By Suzanne Ovel, Editor of the Phoenix Word, the Newsletter of the WTB at JBLM.
As a kid, he would sit with his uncle and be in awe over pictures that the Navy diver took of the un-derwater ocean. Bobby McGee got bit by the scuba bug young thanks to his uncle, but his dad’s cautious nature kept him from trying out the sport while he was growing up.
Instead, that childhood dream laid dormant until just last month when McGee donned scuba gear for the first time with Heartbeat Serv-ing Wounded Warriors’ scuba pro-gram. Now a staff sergeant and a Soldier in Transition, McGee joined the beginners’ scuba course here in January and is about to complete his first open water dives.
“It’s a different world; it’s a dif-ferent experience,” said McGee, who plans on taking Heartbeat’s ad-vanced course and eventually be-coming a dive instructor.
He encourages others who have-n’t tried scuba to join the course, even if they have some trepidation.
“If any other people want to try diving and have a fear of being un-derwater, give it a shot first and see what you might be missing,” he said. He said that all the dives are supervised, and participants are given good instruction on how to use snorkels, how to clear water in their masks, and more.
Both the beginners’ course and the advanced course are taught by Advanced Dive Instructor Mike Biggs, a WTB Veteran who went through the Heartbeat program himself in 2011. While he was a proverbial rookie back then, now he averages about 250 dives a year.
“For me, when I’m underwater, there’s no pain; pain just leaves my body, and I can focus better. It’s a won-derful feeling,” Biggs said.
Now he’s helping other Soldiers learn the sport. Heartbeat offers a beginners’ course every five weeks, which includes classroom time, pool time, and two open water dives. Those who are interested in continuing to dive can join the advanced course, which is offered about every three months. The next advanced course will start in April, and will be combined with stress and rescue training; divers will learn skills such as how to do search patterns, how to share air, and other stressful surface situations.
The scuba program is now also allowing spouses to sign up for courses with their Soldiers.
“This way they’ve got a diving buddy all the time, they keep the relationship tight, and keep the family unit together,” Biggs said.
Beyond strengthening family ties, scuba can help Soldiers build a social network with other divers, and can build a sense of trust and teamwork, said Kim Drown, a recreation therapist here. It can also help divers to increase cognitive function and independence, and to decrease anger.
“It gives them a sense of peace in the water,” Drown said.
Scuba can also offer Soldiers a new hobby that they can take with them when they leave the WTB, and could offer future employment options as dive instruc-tors.
For some, getting involved with a new activity while injured or ill can also offer hope.
“They actually realize that their life is not over. They realize that they can live with whatever they have going on physically or mentally and still use a high-functioning skill,” Drown said.