Veterans Ocean Adventures helps disabled veterans discover new life on and in the water

U.S. Army veteran Clare Christle of Coconut Creek still suffers crippling back pain from a stateside accident several years ago. Until recently, the 38-year-old had to use a wheelchair to get around. Then Christle learned about the nonprofit, all-volunteer group Veterans Ocean Adventures founded in 2009 by another Army vet where he discovered scuba diving.

“The pain level, from 1 to 10, was 9,” he said. “Then I jumped in the water and did the first dive, and I feel like a million dollars. A lot of people think it’s a recreational sport. For me, it’s therapeutic. It takes the pain away.”

Today Christle is working toward becoming a divemaster and volunteers as a dive buddy for other disabled vets.

“Because I benefit from it, I know others will also,” he said.

Retired U.S. Army paratrooper Diego Hurtado of Kendall has post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from combat in the first Gulf War, Grenada and other hot zones. After being fired from his job at Aramark a little over a year ago, the 53-year-old contemplated suicide. When he contacted the Wounded Warrior Project for help, he said he was told he wasn’t eligible for any programs because his military service was pre-9/11. His depression deepened to the point that he became home-bound. Then he learned about Veterans Ocean Adventures’ Discover Scuba program and went on to become certified as a dive buddy for disabled vets and other handicapped divers.

“This organization is inclusive to all veterans,” Hurtado said. “This program is peer-to-peer. I’m devoting the rest of my life to help veterans.”

Christle and Hurtado are among more than 350 U.S. military vets who have sailed, paddled kayaks, scuba dived and practiced indoor rock climbing with retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Branson Rector and a cadre of about 20 Veterans Ocean Adventures volunteers in the past year. The group subsists entirely on donations and grants and receives no money from the Department of Veterans Affairs even though most of its participants are referred by the VA. So far, the nonprofit has managed to avoid charging for its activities.

“I don’t want money to be a barrier for someone to participate,” said Rector, now a civilian employee at the U.S. Southern Command. “As long as I can, I am not going to charge.”

To get vets out of seclusion and enjoying life outdoors, Rector’s group has partnered with several organizations, including Shake-A-Leg Miami — the community watersports center in Coconut Grove — and Aquanauts Scuba Academy in Fort Lauderdale, owned and operated by U.S Marine Corps veteran Worth O’Brien. The academy’s nonprofit arm is dedicated to adaptive diving programs for the disabled —military or civilian.

“You lose a leg and you think you’re done. You’re not done,” O’Brien said. “There’s something out there for you.”

On a recent Saturday — Flag Day — about 17 vets and volunteers with Veterans Ocean Adventures chartered a boat from South Florida Diving Headquarters in Pompano Beach for a two-tank reef dive.

U.S. Navy Vietnam War veteran Chuck Kays of West Palm Beach, who is legally blind, shot underwater photos with the help of his dive buddy Tim Fernan, an Air Force vet.

“I don’t see very good, but Tim has taught me some tricks to take some pretty decent photos,” Kays said. “We wear yellow shirts and he wears two different colors of gloves. Orange means get ready to take a picture. It’s a miracle for a blind guy to dive. I can’t even read my gauges. It has helped me to get over my depression and loneliness. When you go blind, you lose your friends. It gives me something to look forward to.”

Steve Ligeikis, a 45-year-old Army vet who served in the first Gulf War, suffers from neurological problems that affect memory and mood. He says scuba diving eases his condition and gives him a social outlet.

“The below-the-surface world is incredible,” he said. “You get to explore. All the coral, the fish. It’s all new and interesting to me. Most of us used to be shut-ins. We wouldn’t talk to people. Branson’s good about getting us out to dive whenever he could.”

During the half-day dive, the vets spotted sea turtles, a nurse shark and several large green moray eels – among other aquatic life.

For Navy vet Ron Sensbach, a retired Broward Sheriff’s Office firefighter, just being able to board the boat after the dive without assistance was an accomplishment.

Sensbach, 57, was a quadriplegic until a little over a year ago.

“I got myself out of the water today,” he said, looking a little surprised.

Some of the vets on Saturday’s dive excursion were referred to Veterans Ocean Adventures by Tabitha Aragon, a recreational therapist at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Miami. Aragon has been sending outpatients to the group since 2009.

“Their coming to Branson, knowing he’s a vet helps,” Aragon said. “It’s a comfortable place for them. It gives them a new sense of themselves and something to be proud of. They come in dealing with a lot of stuff. To see the changes in them is phenomenal.”