How Scuba Diving as Therapy Assists Wounded Veterans' Rehabilitation
Over the last decade, scuba diving has become increasingly recognised as an activity that not only allows humans to explore the majestic depths of the ocean realm, but one with significant therapeutic benefits for those that struggle with physical disabilities and mental illnesses. For these reasons, scuba diving has become popular with ex-service personnel, some of whom have been very seriously wounded, lost limbs, or suffer from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
One organisation supporting the use of scuba diving as therapy for wounded veterans is Help for Heroes, a charity that offers a wide range of initiatives and activities to assist wounded ex-service personnel with their rehabilitation. In 2020, Help for Heroes approved Chepstow-based dive centre Scuba Quest as a scuba diving training partner through the work of Dave Handley, a 22-year veteran of the Royal Navy who became a Physical Development coach for Help for Heroes after a 15-year career in the dive industry.
Handley, a PADI IDC Staff Instructor recruited Scuba Quest's Mark Culwick, likewise a PADI IDCS Instructor, technical diving instructor and British Army veteran, to manage the training programme with Help for Heroes. The two met when Handley was the proprietor of a Plymouth-based dive centre through which Culwick conducted dive trips.
'Knowing a lot of people in the industry, Mark was a natural choice of experience and quality of Instructor, not to mention his link with the military, through his service,' said Handley 'In the recovery journey of veterans, it is important that they are cared for both in and out of the water. I have seen a lot of cowboy outfits over the years, but Mark and the ScubaQuest team are anything but!'
As a PADI dive centre, Scuba Quest was able to obtain sponsorship from the agency for the training materials and certifications, and teach using PADI's Adaptive Diving Techniques, specially designed to allow instructors to vary their approaches to teaching based on the student diver's physical or mental capabilities. The Adaptive Support Diver course is also available for people who dive with buddies who face particular challenges underwater.
Although the Adaptive Diving Techniques help with training, Culwick himself says that he tries as much as possible not to treat veterans any differently than civilian divers. 'I try not to approach teaching the veterans in any different way,' said Culwick. 'If anything, just a little bit more patience as they have natural apprehensions as we all do to get over, as well as their demons.'
He also finds that his own position as a veteran gives hims something of an advantage over other instructors. 'I know the culture, I revert to military humour and services rivalry,' he said. 'I introduce competition, for example, [when learning underwater navigation techniques], every degree off a bearing accrues a point, and the one with the least amount of points wins. Military personnel love that and it ends up being a great laugh.'
'The benefits of the Help for Heroes dive programme are clear,' says Culwick, citing examples of how scuba diving has aided former service personnel who have previously found rehabilitation to be challenging. 'One old soldier in his 60's had been a virtual recluse for over 30 years and came on the course,' he said. 'I have never put so much work into a diver in my career and when he passed [the PADI Open Water Diver course], his tears meant the world to him and me. He also enjoyed his comrades' company as well, which was equally as important.'
Scuba diving has a lot to offer for those who otherwise struggle with daily life, whether their injuries are visible or not, particularly former service men and women. 'I think it gives veterans something to look forward to when times get tough for them,' said Culwick. 'For the veterans with PTSD they, more often than not, state that the peace, quiet and serenity is what they primarily get out of it, as well as the adventure as most servicepeople are adventurous by nature. For the physically injured service members, it is the escape from the shackles of everyday living, under the water they are the equal of able bodied people, they have freedom and the speed that they adapt is amazing.'
For instructors who are considering teaching wounded veterans to dive, or buddies considering becoming support divers, Culwick invites others - whether they have a military background or not - to get involved. 'For anyone who is thinking of doing it, please do,' he said 'Be patient with them and the rewards will far outweigh anything else. They deserve it, they put everything on the line for us, giving something back is a special thing that they truly appreciate.'
To learn more about PADI's Adaptive Diving, visit www.padi.com/adaptive-support-diver. For more information on the Help for Heroes initiative, visit: www.helpforheroes.org.uk. Scuba Quest is based at the National Diving & Activity Centre (NDAC) in Chepstow, Gloucestershire, UK: www.scubaquest.co.uk