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Low Key in the News

Injured Soldiers Get Underwater Therapy
Written by Tradewinds Staff
St. John Tradewinds - Sunday, 08 March 2009
Reprinted from Tradewinds Publishing

Soldiers Undertaking Disability Scuba (SUDS) founder John Thompson, left, and veteran Greg Edwards, right, spotted some bright coral on a dive with Low Key Watersports last week. During their trip to St. John, the injured soldiers obtained dive certification and enjoyed a hearty welcome
from island business owners, residents and visitors.
It took half a page for doctors to list all the injuries and broken bones Joe Claburn sustained after he was severely injured in a parachute jump less than six months ago.

But Claburn, a Major in the United States Army, is not one to let broken bones or spirits stand in the way of his dreams. Just last week, he obtained his open water scuba diving certification on St. John.

"Doctors originally told me that I had 30 percent chance of ever walking again," Claburn said. "You can take it as it is and be depressed that this is the card life dealt you, or you can stop sitting around your room and show people that there are still things you can do despite your disabilities."

Claburn's optimism may seem like a rarity, but his attitude is not unlike those of the five other wounded veterans who also traveled to St. John as part of the SUDS (Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba) program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center which helps wounded soldiers re-acclimate with their bodies to complete a scuba diving certification.

"There are multiple guys in the group who are single and double amputees," Claburn said. "This is what the program is all about - showing you that there is so much more beyond what you thought you could do, even with your injuries."

Claburn is living proof of this, and his story is one of inspiration.

After completing four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan where he was involved in both initial invasions - in Afghanistan immediately following 9/11 and in Iraq in 2003 - he said he was fortunate to return without any serious injuries.

"I was only slightly hurt during the course of four tours - you know, the kind of injury where you put a Band-Aid on it and get back to work," he said. "But as luck would have it, I was injured at home after I was done with combat."

On October 8, only seven days after returning from his fourth tour in Afghanistan, Claburn was injured during a midnight parachute jump while training with German Special Forces.

"I literally broke so many bones that it took four major surgeries and 12-and-a-half hours for German doctors to rebuild my spine, my pelvis and my shattered right foot," he said. "I kind of make a joke about the Germans putting me back together - I say that I have enough metal in me that they had to disassemble a BMW to put me back together again. I think my resale value right now is at least $40,000."

While Claburn speaks flippantly about his injuries, perhaps it is his perseverance which gets him through the day and helps him accomplish goals which seem unfathomable to most.

After defying the odds of never walking again, Claburn exchanged his wheelchair for crutches on his 32nd birthday last month. With a recent scuba diving certification under his belt, he is already talking of a possible marathon and another sky dive in his future.

Injured veterans obtained their open water certification through Soliders Undertaking Disabled Scuba on St. John last week.
Claburn said SUDS, a program designed to help improve the lives of wounded soldiers by providing challenging dive training while facilitating the rehabilitation process, fosters a sense of hope for those like himself.

SUDS is a chapter of the Wounded Warrior / Disabled Sports Project that trains injured soldiers in the aquatic therapy pool at Walter Reed Army Medical Center on Thursday afternoons. After veterans complete their academic and confined water training, they have the opportunity to travel abroad to obtain open water scuba diving certifications.

On average, it costs around $1,800 to sponsor each SUDS soldier who makes a trip to obtain his or her diving certification. To donate to SUDS, a non-profit organization sustained by private donations, visit

"I started SUDS two years ago and have put more than 100 veterans through scuba training as part of their rehabilitation," said John W. Thompson, SUDS president.

Thompson, who lived on St. John for four years in the 90s and worked as a dive instructor at Low Key Watersports, said the trip to St. John came together when the community stepped up and showed overwhelming generosity.

More than 15 restaurants on the island donated lunches and dinners for the group, Starfish Market donated breakfasts, Low Key Watersports offered a discounted rate and the Westin Resort and Villas donated five rooms to accommodate additional staff as well as one of the wounded soldiers.

"The kindness and generosity we've experienced on St. John has been overwhelming," Claburn said. "In 12 years in the army, I have never experienced anything like this."

When Deborah Bernstein and Scott Wahlen, owners of Florian Villa who donate all-inclusive vacations for wounded veterans and families of fallen firefighters at their Gift Hill villa, heard about the SUDS trip a year ago, they started fundraising efforts.

With private donations from family, friends and Wahlen's colleges at the Boston Fire department, rentals at their St. John villa, as well as a grant from the Weber Foundation, they were able to raise enough money to cover airfare, food and lodging for six soldiers on St. John, Bernstein explained.

"The guys are absolutely fantastic - each one of them is special, smart and interesting in their own way," Bernstein said. "They have been so appreciative, but they don't get it - they are thanking us, and we are really the ones thanking them for what they have done for our country."

The SUDS group arrived on St. John February 28 and departed March 6, with days jam-packed with island excursions, dining out, a few first-time yoga sessions, and of course scuba diving.

ABC journalist Bob Woodruff, who was injured while working in Iraq, even came to St. John to dive with the SUDS group and film a segment for an upcoming Good Morning America show.

Despite their injuries, the soldiers seem like professionals underwater.

"They get all of their pool training at Walter Reed during weekly sessions so by the time they get in the ocean for their open water training, they look amazing," said Michelle Ehrenberg, SUDS trip coordinator. "They look better in the water than most of the civilian open water divers with hundreds of dives under their belt."

Underwater diving is not only challenging and rewarding for the wounded soldiers, but it is also therapeutic, Thompson said. Once the soldiers remove their prosthesis and submerge themselves in the water, the aches and pains experienced through everyday activity is greatly reduced.

"This truly changes a lot of these men's and women's lives because they have no hindrances in the water," Ehrenberg said. "They are weightless and that makes everything so much easier and opens up an entirely new world to them."

For Claburn, becoming a certified scuba diver has given him a new found sense of confidence and peace.

"I am going to live the rest of my life with arthritic pain, but being under water kind of takes all that away and I can just enjoy an activity without that pain, without the fear of falling down," Claburn said. "Being underwater has given me a chance to find some internal peace with my injuries. It has been therapeutic."

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