By Ms. Maureen Rose, IMCOMFebruary 16, 2012
Last week, a dozen or so Soldiers assigned to Fort Knox's Warrior Transition Battalion had the opportunity to try a new form of adaptive physical training.
Jim Elliott, president and founder of a non-profit organization called Diveheart, came to Fort Knox to teach WTB Soldiers how to scuba dive. He supplied the equipment and the training; Gammon Physical Fitness Center provided the pool.
Diveheart was the brainchild Elliott founded because his daughter was born blind. After teaching her to dive, Elliott said it literally changed her world. Instead of classmates referring to her as the "blind kid," she became the "kid who scuba dives," something many able-bodied children can't do. He realized how drastically that skill could help people with disabilities.
"It's a confidence builder and it brings a sense of independence and self-esteem," Elliott said.
He works with many groups of disabled people, veterans--as well as wounded warriors--and is currently involved in a research project with Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Probably his most famous veteran is Tammy Duckworth, formerly the deputy secretary for Veterans Affairs. In 2004, she was a Black Hawk pilot who was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade resulting in the loss of both her legs. Elliott was able to help Duckworth return to scuba diving with adaptive equipment.
Staff Sgt. Leon Mangum, the WTB training coordinator and an intern for the Soldier Adaptive Reconditioning Program, said the local goal was to help Soldiers get scuba-certified and sponsor an open-water dive sometime in the future. He invited Elliott to Fort Knox because of his first-hand knowledge of the program's benefits; he learned to dive through a similar program at Fort Sheridan, Ill.
"When Soldiers demonstrate a physical determination to heal, it's often accompanied by a mental mindset to heal," Mangum said.
In Gammon Pool, Soldiers were learning with the help of other Soldiers who were already experienced divers.
Capt. Sarah Sublett, the commander of Company A, WTB, is certified by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors.
"Water is the great equalizer," she said. "It's easy to adapt because there's no weight-bearing in scuba diving. It builds confidence physically and emotionally but maybe more importantly, it can help them see that they have the courage to tackle other obstacles in their lives."
Elliott agreed with Sublett.
"There's a real emotional element to diving; you're learning to rely on the respirator. Breathing underwater isn't a natural thing--so there's often a lot of fear to overcome," he explained.
"Many of these Soldiers are in my unit," Sublett added. "So it feels great to be able to share this with them. We're also doing this to help change the perceptions that some people have of the WTB. (The Soldiers) might be in (a warrior transition unit) but they're still Soldiers and they're good Soldiers."
"Water is the only place in the world where you're in a zero gravity environment," said Elliott. "It's inherently hyperbaric (which is a physical therapy technique in itself) and it's particularly effective with autistic children."
Because people are naturally buoyant, even paraplegics or amputees can scuba dive. During the WTB training, one participant who doesn't even know how to swim was managing fine--without the cane he normally needs to walk.
"It's still PT, even for those of us who can't walk or run, but in the water--we can do this," said Spc. Jeff Justice.
The Fort Knox fire department -- which has a few firefighters who also are scuba divers--supported the program by refilling the divers' oxygen tanks.
"Since the nearest dive shop is in Louisville, their assistance really helps out by saving us the time and money to have the tanks filled here," said Mangum.
But ultimately, the scuba is more than adaptive PT.
"This helps Soldiers change their focus from what they can't do to focus on what they can do," Sublett said.
For information about Diveheart, visit the website at http://diveheart.org .
Mangum said anyone can participate in the Diveheart program.
"It's not just for active duty Soldiers or those in WTB. Whether you're clearing, or retired, if you want to try it, call me at (847) 340-5509," Mangum said. "No matter your injury, you can do this. Just come and watch if you want. Nobody will pressure you to do anything. Just get your feet wet."