Patriots for Disabled Divers (PFDD) offers therapeutic scuba training and experiences to people with disabilities through affiliate PADI dive shops in eleven states (and growing). Founded in 2009 by Jeff Currer, a retired US Navy Captain and his wife Merial, Patriots for Disabled Divers has trained more than 600 wounded military veterans suffering from PTSD, TBI, amputations and other injuries – at no charge.
Scuba Diving As Treatment for PTSD, TBI and Other Injuries
In 2016, The New York Times reported a study about the benefits of scuba diving for veterans suffering from PTSD: “Traditional medical approaches generally rely on drugs and controlled re-experiencing of trauma, called exposure therapy. But this combination has proved so unpopular that many veterans quit before finishing or avoid it altogether.”
Davis Graham, owner of PFDD affiliate Texas Dive Center in Houston said, “I hear too many stories. [Veterans] go to the VA, they go to group therapy, and in the end they get a big bottle of valium. There are no duplicate injuries. You can’t help people by treating them all the same.”
Scuba diving provides a unique combination of physical and social therapy. Underwater, the human body is nearly weightless – which reduces swelling, takes pressure off joints, and reduces back and neck pain. A study conducted by Johns Hopkins University found veterans who completed a scuba certification, “saw significant improvement in muscle movement, increased sensitivity to light touch and pinprick on the legs.” Getting scuba certified is also a way for members of the military to reconnect with family when they return from deployment.
Instructor Kyle Larson from TL Sea Diving in Seattle-Tacoma recalls working with a woman who had been injured during her service. “She was really excited to continue on and get certified because she had a family member who dives. She did exceptionally well, and it was great to see her so happy.”
At Patriots for Disabled Divers affiliate dive shops like TL Sea Diving, participants start with a tour of the dive shop and an overview of the scuba gear. “After that we get to know each other. Participants can tell us what physical disabilities they’re dealing with, or in the case of PTSD what their triggers are, loud noises or confined spaces for example,” said Larson.
“The next step is to try a Discover Scuba® Diving experience. We get in the water, have fun, get familiar with the equipment, and help the person decide if they want to go on to the Open Water course. Most of the time PFDD participants end up in a regular Open Water class, but we can also do a private class,” said Larson.
Waterdogs Scuba and Safety, a PFDD affiliate in Clarksville, TN encourages PFDD participants to mix with other dive students. Co-owner Rich Holladay explained, “We’ve trained dozens upon dozens of servicemen and women, some of whom are on our staff to this day. We noticed military guys gravitate to each other and that’s a great support system, but sometimes they just talk about the bad old days. So we give them the opportunity to be in a mixed group, meet new dive buddies, and make new friends.
“I was at the pool doing an Open Water class. A participant’s wife was there and she said, ‘I’m watching my husband out there and he hasn’t smiled in six months much less talked to anyone. Now I see him laughing and engaging with others.’ I’ll always remember that,” said Holladay.
At Texas Dive Center, David Graham strives to keep twenty veterans enrolled at all times. “Why twenty?” said Davis, “Because that’s how many veterans take their own lives every day.”
Graham has seen first hand how scuba diving transforms and saves lives. “One of the young men I’m most proud of is Levi Westmoreland. He’s the great nephew of the famous general William Westmoreland and he came to us through the Patriots for Disabled Divers program. He’s an instructor now, and he’s told me, ‘I’m not the same guy I was when I started.’ He even wrote me a letter that said: scuba saved my life.
“Now Levi is helping others. He was recently here in the pool working with young man with severe PTSD, and an Army Ranger who died on the table after one of his injuries. It’s amazing the people we meet through Patriots for Disabled Divers,” said Graham.
Graham, a PADI Course Director, describes one of the most memorable days in his career, “A few years ago, we had 20 disabled veterans in the water with 20 Special Olympics children. All the veterans were certified through PFDD. You should have seen the looks on their faces working with the kids. It was one of the best days I’ve ever had as a scuba instructor.”
All PFDD affiliate stores are PADI 5 Star Dive Centers (or higher) with one or more Handicapped Scuba Association (HSA) Instructors on staff. PFDD founder and co-owner of PFDD affiliate Patriot Scuba, Merial Currer explains, “We work with PADI 5 Stars to ensure the store has worked with students of all levels and is presenting a quality program. If a student can’t meet the PADI requirements for certification, we can seamlessly move them into the HSA program.”
Another requirement for affiliate stores – get involved for the right reasons. “We want to work with dive shops who genuinely want to help those who served, not for the publicity,” said Currer.
“I grew up in a Navy family and learned at an early age that giving back and helping others is incredibly important in any community but especially in our military communities. To watch soldiers and sailors dive for the first time and to hear their comments about finally being in their happy place and feeling like they can now cope with the issues life throws at them as long as they can spend sometime underwater is incredible. It’s one of the greatest feelings in the world knowing that our Pros are changing lives on a daily basis.”
Davis Graham echoes these sentiments, “When it’s in your power to do something to help another person, do it. Don’t just talk about it do it. These things come back to you times ten. Not even that, it’s immeasurable!”
PFDD affiliates provide all the equipment for participants including a mask, fins and snorkel. There is no cost for veterans to participate; PFDD pays the dive center directly for the scuba course. The training is not donated.
To locate a PFDD affiliate in your area, or for more information on becoming a PFDD affiliate, visit patriotsfordisableddivers.org. You can also support Patriots for Disabled Divers by making a donation. Assistance for veterans and others seeking relief from physical or psychological trauma is funded solely through donations from caring individuals in the diving and military community.