By Carolyn Lucas-Zenk

West Hawaii Today

Dropping below the surface, it seemed like the ocean was made of fish. Densely packed schools of brightly colored fish swam in every direction as the members of Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba sank into the blue Tuesday morning.

During their first dive at Golden Arches, a popular dive spot off Kohanaiki, the group cruised through undersea arches while discovering a turtle swimming rapidly away, an octopus hiding in a mound of coral and a viper moray flashing its vicious-looking set of teeth. The group was guided by Jack’s Diving Locker co-owners Jeff and Teri Leicher, as well as dive master Zack Hoffman.

Many come to Hawaii Island to plunge into the warm Pacific Ocean and explore the underwater world. Famous for its calm, clear, deep waters, abundant with marine life, it’s a snorkeling and scuba diving paradise. For the seven service members injured in Afghanistan and Iraq, they found something else in the water: freedom.

“SUDS and trips like this makes you take your mind off other things, such as the pressures and crap of everyday life. It feels good to get away from the hospital, hang out with good people, still be close to my brothers, and just relax,” said Charles Stringer, 28-year-old Marine corporal from Alabama. “You don’t think of the things you can’t do when you’re underwater. You think of everything you should do and are doing. And here, it’s amazing.”

Stringer is a single amputee who was wounded in combat in Afghanistan. In 2010, he stepped on an improvised explosive device, which resulted in two surgeries to his left leg and eventually the loss of his foot. He said SUDS helps wounded warriors get back on their feet when they’re struggling. Plus the diving — something Stringer has wanted to do since he was a kid — really helps with rehabilitation, builds confidence, creates camaraderie and gives a good dose of adventure, he added.

Based out of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., SUDS is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit offering an adaptive scuba program for injured combat soldiers and veterans, who have been medically discharged. Run by volunteers, the program helps improve their lives through aquatic therapy and diving. Both are beneficial to the rehabilitation process and their morale, said Danny Facciola, SUDS instructor and secretary for its board of directors. He said the program also helps the soldiers regain mobility in a fun way and gives them a skill they can use later.

“Diving allows them to enjoy the solitude of an underwater world, one that’s faraway from the sounds, images and memories of combat,” he said. “Floating and weightless, they move in ways sometimes not thought possible. In water, they don’t feel the pressure on their spine or the same pain in their lower body.”

Several of the veterans survived explosions. Many are amputees. Others are dealing with a traumatic brain injury. Some have ear damage, the hardest challenge to overcome when diving. All describe diving as a quiet, soothing, meditative experience. Combined with therapy and worthwhile travels, it’s a win-win, Facciola said.

Since its 2007 inception, SUDS has certified more than 250 injured soldiers at no cost to them. The first weeks are dedicated to classroom work and skills taught in a therapy pool. Participants then travel to a warm water location to complete their certification. Annually, SUDS runs up to 10 dive trips, costing between $10,000 to $12,000. It relies solely on donations, fundraisers and grants, he said.

Typically, SUDS goes to the Caribbean. This is its first Hawaii trip. The group will dive for four days, visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and leave Sunday, Facciola said.

SUDS is also a chapter of Disabled Sports USA. Participants say scuba has helped change their perspective, Facciola said. “They realize if they can do this, they can do anything. It opens up other doors and possibilities,” he added.

Such is true for 28-year-old Army veteran Eric Cowin of Arizona, who is a single amputee. Cowin said he’s willing to try and do anything. He recently climbed Mount Rainier in Washington. For him, SUDS helped him fulfill his adventurous spirit, get through the rough patches soldiers face after returning, improved his well-being and further encouraged his will to pursue dreams.