By Rosemary Daniels | Correspondent
Many times wounded veterans must deal with new realities when they return from wartime service. Sometimes their injuries are visible to the outside world. Sometimes, as with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), they are not. On Feb. 17, St. Leo the Great Parish, Lincroft, opened its doors to these military heroes.
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A group of 22 veterans gathered in the school’s cafeteria to take part in a workshop that helps them adjust to post-war life in a unique way. The program, known as “Adaptive Scuba for Soldiers,” is a series of courses which teaches people with disabilities to scuba dive. It is underwritten by the Wounded Warrior Project, a non-profit organization founded by veterans for veterans.
About 18 months ago, WWP asked a local organization, the Handicapped Scuba Association of New Jersey, to put together a specialized scuba diving program for interested vets. HSA collaborated with Centra State Medical Center to design this unique program where participants complete five weeks of classroom instruction at the Centra State Fitness and Wellness Center in Freehold, then move on to multiple dives in open water to obtain their certification.
St. Leo the Great School principal Cornelius Begley coordinated an all-out welcome for the wounded warriors from both school and parish. St. Leo’s student council greeted the men and women as they arrived, thanking them for their service to their country. Ten members of the parish Knights of Columbus provided a color guard for the flag-raising ceremony, and members of the school band prepared three patriotic songs which accompanied the raising of the American and the Wounded Warrior Project flags.
The course offered in St. Leo School is known as DEMP (Diver Emergency Management Provider). The classroom-based workshop trains the former soldiers to offer emergency medical assistance to injured divers. They are taught to perform neurological assessments at the site, and administer CPR and oxygen for diving-related injuries. They are also trained in basic first aid, as well as first aid specifically related to hazardous marine life injuries. Course materials were provided by Divers Alert Network, the diving industry’s largest association dedicated to scuba safety.
WWP underwrites the cost of programs, and HSA provides the volunteer instructors, and obtains the necessary equipment. Catarino “Reno” Rodriguez, a Point Pleasant resident who served in Iraq and in the Kosovo Conflict, offered, “It’s an effort that takes a lot of people to get done.”
Bill Hannigan, the Northeast Regional Physical Health and Wellness coordinator for WWP, said, “We seek out and coordinate events like these. We’ve run three classes in New Jersey and one in Brooklyn so far.“ Hannigan, who also participated in the workshop, is paralyzed from his chest down. Despite his injuries, he travels to each of the events from his home in Ronkonkoma, NY.
In addition to being the host of the workshop, Begley is also a certified master instructor for HSA devoting a significant portion of his free time to working with handicapped scuba divers. With HSA, he also works with special needs children and adults with multiple sclerosis. A graduate of the United States Military Academy West Point and a veteran himself, he says, “I used scuba diving as part of my rehab after my hand and shoulder were severely injured while I was serving in the global war on terrorism in 2002. I appreciate those who help our vets. Every American citizen has a duty to help people who put their lives on the line for freedom.”
“When your body or mind aren’t whole, water can be a great equalizer,” says Begley. He went on to explain that physical disabilities become less of an issue in the water. And veterans suffering from PTSD find peace below the surface, where the noise and stress of everyday life are not an issue.
Lou Tavares of West Milford, who suffers from PTSD, had not left his home in the two years after returning from combat. Hannigan encouraged him to try the scuba course. After a quiet start, Tavarez has obtained his certification and has enrolled in follow up courses. He says, “It’s so peaceful and quiet in the water. I also feel like I’ve made some close friendships because of the program too.”
Stew Snyder, HSA course director, is a key ingredient to the mix. With his ebullient personality, he creates an accepting and supportive environment, which puts both experienced and novice participants at ease. Snyder has taught scuba diving to handicapped individuals for over 25 years. “Scuba diving is a normal activity, in a prestigious sport, that is not altered for people with disabilities. It is unlike any sport available to people with disabilities. It offers a lifetime of challenge, education, and normal socializing. It is a sport that can include their friends and family on an equal basis.”
Members of the parish Fathers’ Club and several faculty members volunteered their time to serve the generous repast provided by St. Leo Parish. During the lunch break, several of the student council members got a chance to talk to the veterans. Joseph Sparber, student council vice-president, said, “Everybody was really nice and outgoing.” Tyler Gentile added, “Wounded Warriors is a great project. They are great people, and really are unrecognized heroes.”
After lunch, Father John Folchetti, pastor, addressed the group, saying, “We’re here for you. We all need to learn to give, just the way you have done.” Daniel Figueroa of Carney, presented the pastor with a plaque, telling Father Folchetti that “it means a lot to us that you want us here.”
For more information on these programs, go to www.wounderwarriorproject.org and www.hsanjscuba.com.