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Low Key in the News


Program helps disabled vets rebuild their lives
Written by Genevieve Ryan
The Virgin Islands Daily News - Wednesday, 04 March 2009
Reprinted from The Virgin Islands Daily News

Sunny skies and calm waters in Cruz Bay greeted six disabled veterans Monday as they prepared for their second day of scuba diving toward their Open Water certifications on St. John. The veterans are in the territory with SUDS - Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba - a non-profit organization that enables veterans wounded while serving in Afghanistan and Iraq to get scuba certified.

The SUDS program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Md., helps wounded war veterans undergoing physical therapy and rehabilitation to improve their strength and mobility.

One such veteran, Army Major Joe Claburn, has been in rehabilitation at Walter Reed for six months now. He's hoping he can leave within the next couple weeks and said he is anxious to return to England where he is stationed as a U.S. exchange officer with the British military.

Seven days after coming home from his fourth tour of duty in the Middle East - he had two in Afghanistan and two in Iraq - he was injured in a parachute accident while on an exercise in Germany. His parachute only partially opened and, after hitting some trees, he then fell about 85 feet with basically no parachute. He broke enough bones in his body to fill half a page, he says.

"I was paralyzed from the bellybutton down. They gave me a 30 percent chance of walking again, and around Christmas time I got up from my wheelchair to the amazement of my doctor and everyone else. I turned in my wheelchair Feb. 4," Claburn said.

Since then, Claburn has been walking with the aid of crutches and a cane, though he says "it's really, really painful." His bones did not heal in the same shape as they were before his accident, and as a result he is undergoing a lot of pain management.

"That's why the program is so good for me - when you're injured it's really easy to get depressed and this program shows that despite your handicap, you can still get out and do things. It does two things - it shows me how far I've come and reminds me just how far I've got to go to get to where I need to be," said Claburn.

Despite the pain, he says he is ready to get back on active duty and jump out of a plane again.

"I've done four consecutive tours. I've caught ricochet from bullets, I've experienced IEDs - some very near misses and close calls. And to have something like that happen after coming back from a place where people are trying to kill me - it's kind of embarrassing to be injured in that way," Claburn said.

During his four combat tours, Claburn served in the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

One of the first to accept SUDS' offer to get scuba certified, retired Marine Sgt. Greg Edwards served for eight years and was deployed to Iraq three times before being injured by an improvised explosive device, or IED, in October 2006. The homemade bomb was buried in the ground and he stepped on it while on foot patrol. As a result of his injuries, both his legs had to be amputated above the knee. Edwards spent a couple of months at Bethesda Naval Hospital undergoing 42 surgeries before he was transferred to Walter Reed where he spent a year in rehabilitation.

"When I went through the program it was just getting started," Edwards said.

Diving with no prosthesis, he wears special webbed gloves for propulsion. So far, he says, the experience has been good.

Edwards said his wife, Christina, and daughters, Caitlin, 7, and Paige, 5, are "a little angry they're still at home" while he is diving in the Caribbean. When he gets back home, he plans to enjoy his retirement for a while at his home in Mobile, Ala.

"I'm making up lost time with family." he said.

Army sniper Sgt. Joel Dulashanti has spent the last 22 months at Walter Reed Hospital.

"It's been an experience - I like D.C.," said Dulashanti.

The Cincinnati, Ohio, native currently serves in the Army's recruiter school. He spent five months in Afghanistan before he was shot three times while on sniper operations and lost one of his legs.

Like the other veterans, Dulashanti says he plans to continue diving after completing his certification.

"There's places I'd love to go that have diving," said Dulashanti.

He wears a prosthetic leg while diving, but not the model he uses to walk with that has hydraulic valves that are sensitive to water.

"It was a good experience - I saw a couple cool things," Dulashanti said about Sunday's dive.

Retired Army Sgt. Shane Heath was injured in May 2007 while on his third deployment in Iraq. He was on his way back to the patrol base on foot when he stepped on an IED.

"We were on a night mission searching houses for weapons caches," said Heath.

As a result of his injuries, Heath lost his left arm below the elbow and his left leg above the knee. He is currently living in Silver Spring, Md., and undergoing physical therapy two days a week. He says he's hoping to be finished soon so he can go back to school to study music.

"I've been involved with SUDS for a little over a year now. It's great for physical rehab but it helps mentally as well. It helps rebuild your confidence. The instructors do a great job; everyone's really, really friendly and it's just a great program to be a part of," Heath said.

Army Specialist George Wilson and Army Sgt. Gilberto Gorrea also are completing their Open Water certifications with SUDS on St. John but were not available for interviews.

The SUDS program is made possible through private donations, fundraisers and grants. So far, more than 100 veterans have completed their Open Water certifications in the two years SUDS has been in operation since February 2007.

SUDS volunteer trip coordinator Michelle Ehrenberg and her husband run scubaboard.com, a website for divers. Ehrenberg says she is able to certify anywhere from two to four soldiers four times a year at her home in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and another six to eight soldiers four times a year on destination trips like the one to St. John.

"We always have such a great time. I do event planning and coordination at scubaboard.com so it's an easy transition. The guys, it just changes their lives. It's truly a great organization," Ehrenberg said.

The classroom part of the veterans' certifications is completed at Walter Reed and the Bethesda Naval Hospital so that they are ready to begin diving with an instructor when they reach their diving destination. SUDS covers most of the costs associated with the trip, and local businesses and residents donate accommodations and food.

Low Key Watersports in Wharfside Village is providing the veterans with free equipment for their dives and SUDS is covering the cost of fuel and labor.

SUDS president John Thompson is a former Low Key Watersports employee, and he made the call to owner Ann Marie Estes about three months ago asking if there was anything she could do for them. Estes says she was happy to oblige, and hopes to be able to accommodate more SUDS groups in the future.

"We are really creating an environment that's really safe and fun down here. It's a real positive environment for the divers to have a real positive experience. I mean - St. John - look at what we have to offer down here," Estes said.

On Tuesday, Estes said a man on vacation on St. John who did not want to be identified saw the veterans heading out to dive while hanging out at The Beach Bar that adjoins Low Key Watersports. He spoke with Estes about their trip and decided to donate $1,000 toward their diving expenses. When another vacationing couple, Eric and Stephanie Zawacki, both police officers from the Boston, heard about the donation and decided to pay the remaining balance of $925.

And the generosity isn't limited just to tourists.

While in town, the veterans and SUDS instructors are staying at donated accommodations courtesy of the Westin Resort and the Florian Villa owned by Deborah Bernstein and former Marine Scott Wahlen. Local restaurants including The Beach Bar, High Tide and Shipwreck Landing also are helping out by providing dinners for the veterans each night of their stay.

Virgin Islands residents and visitors who are interested in meeting the veterans can meet them at 5 p.m. tonight at Shipwreck Landing in Coral Bay. On Thursday, a pig roast to honor the veterans will take place from 4 to 5 p.m. at The Beach Bar in Wharfside Village. The event is open to the public and dinner costs $20 per plate.

Ehrenberg will have SUDS bag tags available for a $5 donation to help support future SUDS excursions.

On Thursday, the Virgin Islands Coast Guard will be taking the veterans on a private tour aboard one of their vessels.

Stories on the SUDS trip to St. John will be aired on upcoming episodes of Good Morning America and World News Tonight with Charlie Gibson.

For information, or to make donations, visit SUDS at www.sudsdiving.org.




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