By Sgt. Neil W. McCabe, XVIII Airborne Corps Public Affairs OfficeDecember 20, 2010
FORT BRAGG, N.C. (Dec. 20, 2010) -- Donning full scuba gear, 17 wounded warriors from Fort Bragg's Warrior Transition Battalion swam Sunday with sharks and other sea life in Georgia Aquarium's large tank in Atlanta.
"In an event like this, the participants are put in a place where they have to test themselves," said Capt. Tracey C. Hudgins, a chaplain who lead the weekend mission with fellow chaplains Capt. Justin C. Murphy and Capt. Jerry Murphy, and Chaplain Assistant Sgt. Michael Quintana.
"Everyone in the group has some form of physical limitation or disability," said Hudgins. "They have to ask themselves: 'Can I do this' Can I really move forward' Even (if) I have this physical limitation, can I push past this thing''"
"It was outstanding. I'm glad I did it," explained Spc. Tashara N. Bell, WTU participant.
In addition to crimson snappers, groupers, manrays, the tank was populated with two 30-foot whale sharks, Alice and Trixie, along with nurse and hammerhead sharks.
The tank itself is a little smaller than a football field with ends at 20-foot and 30-foot depths. The swimmers were lead on a figure-eight path across the tank's surface facedown to the sea life below them.
Spc. Asia C. Ware, said she made sure she was the first one in the water in her group.
Ware said she had to pay attention to the man who led the swimmers in the water, Edward T. Ryan, the aquarium's senior diver.
"I didn't want to get lost or eaten," Ware said.
Despite her best efforts, she said she did make contact with one of the whale sharks.
"It was just a little nibble. It was weird, really weird. I was a little freaked out, but I was OK afterward," she said.
"I was really concerned before not by the whale shark, but the other ones with really sharp teeth," she said.
Ryan, coordinator of the aquarium's "Journey with the Gentle Giants" program, said it is open to all visitors, but there has been a special emphasis on individuals with physical challenges. There is also a companion dive program for certified divers who want to descend from the surface.
All the aquarium's master divers and safety divers are certified by the Handicapped Scuba Association, Ryan said. Since the program began 18 months ago, 80 wounded warriors from the Eisenhower Medical Center at Fort Gordon, Ga., have braved the tank.
Sgt. Joshua Sutton said afterward, "It was outstanding. I had a great time."
But, before he went in, Sutton was nervous, he said.
"I have a fear of lots of water like that," he said. "But, once I got in there and I was able to control my breathing, I calmed down."
The sergeant said he found peace as he cruised over the aquatic life bustling beneath and around him. "It was like for that 30 to 40 minutes nothing could bother me."
In addition to visiting the aquarium and its exhibits, the Soldiers toured the neighboring CocaCola World and had a group meal at Atlanta's Hard Rock Cafe.