Carter County News-Times
Posted: Wednesday, July 15, 2009 12:00 am

MOREHEAD CITY — Four wounded soldiers boarded a dive boat at Olympus Dive Center and were under way Saturday to a sunken submarine about 30 miles off Atlantic Beach.

The four soldiers from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., are members of Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba, a nonprofit organization developed to provide dive opportunities for the injured soldiers.

The program is part of the Wounded Warrior Project that caters to severely injured service members during the time between active duty and their transition to civilian life.

For two years, the SUDS have taught more than 100 injured veterans how to scuba dive. The program is designed to assist returning veterans injured in Afghanistan and Iraq with their rehabilitation at Walter Reed and is the brainchild of John Thompson, SUDS president and certified scuba instructor who worked several summers with Olympus and was volunteering at Walter Reed with the Red Cross when he asked the hospital about the possibility of teaching scuba diving.

Capt. Danny Facciola, assistant and coordinator for the dives, said Mr. Thompson approached him about helping with the program.

“I thought it was a wonderful idea, and I would do anything I can to help,” he said.

Capt. Facciola said after some planning to establish the nonprofit group, Mr. Thompson approached Walter Reed and the proposal was accepted with enthusiasm.

Although circumstances of war had changed lives in one way, the scuba diving has opened up a whole new world for the wounded soldiers. It not only brings healing to the body but to the spirit. The men are strong, confident and determined.

Army Sgt. Shane Heath, 29, of Concord, now training for his master dive instructor certification, lost his left arm and leg to an improvised explosive device while serving with the 82nd Airborne. He said the diving impacts all their lives on different levels.

“It serves to enhance our physical and mental rehabilitation and brings peace,” he said. “The weightlessness also helps alleviate some of the weight-bearing pain.”

Sgt. Greg Edwards, 26, a Marine from Alabama, lost both legs above the knees when he stepped on a land mine, but that was then and he lives in and appreciates the “now.”

“The diving not only brings opportunity, but a chance for reclaiming freedom,” he said. With strong shoulders and arms, the Marine has no problem moving through the water with ease.

Sgt. Kevin Brown, an Army sergeant, 36, from Washington, D.C., lost his right leg below the knee in a vehicle accident.

“The program has shown me I can accomplish something I never thought I could do and I give 110 percent,” he said. “We can also share our experiences (in the program) with other wounded and it encourages them, too.”

Gilberto Correa, 28, a Marine sergeant from Puerto Rico, sustained major head injuries when his Humvee hit an IED.

He was the only survivor and nearly died as a result of the explosion. A scar from one ear to the other across the top of his head says volumes about the injury he sustained. Although he was not expected to survive, doctors are amazed to the degree he has recovered.

A deeply spiritual man with strong family support, and a ready smile, he said he was out of the hospital in 38 days.

“Be positive,” he said. “We see each other every day and we know we are OK,” he said. “It’s about attitude and the diving has opened doors for us to maintain a good attitude and look forward to the next dive, the next trip, the next day.”

All the men agree the diving allows for camaraderie and understanding only they can experience.

“We can talk to a civilian, someone who hasn’t been there or here,” said Sgt. Edwards touching his prosthetic legs. “But only a fellow soldier who had been there, and here, truly understands what we are talking about.”

The men also stress two things. They have no regrets and do not feel sorry for themselves. They do not want anyone else to feel sorry for them, either.

“We have no regrets and do not feel sorry for us,” said Sgt. Edwards. “We are proud to serve our country and despite all this, we don’t feel sorry for ourselves.”

They want the public to remember despite the physical differences, they are still just like anybody else.

“Don’t stare and if you want to know what happened just ask,” said Sgt. Edwards. “We’d love for you to just say ‘Hi.’ If you ask what happened, and we want to tell you, we will. Otherwise, we’re just people.”

The men say oftentimes humor can be used to defuse the uncertainty that puts everyone in an awkward place. This will include teasing, name-calling and picking at each other.

“We realize people stand off because they don’t know what to say,” said Sgt. Correa. “When the public sees us teasing each other, the ice is broken and we all can relax and enjoy the day.”

The positive attitude and humor are most important when it comes to their families. Christina Edwards has joined her husband on the trip and says she began right away making sure what had happened would not change her children’s relationship with their father any more than it would hers.

“The doctors said his injuries were some of the worst they had ever seen and he remained in critical condition for weeks,” she said.

Mrs. Edwards said she and their two girls, Caitlyn, 9, and Paige, 7, were not allowed to see her husband for weeks so she used that time to prepare for that day by helping the girls understand the changes they would see in their father.

“While waiting to see Greg, another double amputee came by,” she said. “I asked him if he would help by showing his injuries to the girls. He agreed, and we explained to the children this was what daddy would look like. As a result they have responded very positively to their dad, hardly paying attention to his injuries. He’s still daddy.”

The world of scuba diving has opened up to the men by SUDS stretches from the Bahamas to the Crystal Coast. Every effort is made by the program to see to it each man gets whatever it is he needs to make the experience a positive one. Through the program the men can see a lifetime of opportunities for growth and enjoyment.