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Scuba program helps injured military veterans find freedom underwater

San Marcos — On a dock that stretches into Spring Lake, prosthetic legs come off and scuba gear goes on.

And in the crisp, spring-fed lagoon where Ralph the Swimming Pig once performed, half a dozen military veterans injured during active duty get a sense of freedom they don’t get on land.

“Once you’re underwater, it’s a totally difference experience,” says Curtis Johnson, 28, who lost both legs when he stepped on a homemade bomb while serving in Iraq six years ago.

Six men are learning to scuba dive here today as part of the Center for the Intrepid’s Scuba Diving Program, launched in 2005 by Mark Heniser, a physical therapist at the San Antonio center, and John Duggan, a San Antonio-area dive shop owner. Beneath the lake’s surface, the students find a peace many of them lost during war.

Lush green plants wave gently. Fish flit past. And cool water supports bodies broken by explosions and accidents.

Johnson wears a pair of rubbery, custom-made feet with articulated ankles that fit inside of long scuba fins. Others go without artificial appendages, some learning to adapt to a one-legged kick that makes swimming in a straight line a challenge. Missing limbs also affect buoyancy and make it tough to get in and out of the water.

But this is a good training ground. The water is clear and hovers at about 72 degrees year-round.

Because the springs are protected, the students can only access a small, roped off portion of the lake, once the home of Aquarena Springs. They practice emergency skills, read compasses, swim around three underwater platforms and drift over a giant artificial clam shell, a remnant of the old theme park.

“It’s awesome,” says Mike Kohler, 36, who was injured while base jumping in Twin Falls, Idaho. Today he walks with a brace. “I’m embarrassed sometimes with my injury, but when I’m around other guys with injuries I don’t even think about it.”

Kohler already knew how to scuba dive before his crash but says everything is more meaningful now. He’s even thinking about becoming a scuba instructor. “I had millions of hobbies before I broke myself,” he says. “Now that I’m limited to certain things, I appreciate them more.”

Skills like water skiing can help wounded veterans recover from physical and mental trauma and boost self confidence, Heniser says.

“It’s totally liberating. You get that weightlessness. Some of them just want to be upright. And it’s something they can do on their own, with their wife or dive master,” Heniser says.

Duggan, a 34-year military veteran who now owns Duggan Diving in Universal City, taught a friend who lost an arm in Vietnam how to dive years ago and realized then he could help others learn, too. Now his shop provides all the equipment for the program, plus volunteer instructors, at no cost.

“One leg doesn’t even slow them down,” he says of the students.

Since it started, the program has helped about 350 veterans — including single, double and triple amputees, as well as burn victims and people with nerve damage — learn to dive. It’s free to participants.

The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment lets the group use the lake at no cost. River Rats, a group of retired Vietnam fighter pilots, Disabled Sports USA and the Wounded Warrior Project also contribute.

“Loud noises, crowds — it affects post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Orlando Gill of Disabled Sports USA, who lost a leg after he was shot with a rocket in Iraq in 2004. “It’s just so peaceful. It’s the tranquility of being underwater. It gives you time to think.”

When the students finish here today, they’ll take a written test that will qualify them for an adaptive scuba diving certification. Depending on their physical challenges, they’ll then be able to dive on their own or with an able-bodied diver. Many in this group are headed to Panama City, Fla., next month, where they’ll put their new skills into practice in the ocean.

“It’s a totally different ballgame,” says Josh Smith, 26, who lost his right leg below the knee when he was shot during a training accident in December 2013. “Just getting to see things you’d never normally see.”

The class is helping Kristian Cedeno, 32, who lost a leg after stepping on an explosive in Afghanistan two years ago, overcome his longtime fear of the water.

“I put my best foot forward and just jumped in,” he said of today’s dive.

That was a little nerve-racking, he says. But freeing, too.

GET INVOLVED

Injured military veterans can participate in the Center for the Intrepid’s Scuba Diving Program at no cost. For more information about participating or volunteering, call John Duggan at 210-241-2174. To make a financial donation, call Gary Baber with the River Rats at 210-659-4240.

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