Anthony Lopez was surrounded by fish.
Hundreds engulfed him on a recent Sunday morning as he dove off the coast of Pompano Beach, just a 10-minute boat ride from shore.
“You’re in a different world,” said the retired U.S. Marine Corps corporal. “We’re not naturally supposed to be there, so it’s really awesome to see this stuff first hand.”
For the 28-year-old, scuba diving is a world where he can let go of the painful reminder of a 2009 vehicle rollover accident in Camp LeJeune, North Carolina: the muscle spasms from the blunt trauma to his back, the phantom pain in his left hand where all but one finger was amputated.
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“Anything that’s more than five pounds is a reminder that my life is different now,” Lopez said.
That’s why he started diving with Veterans Ocean Adventures, which teaches veterans and civilians with disabilities how to scuba dive and sail. It was a chance for camaraderie with other veterans, and to push the limits of what he thought was possible.
“I’m perfectly capable of doing everything,” Lopez said.
Impact on veterans’ lives
The water has always been an escape for Branson Rector.
From growing up in Washington to working as a logistics coordinator at the U.S. Southern Command in Doral, he was often surrounded by water. In 2009, when the now-52-year-old retired from the Army, he started Veterans Ocean Adventures in Cutler Bay to share his love of the ocean with his fellow veterans.
“It gives them an opportunity to reconnect with nature,” he said. “It’s away from the craziness of life.”
Since the all-volunteer program started seven years ago, Rector estimates that a couple thousand veterans have learned how to scuba dive, sail, fish and rock climb. Roughly 400 to 600 veterans annually work with 30 trained volunteers to go on excursions across South Florida. As of now, the organization is funded completely by private donations and a grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans do not pay for their dives.
“It’s worth it when I see that I’ve made an impact on veterans’ lives,” Rector said. “You can see the difference.”
For Navy veteran and retired Broward County Sheriff’s Office firefighter Ron Sensbach, the difference is the ability to walk again.
Nine months after his retirement from firefighting, a spinal cord injury left him as a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. After Rector spoke at a spinal cord injury meeting, Sensbach decided to give scuba diving a try.
“In the beginning, it was, ‘Should I be doing this?’” he said. “Now, it’s just pure relaxation.”
While doctors can’t explain why Sensbach has been walking, albeit with limited movement, for the last four years, he credits it to the relaxation in the water and the confidence diving gave him. He gets into the water by himself, and donated his wheelchair to another quadriplegic who dives with the program.
“It really built my confidence, getting me to think that there are things I can do,” he said.
From snow to warm water
Jim Elliott first began working with his blind daughter in the snow.
As a volunteer with a skiing program, he saw the effect physical activity had on those with disabilities. Passionate about scuba diving, the Chicago resident saw another opportunity to help people like his daughter.
“If skiing can do this,” he said, “imagine what we can do in the water.”
In 2001, five years after leaving a career in the media industry, he founded Diveheart, a nonprofit organization that teaches scuba diving to veterans, adults and children with disabilities.
It’s not Johnny in a wheelchair, but Johnny the scuba diver. It leads people to take on other challenges.
Jim Elliott, founder of Diveheart
Since the program began in 2001, Elliott estimates that the organization has taught thousands of adults and children. The group, based in Chicago with a branch in South Florida, is funded by donations and fundraising, some of which is done by the veterans and civilians themselves.
The payoff for all the work, he said, is seeing the divers come out of the water, amazed at what they’ve just done.
“It’s not Johnny in a wheelchair, but Johnny the scuba diver,” Elliott said. “It leads people to take on other challenges.”
The organization is looking to build the world’s deepest warm water pool in Chicago, he said, so weather is no longer a concern for divers up north. In South Florida, they focus on open water diving at A.D. Barnes Park Pool in Miami.
Terri Bukacheski, founder of prosthetic company OrthoPro Associates, helps host events with Diveheart. It’s evident, she said, that the diving helps with the health of her patients, including with range of motion, balance and movement.
“It sort of breaks down a barrier between them and the able-bodied person,” she said. “It really comes over to their everyday functionality.”
Diving releases the burden of gravity from Karen Mitchell’s body and allows her to stretch her back and muscles.
“It’s quite addicting,” the 55-year-old Deerfield Beach resident said. “You get a sense of freedom in the water that you don’t have on land.”
Mitchell broke her seventh vertebrae in her neck while leisure diving, leaving her a quadriplegic in a wheelchair.
In early December, she will go on her fifth diving excursion with Diveheart, exploring the reefs and caves of Cozumel.
“It’s so awesome,” Mitchell said. “It almost makes you want to cry.”
If you go
Veterans Ocean Adventures
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