By Michelle Sartor Lang
Senior Multimedia Digital Producer
Scuba diving requires training and certification that takes commitment. About nine years ago, CentraState Healthcare System began offering a scuba certification program for wounded veterans. The New Jersey man who became the instructor is Stewart Snyder, who has been working with the handicapped for more than 25 years.
CentraState Clinical Director of Rehabilitation Brian Mason said the Adaptive Scuba for Soldiers Program came about after an amputee contacted the organization because he wanted to surprise his fiancee — an avid scuba diver — by learning how to dive for their honeymoon. He was the first veteran to get certified. “And after that, it just seemed to grow. You show up in the gym on Sunday and you see people with no legs and wheelchairs, you know Stew has a program going on,” Mason said.
In total, about 150 people have been certified through the program, with 120 being wounded veterans. Mason explained that the wounded veterans are allowed to bring their significant others or spouses to participate as well. “It’s nice for the people to have something to do together,” he said.
Snyder, who is a scuba instructor with Handicapped Scuba Association International Training Center of New Jersey, began working with wounded veterans nine years ago in Rockaway Beach, New York, where he attended a Wounded Warrior Project event. He said the organization was looking for someone who had previously worked with handicapped individuals, and he fit the bill.
Snyder has been working with the handicapped since he was 18 years old. He attributes his work to his mother. “We were walking down the street one day and I remember this to this day — I’m in my 60s now — this little boy in a wheelchair. And as we walked by him, I turned my head away. And my mother said, ‘Why did you do that?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘You turned your head away from that kid.’ She made me go apologize and say hello to him,” Snyder said. “After that, I don’t know. I just have a special thing that I enjoy working with handicapped people, try to help them.”
CentraState began offering a program for handicapped children before expanding it to include wounded veterans. Snyder said he splits his time between the children and the wounded vets to keep both programs going.
The veterans receive about 12 hours of classroom training and six hours of diving skills training in a controlled environment in the medical facility. Then they do four or five open water dives, in an ocean, a lake or a bay. Snyder said the vets also get trained in areas related to diving, such as CPR and first aid.
Manny Jimenez lost his arm while he was deployed in Afghanistan in 2010. He received an email about the program and jumped at the chance to learn because he had always wanted to scuba dive. He completed the pool portion of the certification in February and plans to finish the process with open water dives over the summer. He also hopes to do more dives throughout the year.
He recommends the program for other wounded veterans. “The instructors take their time for each individual,” Jimenez said. “Every injury is different, unique. And they make sure they take the time with each person. Make sure that each person is not gonna cause any more harm to themselves.”
Snyder said that the water offers a chance for disabled individuals to move freely. “They’re able to move around and they feel good about themselves. They feel more self-confident,” he said. “I notice a lot of them get very, very peaceful under the water. Because a lot of times when you’re under there, you’re actually touching their arm or holding their hand or something like that and you feel the tension just leave their body.”
Aside from the physical attributes of the program, there are social components as well. Jimenez went into the program alone, but made friends. He plans to do his open water dives with the other veterans he did the scuba diving training with.
Snyder said doing an activity like scuba diving can help veterans reconnect. For example, he said one wounded man who had not left his home in two years decided to take the scuba certification course with a fellow soldier who served in Iraq. At first, the man didn’t speak in class, but as time went on, he became more vocal and got very interested in diving. “Since that time, that guy — he’s one of the guys taking higher and higher classes — now comes and helps us,” Snyder said. “That’s helping him to rehabilitate.”
The instructors are all volunteers, just getting reimbursed for gas and tolls. CentraState offers logistical support for the program — filling tanks for the divers, providing lunch and giving them a room for classroom instruction.
“It is a nice program. It’s a way to give back to some people in our community who’ve committed a lot and have never asked for anything in return,” Mason said. “You know, the sad thing is for a lot of these gentlemen and women, the war’s not ever gonna end. It sounds depressing, but they’re not.”
Mason helps with the wounded warrior program occasionally, but he said it’s difficult because his son was deployed. “Frankly, this is a club I never want him to join,” he said. “It’s very difficult when you see these guys with spinal cord injuries or double amputees or they’ve lost their eyes. The war never ends for them. So whatever we can do, we do reach out for them.”
Snyder said his favorite part about teaching the wounded veterans to scuba dive is seeing the smiles on their faces. “It’s very emotional. All the volunteers, we talk about it. A lot of times we’re under the water with that mask on and your mask is filled with water. And it’s not pool water. It’s tears of happiness that you were able to get somebody to do something under the water,” he said. “And they’ll have that for the rest of their life. It’s just amazing.”