FORT CARSON, Colo. — At 28, Randy Johnson has experienced a few wild adventures. The Army sergeant and Arkansas native has skydived and ziplined, among other relatively extreme activities, but he never imagined that one day he’d dive more than 80 feet down a fresh-water aquifer, air tank strapped to his back, while relaying hand signals to his fellow divers.
Only a month before, he didn’t know it was even possible for someone living in the Rocky Mountain west.
As a Soldier residing in the barracks at Fort Carson, Johnson assumed the Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers program just took people on mountain-biking and river-rafting trips. Then he heard the news that BOSS was offering a scuba-certification class and an open-water excursion.
He signed up the next day, did his classroom work at the BOSS offices, donned a wet suit, fins, mask, tank and regulator, jumped into the swimming pool at Fort Carson and learned to scuba dive all within a week.
A week later, he found himself in the depths of a deep, but small recreational fresh-water lake East of Santa Rosa. It’s a popular dive destination for scuba diving and training.
Created by a geological phenomenon called the Santa Rosa sink, the location became a fish hatchery that eventually morphed into the Blue Hole Recreation Area in the 1970s.
“Looking down from the top of the lake, it’s kind of dark, but when you look up from depths, it’s crystal clear,” Johnson said. “It’s almost like a mirage.”
Along with a small group of fellow students, Johnson earned his open-water diver certification during the two-day trip and is now eligible to complete more advanced scuba courses and certifications.
“This (scuba diving) is the most incredible experience,” he said. “Going in, it sounded kind of interesting, but now I couldn’t be happier about getting involved. It’s an experience I’ll never forget, so much so that I’m already working toward getting my advanced scuba license.”
The course Johnson and other BOSS Soldiers completed recently, open water scuba diver, is taught and administered by a local Army veteran, Kioni Arend, who doubles as a government civilian at the U.S. Air Force Academy but teaches scuba as his side gig. He’s one of just a few licensed and certified scuba instructors in the Colorado Springs area and enjoys teaching service members and their Families, especially.
“I started the course at Fort Carson a few years ago, teaching diving to service members in the Soldier Recovery Unit (SRU),” Arend said. “The BOSS folks learned about my activities with the SRU and asked if I could teach classes for their Soldiers. It’s a nice fit; teaching service members who have never experienced anything like this before.”
A Hawaii native, Arend says he’s been diving since he was a child (37 years). He’s also one of the only adaptive instructors for recreational scuba diving in the region. One reason he likes teaching Soldiers and veterans is the rehabilitating nature of the scuba activity and he’s certified to teach anyone with a handicap or disability.
“After my knee replacement and other injuries suffered over the years, the only time I’m ever pain free is when I’m diving,” he said. “So, you really understand how meaningful and beneficial it can be for people who are injured.”
The introductory course administered by Arend includes about six hours of classroom work and roughly six hours at a local indoor swimming pool.
“During our classroom work, students will watch videos and soak up instruction and then we conduct knowledge reviews and that sort of thing,” Arend said. “But, if I sense that some are having difficulty comprehending the information, then we spend as much time as needed for them to gain a full understanding. In the pool, we allow enough time for students to learn their basic skills and get comfortable breathing underwater.”
Students then complete the introductory course by earning their certification during a two-day excursion to Blue Hole. They’ll dive multiple times during the trip and Johnson said most divers can stay underwater for close to an hour on one air tank.
“The classroom work is pretty standard,” Johnson said. “Kioni covers topics like proper equipment use, safety measures, things you can expect, and how to compensate for any problems. Sometimes, you think you’re not going to remember all of the information,
but it’s nothing too difficult and once you get in the pool, it all makes sense. Then you can just have fun.”
Arend explained that maintaining buoyancy is key to maneuverability underwater and that some folks have trouble catching on quickly, but that it’s a hurdle most people conquer during their pool practice. He teaches up to eight students in one class and owns all of the equipment used in the course — wet suits, air tanks, air regulators and masks to name a few —that students will need to complete the course.
The introductory class is relatively inexpensive. The one Arend teaches for BOSS comes at no charge for the course (BOSS covers most fees), but students do pay for accommodations and other aspects of the Blue Hole trip.
Military spouses and Family members can learn more about instruction course rates (discounted for service members and their Family members) and fees by visiting Arend’s website at nlscubadiving.com.
Of course, scuba diving and completing advanced courses can become more expensive dependent on whether students wish to buy their own equipment and take their own excursions to other dive locations. Arend teaches advanced courses all the way up to the scuba instructor level.
“The way I look at it, I’m saving money here,” Johnson said. “I’ve looked into diving around the globe and if one decides they want to go on a deep-sea dive and they don’t have advanced certifications or licenses, the outfitters can charge a lot more for them, just so a person can go on their excursion.”