Saying “thanks", sounds easy but too often we let those opportunities pass us by. We see our men and women in the military at airports and throughout the community and they are most often always willing to help each other and lead a helping hand. The military community is fiercely committed to taking care of one another and this extraordinary feeling of community has been exemplified over and over again at the Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO)
This is our opportunity to say “Thank You “to the hundreds of volunteers at GTMO who have helped to support Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba (SUDS) over the past few years.
The SUDS mission is to help improve the lives of injured veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and to facilitate their rehabilitation and promote mobility through the sport of SCUBA diving. The accomplishment of that mission is evident from the very first day of certification dives when the wounded veterans can barely hold their second stages in their mouths because they are grinning so broadly. These amazing young men and women are engaged and excited and fully invested in the SCUBA experience. The initial training and pool work is offered at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) and the open water certification trips, like those to GTMO, take place throughout the year to a warm water location. It is rewarding to all of us involved to know that the pain of injury, the emotional scars, the worry for the future is set aside, if only for a little while, and the men and women are reminded that cool challenges and exciting adventures continue to be a part of their future. The rehabilitation manifests itself both physically and psychologically. That part of the mission is a “no-brainer” to see and experience.
There is another very special blessing that is experienced by all those who have the opportunity to go on one of the trips to GTMO and that is the overwhelming spirit of volunteerism, of helping one’s brother, of honoring our National heroes.
Those that have had privilege to go to GTMO can’t say enough about the support. Shane Heath was injured in Iraq and was introduced to SUDS during his rehabilitation at WRAMC. Shane has had the opportunity to participate on two GTMO dive trips. This is what he had to say..
|[img2]https://www.scubaboard.com/gallery/data/500/medium/SUDS_GTMO2.jpg[/img2]||“GTMO trips easily stand out as two of the best dive trips, both the military and dive community is extremely supportive. They welcome us with open arms, and do everything they can to make sure we are comfortable and taken care of during the trip. They also understand that for a lot of us, these trips are very important for helping to restore confidence in ourselves and our abilities. The GTMO volunteers are content to let us try and do things ourselves, but as soon as one of us needs help with something, there's a person by our side ready to give us a hand (pun intended). They don't baby us, and they don't pity us because of our injuries. Instead, they treat us like equals. And when it comes to helping wounded soldiers restore our self-confidence…that is the biggest gift of all. Today Shane is working on his Divemaster certification and has aspirations to one day become an instructor. Shane is an inspiration to everyone he meets in and out of the water.|
Since the inception of SUDS in 2007, there have been six dive trips to GTMO. John Thompson, President and SUDS founder, says of the most recent trip. “We can't say enough about how much we appreciate all the support from the folks at GTMO both on the Civilian and Military side. This is our signature trip, the one that everyone wants to go on and we feel honored to have the opportunity….it just keeps getting better…by now it is a well oiled machine with a cadre of excellent staff and volunteers”.
The February 2011 trip included seven injured veterans: five were completing their open water certificate and two were working on their advanced open water certification. In addition to the SUDS participates, the brother-in- law of RDML Admiral Jeffrey Harbeson, Commander, Joint Task Force Guantanamo joined us. He is a paraplegic from an injury received in an accident a number of years ago.
The eight participants received individualized training from SUDS instructors tailored to their injuries and specific needs. The initial training that they receive is so good that by the time they get to open water the certification dives are a breeze.
At GTMO, we were fortunate to be granted access to some of the restricted areas were the diving is pristine. Hidden Beach and Blue Bleach were amazing shore dives, complete with that Caribbean blue water that you dream about; and all the usual underwater characters making an appearance. SUDS divers got to interact with stingrays, turtles, lionfish, VERY large Groupers and Dog Snappers in addition to the many reef fishes and coral gardens. As expected the diving was great, the weather perfect and the support from both the military and civilian on GTMO was outstanding.
In addition to the great diving our evenings were packed full of great food and fun. There was a barbeque of some “serious” ribs prepared by the Jamaican nationals who service the GTMO Fire department. The Petty Officer’s of Guantanamo hosted a buffet dinner at the Goat Locker. We were treated to a very special evening at the home of Admiral Harleton’s and his wife where the Admiral presented Commanders Coins and certificates to all the participants. Another night was dedicated to a beach party at Cable Beach sponsored by our dive hosts Jessie and Bill Keenan of Ocean Enterprises. All the SUDS vets are presented with their SCUBA certification card and a bonfire blazed in their honor. Our last evening was spent at CAPT Mary Nutley’s beautiful home for a Cuba inspired dinner on the terrace overlooking Guantanamo Bay. During the days when not diving, the group was offered several optional tours; the Navy Dive Locker with its recompression chamber reinforced the importance of being a safe diver. A very informative visit to the North East Gate, which is the gateway of the boarder of Cuba, helped to explain why the United States continues to maintain an active military base in a Communist country. And, of course, a trip to GTMO would not be complete without a shopping trip to Ocean Enterprises dive shop for some t-shirts & souvenirs.
Jane Spencer, SUDS instructor was part of the last trip and has this to say. “Before the trip I was sent an itinerary…I laughed out loud when I opened the document, it was 13 pages long and described every moment from the time we were expected to hit the deck until lights out. You gotta love military precision! Included in the itinerary were long lists of people who had volunteered for each step of our five day visit. Several people might be designated to provide breakfast at 0730 and without a hitch breakfast would arrive on schedule, “Have a good dive!” and the volunteer would fade away. In the meantime ten other volunteers were at the dock, loading gear, getting drinks iced down, filling tanks and receiving the day’s lunch from yet another contingent of volunteers. Not for the glory, not for recognition, not for the chance to meet the SUDS divers…but because it is the right thing to do and because the military community is fiercely committed to taking care of one another. This scenario played itself out in many, many ways throughout our stay.
One special moment for me was on Blue Beach. She says, “I had readied myself and was in the water facing the shoreline, chest deep, waiting for my two students. Each of them had a team of three volunteers helping to steady them through the surf and get fins and mask in place. Looking left, the same scenario was playing out with another instructor and his students. On the shore line an even larger contingent of helpers were preparing to lift a paraplegic diver from his wheelchair and gently put him in the water to gear up. Other groups of helpers were standing by with clipboards checking divers and staff in and out of the water. A large group of big guys were erecting a tent to provide shade and a long line of sherpas were moving tanks from trucks to a central location on the beach. In all, it would not be an exaggeration to say that 100 people were on that beach helping and making the dives happen. And among these sherpas was the Admiral…hauling tanks and helping out, right along with everyone else. The Admiral was leading by example, doing the right thing, taking care of his military family along with everyone else. That was a powerful image that will stay with me."
Jane says that she gets much more out of her participation in SUDS than she can ever give. “I am able to take my passion for diving and teaching and use it for a good and noble purpose. And so one of the things I can do to pay it forward is to make certain that I also encourage others to be proactive about saying “thanks” to the wounded men and women and to those whose wounds may not be evident but who have also put their lives on hold to fight for a world free of terrorism. I watch people in the airports…the military community will approach our guys and offer a hand and a word. Civilians do not…some may want to, but they do not. I tell everyone I meet that all it takes is to make eye contact and say “thanks.” It means a lot. Buy the soldier in line behind you at Starbucks a cup of coffee, or the Marine at the bar beside you a beer. Volunteer and contribute to the many projects that help veterans and their families. Say thank you for serving."
The military community of GTMO sets an example to all of us to express thanks to our National heroes and to show appreciation for their sacrifice in any way we can.
For more information about SUDS, and to subscribe to the SUDS newsletter, please visit http://www.sudsdiving.org
Text by Carla Chatterton, John Thompson, and Jane Spencer
This article appears in the June 2011 edition of Faceplate Magazine. FACEPLATE is published by the Office of Supervisor of Salvage and Diving Director of Ocean Engineering (NAVSEA 00C) to provide the latest and most informative news to the Navy Diving and Salvage community.