s easier working with wounded warriors than with civilians.
“I’ve been a dive instructor for 18 years, and it’s way easier working with these guys. First of all, they have that military mindset where they’re used to following orders. Most of them were in very good shape before they got injured. Also, they have some very severe traumatic injuries so they’re like, ‘Look, I got blown up, I lost a leg or lost an arm, so scuba diving’s not gonna scare me.’”
According to Thompson, being under water is often a great equalizer.
“The cool thing about diving is we’re in a weightless environment, so it’s kind of like an astronaut floating through space. So, you get them in the water, and they can pretty much perform just like any able-bodied person.”
Thompson says the underwater experience is not only relaxing but also therapeutic.
“There have been some studies done, that diving and pressure can help relieve the pain. Some of them tell me, ‘Yeah, I ‘m having pain, but it just goes away when I’m underwater.’ Definitely, a very peaceful experience being under water… it’s a very quiet, definitely a very tranquil environment.”
He says they only have to make minor adaptations to the equipment because the veterans adjust and adapt easily.
Thompson adds that even though they have their way of teaching and their protocols for the way to do things, there was another thing that struck him early on.
“There were times that they weren’t able to perform the skill how I’m trying to teach it, and so they ended up teaching me how they could do it and still perform it in a proper way to have mission accomplished.”
So I actually was learning from them because you know we had to think outside the box because sometimes they can’t perform it like somebody who has both their legs.”
They keep the classes small at a maximum of six at a time because they like to have a ratio of one instructor to two service members.
On their trips they have a total of ten, which includes: six warriors, three instructors and one medical support such as a physical therapist or a physician.
Thompson says they train both men and women.
He says they use scuba diving and other adaptive sports to help facilitate the rehabilitation process, to help them build up their confidence and self-esteem that they may have lost from their injury.
Thompson says that not only do these men and women build their confidence and self-esteem, but they also gain hope and inspiration and help carry on the message for others.
“Then they go back to the hospital or back home and they talk to these newly-injured service members and say, ‘You know what… I’m missing both my legs, but I just got certified in diving, and if I can do it, you can do it.’”
They’ve worked with a trained over 400 wounded, injured and ill service members from basic open water certification to Divemaster.
Thompson says the biggest challenge was getting the initial funding for SUDS. He says it took about six months to get the green light.
“Any time you’re dealing with the military, it definitely doesn’t happen overnight,” he says.
Even though diving is primarily the focus of SUDS, they’ve taken groups hiking, caving, paddle boarding, zip lining, and spearfishing.
SUDS covers all expenses, which can include: airfare, lodging, food, their dive charter, so there’s no expense to the veteran.
HOW TO GET INVOLVED:
* * * *
John Thompson, SUDS Executive Director and Founder
“I have been involved with the SUDS program since 2007. Having spent time in the military during a period of peace I felt a calling to serve our injured service members after a visit to Walter Reed. It has become my life’s passion & I am blessed to have the opportunity.” – John Thompson
SUDS is a subordinate chapter of Disabled Sports USA, which provides adaptive sports opportunities for wounded, injured and ill service members to develop independence, confidence, and fitness through sports.
Photography by Tim Cothren