Inside Flathead Scuba on June 7, a half-dozen combat veterans wandered the pool deck in various stages of suiting up for a dive.
Al Daigre, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, was the first one to step into the water. He strapped on his air tank, checked his primary and secondary regulator, adjusted his goggles and pushed off from the wall.
“Yep, the water works,” Daigre called out, grinning with childlike enthusiasm.
Daigre is an experienced ocean diver, and while the pool is a far cry from open water, he wouldn’t have missed a chance to get in the water.
“If I could dive every day, all day and still make a living, I would,” he said. “It’s just so relaxing. There’s no cell phones, no nothing.”
The Monday dive night is organized by Underwater Soldiers, a nonprofit founded in 2019 that helps veterans by utilizing scuba diving as therapy.
Mark Cook, a Vietnam veteran who owned Rock Bottom Diving (the previous iteration of the Kalispell dive shop), had a history of working with veterans at a previous dive shop in Utah. Cook established a program through the Salt Lake City Veterans Affairs office to provide free training for post-9/11 vets who returned from combat.
Charles Williams, a Marine veteran, was diving with Cook and latched onto the idea, but when Rock Bottom Diving closed, the program took a back seat until Flathead Scuba opened in 2018.
Williams, along with Adam Jones, an outreach specialist at the Kalispell VA, and diving fanatic Shawn Weisz spent a year rebuilding and redesigning the entire Underwater Soldiers concept.
“Originally it was just about certifying veterans for free,” Williams said. “That’s expensive — it’s not always financially feasible — and so we decided to work on just doing therapy and got it going stronger and better.”
The program achieved nonprofit status in 2019 and has been working with local veterans ever since. On a given week, up to a dozen veterans will show up to take a plunge.
As Jones says, not all therapy happens on a couch, and the primary function of Underwater Soldiers is pool therapy. Numerous studies have shown the benefits of underwater therapy for back and lower limb injuries as well as for PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and anxiety.
“It gets you to be able to feel the weightless effect on the body from diving,” Williams said. “All you focus on when scuba diving is breathing, buoyancy — nothing else around you matters at all.”
By utilizing a program called Discover Scuba, veterans learn the basic dos and don’ts of diving and how to safely get under the water in a two- to three-hour session. Williams said diving relieves both physical and mental stress.
“You could have the worst day of your life, come to the pool and dive and kind of wash all that away and relieve the mental stress,” Williams said.
“I usually just lay on the bottom, or we’ll play poker,” he added. “They’re playing blackjack underwater right now. And there’s Seth. He goes down and just hangs upside-down from that ledge like a bat.”
Seth Buckman, a U.S. Army infantryman veteran who deployed to Iraq twice, started diving after meeting Jones at the VA.
“The program was just getting started and I was just open to it,” Buckman said, adding that he had done pool dives in high school. “Talking to a therapist at the vet center was helpful, but this was another free service that Adam brought up.”
Buckman didn’t understand the therapeutic benefits of diving at first, as his only memory of being underwater was from high school.
“In high school I didn’t have any trauma; I came back and was having some. I needed help in my life,” he said. “I’ve been working with these guys for over a year now, and I can drastically see improvement at home in my day-to-day life.”
Buckman has seen the benefits both mentally and physical — a knee injury that had him hobbling to the pool in the early days has greatly improved— even as he struggles to put it into words.
“I can feel it more than I can describe it. For me it’s kind of hypnotizing,” Buckman said, noting that when he started, his life was moving fast between building a house and having a new baby. “When you’re in the pool you want to relax, you don’t want to breathe heavy, you don’t want to breathe fast, you just go at your own pace.”
One day, when Buckman stuck around at the shop after a dive night, shop owner Glen McKinnon handed him a PADI certification book and asked if he wanted to take things to the next level. In May, he became the first veteran in the program to go through the course and become a certified open-water diver.
“Everyone was really supportive, just cheering me on,” Buckman said. “I really lost a lot of camaraderie after leaving the service, so coming here with new people and making new friendships really helps.”
Jones says that all of the veterans involved are now either certified or in the process of getting certified, with the goal of taking more open-water trips around the Flathead this summer and starting some lake cleanup work. The board of directors, which includes Jones, Williams and Weisz, has already done several cleanup dives, pulling nearly 80 pounds of trash from local lakes each time.
“Most of us chose the military for service, and you know, most of us can’t do any other type of service anymore,” Williams said. “That’s us giving back to our community, deciding that we’re going to clean up the water that people are destroying.”
Underwater Soldiers hosts dive nights at Flathead Scuba every other Monday evening. To learn more, visit www.underwatersoldiers.org or the organization’s Facebook page, or call Flathead Scuba.
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