I know that several of you within DLL are interested in the work of the UK Deptherapy and working towards becoming Disabled Divers international Instructors. Working with the injured troops is absolutely amazing, humbling and emotional experience and requires not only the advanced technical skills to help disabled people to dive, but also requires the ability to cope with the emotional problems many of the rehabilitating troops have. I cannot hope to understand what it is like to be one minute a fit, young man/woman serving in our Armed services and the next you remember waking up in the Queen Elizabeth hospital having suffered life changing injuries. Matt Croucher GC one of our patrons threw himself on a grenade to save the life of his fellow patrol members; how do you find the courage to do that?
On the programme running from 1-8 May 2012 we had three British troops and three US Marines. I visited Chris Middleton a trooper from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards not long after is admission to Headley Court rehabilitation centre. Chris at the age of 20 had lost one leg above and one leg below the knee as a result of an IED explosion in Afghanistan. The second British participant was Richard Ward a trooper from the Household Cavalry who lost both legs below the knee when the vehicle he was travelling in hit an IED. Carlos Buckley formerly of the Royal Military Police made up the last member of the group. Carlos was mentoring an Afghan Police Unit when they were ambushed, Carlos was shot three times in the side and one bullet severed his spine leaving him paralysed from the waist down.
We try to give the troops a unique experience and one that makes them feel good about themselves. So we aim to provide a very special service from their arrival at Heathrow airport until they return to the airport a week later.
This programme was quite special as we were joined by three journalists from British Forces Broadcasting Service, Diver Magazine and the Sun newspaper. Fiona Weir of the BFBS joined Matt Croucher GC, the British troops and me on Virgin Atlantic’s flight VS005 from Heathrow to Miami on 1 May. The guys were met as ever by Metropolitan Police Service officers from the Aviation Security Division and of course the charming ground staff of Virgin Atlantic who had managed to up-grade the party to premium economy. The troops presented the Met Police and the Virgin Staff with certificates of appreciation. It was then off to the Virgin Lounge for breakfast and we were last to board, with the cabin crew announcing that the guys were on the flight. Chris is struggling with his new legs and removed them in flight as did Richard. A question from Chris ‘What is the difference between economy and premium economy?’ reply ‘extra leg room for one thing’, Chris ‘Well I don’t actually need that!’
I guess towards the end of the flight I experienced one of the most emotional moments of my life. Chris wanted to try to put his legs back on for the landing but there wasn’t enough space and I arranged with the cabin crew we could do this on one of their jump seats. Rather than wait for the small wheelchair on board I piggy backed Chris the relatively short distance down the plane. I was amazed how light he was, but for many on the plane it was the first time they realised the extent of his injuries. You could hear the gasps, sobs and tears of passengers as we passed. Fiona Weir said that emotion swept over her when she saw Chris on my back. I know Chris was quite touched by the response but Chris, being Chris as we transferred him to a wheelchair at Miami airport in front of the porters, Virgin crew and our reception committee said ‘Make sure you put the foot rests down.’ Everyone burst out laughing with Chris chuckling away to himself.
The usual Miami reception committee was there; Miami Dade Police, TSA, Customs, Immigration and we were whisked through the formalities to our SUVs flanked by Miami Dade Police cars. So off to Key Largo where I met up with my fellow DDI instructor Doug Grubb and his son Lloyd who was a US Marine who suffered Traumatic Brain Injury (the violent shaking of the brain). The US Marines consisted of Todd Love (check this guy out on Goggle he is awesome) he lost both legs to the hip joints (pelvis) and part of his left arm, Kevin who has an injured back, Brian a single above the knee amputee, all supervised by a Marine Master Sergeant Eric.
The rapport that developed between the two groups was amazing and it made managing the logistics easy. I need to make special mention of Fiona Weir and Dorothy Eaton, from Diver Group who really added so much to the trip and integrated so well into all our activities.
Day 2 saw us kitting up at Horizon Divers our new dive provider in Key Largo, an awesome set up with a very stable catamaran as the dive platform. As usual we were hosted by various organisations and businesses over the next few days, and I seem to recall wigs and bikinis, but maybe the less said, the best forgotten!
Day 2 was at Jacobs Community Pool and all the guys took to the water like ducklings. Carlos had the biggest challenge being paraplegic and therefore his legs were dead weight even in the water. Weighting plans had to be designed for Carlos and the amputees. Chris in particular needed quite a complex plan to hold him upright in the water. Think about this our legs often hold us upright in the water, if you lose some of your leg(s) you lose some of your negative buoyancy. With Chris’ injuries you have to balance more negative buoyancy on one side of the body. However they all did brilliantly and the only questions seemed to be how quickly they could get in the ocean. Richard had a pair of artificial legs that he could use with fins but found he was better in the water when not using them.
I was the lead instructor for Chris and Richard and as bi-lateral amputees they had an instructor each. Todd had an instructor and an assistant instructor.
The first ocean dive was observed by Sun newspaper reporter Paul Thompson who described the huge smile on Richard’s face when he broke the surface after the first dive. My lasting memory will be Chris giggling in an absolutely uninhibited way after he rolled into the ocean and surfaced, repeating the giggling when he surfaced at the end of the dive. Everyone loved the dive and all you could hear was talk of what they might experience on dives 2&3. Instructors have to work out how to enter their student into the ocean and then how to exit them. Carlos for instance needed a specially designed lift to bring him back on the boat. Most of the time the troops need de-kitting in the sea.
Amputees also feel the cold more quickly than able bodied people because of poorer circulation around the site of their injury. In Chris’ case we needed to put him in a full length 3mm wet-suit and then turn over the extra leg length and clip it closed.
Socially these guys were in a class of their own and local residents and holidaymakers alike embraced them with the warmth and generosity we have come to expect in the Keys. For the Brits the standing ovations they received when they entered places such as the VFW with their American comrades in arms was humbling and emotional.
All too quickly dives 2&3 had come and gone some awesome diving with some awesome young men who it was my absolute privilege to meet.
Other activities such as fishing and the hiring of a shooting range and providing guns and ammunition that most have cost a fortune were kindly sponsored by Dave Champagne of Key Dives.
So home to Heathrow to be met by Virgin staff and the Met Police, no long waits for the guys as we are whisked through immigration and customs.
A centre page spread in the Sun, three broadcasts on BFBS and an article to follow in Diver magazine an impressive range of media interest made this special – however am I as Paul Thompson described me in the Sun a ‘scuba fanatic’?
Chris and Richard have decided they want to go forward and do their PADI OW Courses. PADI will sponsor their manuals, PICs etc; all I need now is a friendly dive centre to provide a pool and kit for them free, I will teach them and after their confined water course it will be off to my place in Egypt to complete their Open Water dives. Fiona is going to continue to cover their story as is Dot.
How do I feel after the programme? Humbled and privileged to meet a group of very brave young men who have no chips on their shoulders and want to live life to the full despite injuries that many would never cope with.
You can find out more about our work at http://www.deptherapy.co.uk or join the Deptherapy Facebook page.
And yes you make some great friends, shed some tears but you give these guys and gals something very special, a new challenge and the feeling of being able to move freely again.