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Disabled veterans learn to dive back into life

By MARION CALLAHAN AND PATRICK LESTER | The Morning Call | Published: August 12, 2012

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Jason Wheeler was 32 years old when he lost the use of his legs from the knees down. The former Army paratrooper jumped out of a helicopter during a training exercise, but his parachute failed and he plummeted more than 50 feet to the ground.

Months after the accident, Wheeler, who played sports growing up, said he felt like he was benched from life. A decade later, he feels anything but limited. He cycles, skis, fishes, plays softball, and more recently he began journeying into water.

Something special happens when he dips beneath the surface. Lifting his arms from his wheelchair, he said, "It feels like I'm flying, like I'm jumping out of a plane again, like I'm the same as everyone else. My legs are dragging, you hear nothing and I just take it all in."

"I was injured in 2002," he added. "I can go back to when it's 2001" in the water.

This weekend, he soared once again. Wheeler was among dozens of injured service members eager to plunge into the water at Dutch Springs recreation area in Lower Nazareth Township, an activity that has become a source of strength where limitations fade and hope floats. More than 40 wounded service members from the East Coast and their families came to the Lehigh Valley this weekend to complete their scuba diving certification as part of the Wounded Warriors Project.

Wheeler and the others were required to do four dives over the weekend and perform skills 25 feet under water in order to get their certification.

"It's the best thing that's ever happened to me," said Wheeler, 41, of Merrimack, N.H., who hopes to volunteer for a local fire department as a rescue diver.

The warriors on Saturday morning received a police escort to Dutch Springs, located on Hanoverville Road, and a heroes' welcome from a group of motorcyclists lined up at the entrance and holding American flags.

"Welcome home," the bikers, members of Warrior Watch Riders, shouted as the veterans passed through the entrance.

The Wounded Warrior Project, established in 2003 to honor and empower injured veterans, gives service members opportunities to unite through activities and events that build confidence and a sense of camaraderie, said Bill Hannigan, who was out of the Army when a motorcycle accident broke his back and left him paralyzed from the chest down.

"This gives the warriors a chance to show what they can do — not what they can't do," Hannigan said.

Hannigan is the regional health and wellness coordinator at Wounded Warrior Project, a Jacksonville-based group that helps wounded veterans returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq adjust to life after injuries.

The message of the group is simple, but poignant: "You are not alone," he said. The group's logo depicts a soldier carrying another on his back.

Stewart Snyder of the Handicap Scuba Association of New Jersey, who has been working with veterans for eight years, called water "the great equalizer" for people like Hannigan who live with disabilities. "There's a big demand for this because of the guys coming back with missing arms and legs," he said. "This keeps them active. They can get out of a wheelchair."

Michael Carrasquillo, 28, of Newfoundland, Wayne County, credited the organization with drawing him out of a dark period, enabling him to dive into the water and back into life.

Scuba diving is an example of activities needed to remind service members that "there is still so much life to live," he said. "Life is short, man. You never know."

Carrasquillo, a veteran of the 173rd Army Airborne Brigade, said he was shot five times while serving near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in 2005 and has endured 44 surgeries. He said he "died twice," once on an operating table and a second time during a hospital transfer. Both times, he said, he was resuscitated.

"I felt like my life was over and I was never going to be as good as I was," said Carrasquillo, who suffered permanent nerve damage in his arms and still has trouble tying his shoes and opening doors. "I never felt like I'd be whole and I didn't know what was next."

The Wounded Warrior Project, he said, filled some of that emptiness. In addition to keeping him active, it gives him a chance to share stories with fellow veterans and kid around with them like old times.

Carrasquillo, who had planned to make a career out of the service, said that if he had his choice, he'd still "be out there with the guys."

His wife, Jenny, said Carrasquillo felt like he "didn't fit" after he was injured. He was basically a "shut in." Now the two are talking about having a family.

After strapping on his heavy scuba gear and working out wrinkles on his wetsuit, Carrasquillo gave his wife a kiss and made his way into the lake water. "All right, babe," he told her.

Carrasquillo gave credit to his peers for helping him become social again.

"Now, I'm here with 50 other warriors who know what I've been through; they've been that light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

"This is my group therapy," he added. "It's healthy. I shudder to think where I'd be without programs like this. I'd still be a shut in."

mtcallahan@mcall.com

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