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Richard Cullen

Heroes Between the 27th September and 6th October in Key Largo, Florida, to paraphrase Newton I 'saw further' by standing on the shoulders of three giants, not that they were physically big, they weren't, not that they were venerable sages, they weren't, not that they were great philosophers, they weren't. They were extraordinary young men, brave American Marines, who had fought under their flag in a foreign country and were now participants in a revolutionary rehabilitative programme run by the UK based charity Deptherapy.
Deptherapy was founded by Fraser Bathgate, himself a paraplegic from the age of 23 as the result of a climbing wall accident whilst training for an expedition to the Himalayas. Fraser took up scuba diving and became a PADI Instructor, he now advises PADI on adaptive teaching. His belief in the rehabilitative effects of scuba diving led him to develop the Deptherapy programme. Had I not witnessed the effects of the programme I doubt I would have believed the claims. Don't take my word for it, senior doctors at the National Naval Medical Centre at Bethesda in the USA support Fraser's programme.

To participate as an instructor or helper on this programme you need to qualify with Disabled Divers International.

I want to use the three Marines I had the privilege to work with as case studies to show the rehabilitative benefits that the programme offers.

I left the Keys emotionally drained, experiencing the highs and lows of our work with these exceptional men. At the same time I felt inspired, privileged and proud to be part of what took place both in the pool, in the open water and as importantly, socially. Like many of those supporting the programme I shed tears when one of these young Marines had to be taken back to Bethesda for surgery as a result of his injuries sustained in Afghanistan that flared up whilst on the programme. Such is the close bonding that occurs between teacher/ supporter and student(s) on this programme.

I hope to be able to share with you the emotions of that week and the realisation that dive professionals need to be equipped to teach those with disabilities. I also want to tell you how the community of the Keys embraces these wounded warriors.

I was joined by Arthur Allen another PADI instructor who is involved in the Rotary Club and his Region is raising funds for Deptherapy.

For US legal reasons I will refer to the Marines as Tom, Dick and Harry. Tom is 21 years old, was blown up by an IED in Afghanistan losing his left hand and part of his arm. He also sustained massive internal injuries. He was injured 10 months prior to the programme. Dick is 20 years old, he lost both legs above the knee, and suffered severe damage to his hands and arms as a result of an IED in April 2010. Harry is 28, has suffered TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) and is a cancer survivor.

Rib Daddy's Restaurant set out the stall for the week: free food, lots of free food, drink and a welcome for the Marines that to be honest shames us in the UK. There is so much pride and affection shown for these guys that you can cut the emotion with a knife. Like all first meetings it was a wee bit tense, they are young men being introduced to a group of people who in the main will not see thirty again, well maybe forty again. Tom told us that he disliked swimming in water any deeper than his chest and never put his face underwater!

Next morning it was down to the pool, our young warriors arrived after they had been kitted out at Captain Slate's Dive Centre. I had responsibility for Tom and Harry. Would Tom put his head underwater? Initially tense, once he realised that breathing through a regulator was simple, he took to the water like a duck. Harry had no problems and was an experienced snorkeler. The programme is somewhat like a series of try dives, get them wet, get them diving quickly and safely. So after a few signals and skills it was off on a guided tour of the pool. They were both naturals and Tom was better than many able bodied students I have taken, doing with one hand what many struggle to do with two.

We then experienced the Pegasus Thruster, a small propulsion device that fits to the back of the cylinder and is controlled by a push button held by the diver. This amazing bit of kit allows even the most severely disabled, including quadriplegics, to enjoy the underwater world.

After a successful pool session; a change in our students' demeanour, smiling faces, lots of questions and relationships developing. The ice really started to melt and Tom told me a lot about himself and how he had sustained his injuries, his initial reaction, his recovery, his future plans to go to University, study American, train as a teacher and marry his long-term girlfriend.
London School Of Diving
The next morning we assembled at Slate's Dive Centre for our first open water dive, a shallow reef off Key Largo. Dick had a Thruster and my two dived unaided. Tom was unbelievable, he dealt with a flooded mask with no problem and his buoyancy was spot on. What I will never forget is the huge smile on his face as he pointed to all the various fish we encountered 'like a kid in a candy shop'. Barracuda, grouper, sting ray and shoals of small fish confronted him. We came to the surface, both were beaming and Tom said, 'You have given me a gift'. Back on the boat Tom looked me in the face and said 'I trust you absolutely', a very touching comment from this brave young man.

At lunch Tom was obviously in pain from his internal injuries and he had to be flown back to Betheseda for surgery. No one who had met this charming, engaging, brave and intelligent young man during the week could fail to be touched by his return to hospital.

For the remaining two we managed a further OW dive on the Saturday, but Monday's dive was cancelled due to the sea conditions. For Dick it would be unsafe to get both in and out of the water from the boat.

On our last day prior to the farewell dinner at Rib Daddy's the guys went to a Marine Park and swam with dolphins.

Saying goodbye was difficult. I had seen so much change in these guys it was amazing and the sparkle in their eyes was something to behold.

To close, I want to use the words of the song 'You Raise Me Up' "you raise me up to walk on mountains, you raise me up to walk on stormy seas, I am strong when I am on your shoulders, you raise me up to more than I can be..."

That is what three young, very brave men did for me in Florida.
Catfish Dive & Safari

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