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.