KEY LARGO, Florida (Reuters) - It took nearly half an hour to slick up quadriplegic British Royal Marine Dominic Lovett with baby shampoo and tug him into a neoprene wetsuit.
Then six scuba instructors carried him on a mat from the sandy shore into the turquoise sea off the Florida Keys, where he briefly felt freedom from his injuries.
For 20 minutes, Lovett scooted around a shallow lagoon with a motorized propeller strapped to his air tank, making his first ocean dive since he was paralyzed from the neck down in a military training accident 15 months ago.
“Absolutely fantastic,” Lovett said. “Brilliant, absolutely brilliant.”
“I’m so happy,” said Lovett, one of three wounded British war veterans who joined a dozen wounded U.S. troops for a week of diving in the islands off Florida’s southern tip in May.
The twice-yearly Warrior Dive in Key Largo promotes scuba diving as rehabilitative therapy.
It started with a group of wounded soldiers from the 101st Airborne at the U.S. Army’s Fort Campbell in Kentucky, and has grown to include outpatients from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Fraser Bathgate, vice president and training director for the International Association for Handicapped Divers, was invited to Fort Campbell in 2007 to train wounded soldiers who formed the Eagle Divers club. He introduced them to divers in Key Largo.
In an outpouring of patriotic gratitude, Key Largo merchants and veterans donated hotel rooms and boat rides, hosted barbecues and provided a bus with a wheelchair lift.
“We want to make this a true gift from the Upper Keys community,” said Kenny Wheeler of the Ocean Divers dive shop.
Bathgate, a Scotsman paralyzed from the waist down in a climbing accident in 1986, is also a co-founder of the newly formed Deptherapy Foundation, which offers scuba rehab to disabled British veterans and brought three Royal Marines to Key Largo.
Bathgate tried diving at a friend’s urging and loved it.
“I felt a freedom I hadn’t felt since I was in the chair,” said the Edinburgh resident, who learned how to rotate his hips enough to propel himself underwater with dive fins and went on to become a certified instructor.
“I was the first instructor to have qualified from a wheelchair,” said Bathgate, who has spent the last 15 years training other instructors to work with disabled divers.
Weightless under water, they can exercise forgotten muscles and build cardiovascular strength without stressing joints, Deptherapy co-founder Martin Hannan said.
“I know this therapy works. I can see it in people’s eyes,” Hannan said.
The outings also give wounded soldiers a chance to mingle with others who understand exactly what they’re going through.
Sitting around a patio, with wheelchairs and metal legs glinting in the sun, the Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans joke about how to get prosthetic “swim legs” that insurance firms won’t pay for because they’re considered purely recreational.
“Write your congressman!” two shout in unison.
Most disabled divers can use off-the-shelf diving gear with only minor adaptations, Bathgate said. Some amputees use special prosthetics or rejigger old ones for underwater use.
Dive instructor Maria Greenfield of Norman, Oklahoma, learned the hard way that she had to remove the cosmetic coverings from her prosthetic legs, stripping them down to the metal skeleton if she wanted to stay under water.
“Boy are they buoyant! I was floating upside down,” joked Greenfield, whose lower legs were crushed by a car.
Jeremy Stengel, a U.S. Marine corporal and “water fanatic” whose left leg was amputated below the knee after he was hit by an improvised explosive in Iraq, uses a prosthetic with a jointed ankle that can be locked with the toes pointed downward to help him swim with dive fins.
“I kind of sit at the bottom and take it all in, watching everything go by. It’s relaxing,” Stengel said. “Trying to even out the weights is the only issue.”
Divers wear lead weights, usually on a belt, to keep from floating to the surface. Since Stengel’s prosthetic leg weighs less than his scarred but intact right one, he must add extra weight to his left side to keep from rolling in the water.
Lovett’s extensive injuries required more special gear. During cold-weather training in Norway, he jumped into a snow bank that turned out to be an ice bank and crushed his spine.
The 21-year-old has some limited movement in his arms but none in his legs or torso. He swam with the help of a Pegasus Thruster, an underwater propeller powered by a battery the size of a coffee thermos. The control button was rigged to a glove, allowing Lovett to push it against his chin.
Equipment maker Oceanic provided a dive mask with a data screen that let him see his depth and air levels, which are normally displayed on gauges that divers hold out to look at.
Dive instructors swam in front of and on each side of him to keep him stable. The seas were too rough to risk taking him out in a boat to the colorful coral reefs, so his diving was limited to practice rounds in a pool and the one session in the lagoon, inhabited by a few transparent gray fish.
Even with the wetsuit, Lovett’s dive time was limited to 20 minutes to prevent hypothermia, because people with spinal cord injuries have trouble regulating their temperature.
“It’s an awful lot of work for 20 minutes, but it’s worth it,” said Bathgate. “The freedom he’s getting is immense compared to being dragged through the water by others. He’s in charge.”
Lovett, smiling broadly, declared it awesome “just to move under the water and go where I wanted to go.”