Operation Ocean


Special to the Miami Herald

Once a warrior always a warrior.

For U.S. Army Sgt. Stephen Wayne Jackel Jr. — who walks on two metal prosthetics below the knees — he’s found a new army to join after having to retire at 34.

“We aren’t concerned about the army we’re going to build, it’s how long it’s going to take to build that army,” said Jackel.

That army will be under water, and the soldiers will be severely injured veterans. The effort, called Operation Blue Pride, aims to train physically and emotionally injured veterans to dive off Florida to the Bahamas. Their mission: to raise awareness about overfishing, especially of sharks.

Since last year, Jackel and two other vets have been the focus of a documentary that is slated to hit film festivals in late October. Its working title: Operation Blue Pride.

Jim Abernathy, whose work with a 14-foot tiger shark named Emma has brought international fame to his shark preservation efforts, is leading the initiative. He and the vets have enlisted billionaire Richard Branson to help get the word out.

It’s working. Vets from across the country have come to Abernathy’s Scuba Adventures diving school in West Palm Beach; recently, about a dozen new veterans spent a week diving and training there.

In a preview of the documentary, Abernathy admits the vets’ mission has evolved as the soldiers were being trained.

“Although my intent was to show them what was happening to the oceans, that they would help me save it, I believe the ocean is actually helping save them, ” Abernathy said.

Two years ago, Jackel saved his life and the lives of four fellow soldiers in Southern Afghanistan when their vehicle ran over an IED (improvised explosive device). The vehicle went airborne, wheels blew off and the men lost consciousness. When he came to, Jackel said he saw a fire had ignited the ammunition in their vehicle. With two broken legs, he put out the blaze.

“I used my right leg to put a fire out while inside of the vehicle 50 cat rounds were cooking,” he said.

That was Aug. 23, 2011. Two days later, he had his lower right leg amputated in Germany. At first, Jackel thought he could keep his other damaged leg as long as he had painkillers to relieve the chronic pain. After two years, he thought otherwise.

“There’s no reason you should have to take pain pills every day just to walk,” he said.

In April he had his left leg below the knee amputated.

When he started diving as a double amputee, he discovered he had to learn new skills. When filming began, Jackel, 34, dove with wild sharks in the Bahamas with one leg.

“I mean almost half my body is gone. You get under water, you’re having issues with buoyancy. I was prideful and that hurt,” he said.

Dive instructor and filmmaker George Schellenger said it has been about eight months since the soldiers were last together. He said the passion of the injured vets is a natural fit for the ocean conservation cause.

“Our vets are so into scuba diving now. They’re training as rescue divers, master divers and instructors. Just the powerful aspect of scuba diving helps these vets recover from their physical injuries,” said Schellenger.

Marlene Krpata, 42, is a retired U.S. Army captain and military intelligence officer, retiring after 14 years of service. She says she was so relieved to see Jackel manage his buoyancy issues.

“Seeing Steve overcome, he was amazing. Now I know he can enjoy diving again,” she said.

Her first tour in the National Guard was to Kosovo in Central Europe. When she returned home she had only one month until she was deployed to Iraq in 2006. During an attack on her base, an 18-millimeter mortar exploded behind her and almost destroyed her right leg. By 2011, the pain was unbearable so she opted to amputate her leg below the knee.

“When you choose amputation, you take that 50-50 chance that you’ll still have the pain because of phantom pains. I’m lucky when I get phantom pains, it’s usually five or 10 minutes. It’s not chronic,” she said.

But at one point deep into her depression she attempted to take her life, something she still has trouble talking about. Fortunately she was found and said her life started to change when she got a therapy dog and began diving.

“I’m pain free in the ocean,’’ she says. “The ocean is the one place I found solace so to keep that safe I have to start at the top of the eco-chain and sharks are one of those. If they go extinct, that changes the whole ecosystem,” she said.

Part of the allure of diving is the weightless pain-free environment. But there’s another part.

“Now there is something worth fighting for because we can no longer fight for our country,” Jackel said.

U.S. Army Sgt. Chris Maddeford, the third veteran featured in the film, was hit by an IED and suffered traumatic brain injury, hip and spinal cord damage and post-traumatic stress disorder. Now he is dedicated to helping veterans and has received an award from Congress for his work.

In the film’s trailer, Maddeford’s emotional struggles come through.

“When you go from being a big strong person to needing help…people don’t understand how that makes us feel,” he said.

On the last day of diving, the soldiers explored Shark Canyon off West Palm Beach, where they encountered Dusky and Caribbean reef sharks. Schellenger said the key to producing the documentary is telling the story over a long period of time.

“Just watching Steven, for example, get his balance back. He’s a man of persistence. It’s going to inspire people,” he said.

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