Wounded warriors tend to ailing coral reefs off Florida coast

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Joe Deslauriers works with researchers from Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory to develop a new prosthetic arm.


By JENNY STALETOVICH | Miami Herald (TNS) | Published: June 25, 2015

(Tribune News Service) — When he goes for a dive, these are the things that Joe Deslauriers worries about: If he goes too deep, his body will contract and his prosthesis may loosen and, because he has no legs and only one arm, he tends to work harder and use more air.

One thing he doesn’t sweat is his wife.

“I used to disarm bombs, so she doesn’t really worry about me diving,” said Deslauriers, a former U.S. Air Force master sergeant who was clearing roadside bombs in Afghanistan’s bloody Helmand province in September 2011 when he stepped on a mine.

Deslauriers joined two other veterans, Jeff Glasser and David Williams, Wednesday in an expedition led by Nova Southeastern University’s reef restoration program to replant endangered staghorn coral off a beach in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Organized by South Florida-based DiveBar, a dive group for lawyers, and Diveheart, a global organization that assists disabled divers, the outing was part of a new program aimed at drawing attention to the region’s ailing reefs by providing new caretakers: wounded vets.

“The underwater world is very forgiving for people with disabilities,” said Jim Elliott, founder and president of Diveheart. “You put them in the water and you gotta look real hard to see who has a disability.”

Deslauriers, for one, never expected to find himself tending to a coral nursery at the bottom of the sea.

A defensive lineman in college, Deslauriers joined the Air Force in November 1997 after an injury sidelined him. He volunteered for the dangerous explosive ordinance disposal unit because he was offered a bonus and a higher rank.

“It was kind of an immature choice, which turned out to be the greatest choice of my life,” he said. “Even though I’m like this, I never regret any of it.”

During the two years he spent recovering at Walter Reed Medical Center, Deslauriers underwent dozens of surgeries: multiple operations removed painful bone growth in his amputated legs and a hole the blast left in his eardrum was patched. Doctors performed three or four surgeries on his amputated arm. He also suffered repeated blood infections. The day President Barack Obama visited him in the fall of 2011, Deslauriers said he was attached to an IV bag getting a transfusion.

But Deslauriers, like Glasser and Williams, always expected to stay active and was introduced to diving at Walter Reed through a Diveheart program.

Glasser, a U.S. Army infantryman injured in a motorcycle crash on leave in Boca Raton, Fla., in 2005, started diving with Diveheart four years ago.

Both men say the underwater world offers a kind of freedom they can’t find on dry land.

“It’s like walking on the moon. You don’t have anything holding you down,” Glasser said.

The men’s disabilities determine what kind of help they get from their dive buddies. To help propel themselves through the water, Glasser and Williams, who are paralyzed below the waist, use webbed gloves. Deslauriers moves more slowly using his powerful right arm.

As the three worked on the coral nurseries, a challenge for any diver with Wednesday’s strong current, their buddies helped keep them position.

Nova started constructing the nursery in 2010 to regrow endangered staghorn coral that once blanketed area reefs but started disappearing in the 1980s, following disease outbreaks, warm water bleaching events and other stresses generated by pollution and heavy boat traffic. The nursery, said Nova marine biologist David Gilliam, helps researchers try to figure out what’s happening to sick coral while providing new coral to transplant on reefs. So far, researchers have transplanted more than 4,000 colonies at 14 different sites, he said.

The nurseries include coral “trees’’ and racks, with tiny colonies either epoxied — researchers use a quick-drying marine cement — or secured with fishing line.

“They’re subjected to the same hazards as the natural population,” Gilliam explained. “So you’re not going to see a thousand year-old thicket.”

Diveheart team leader Wilhelmina Stanton remained alongside Glasser as he cruised over beds of staghorn transplanted on a reef by the Nova team last year. Glasser, who has worked with Diveheart to help train divers, said he usually tells partners not to touch him unless he asks.

“If they’re on top of you, it takes away from the independence and the good feeling,” he said.

Glasser recruited Williams, whom he met skiing in Colorado. Just last weekend, Williams, who was injured while stationed in Japan, completed seven open water dives in two days in Key Largo to prepare for Wednesday’s expedition.

Most of the work happens before the dive, said Jack Weiss, 17, who was certified at 11 and recently became a buddy for disabled divers. Beforehand, divers will usually work out a plan and figure out what help they may need, whether it’s equalizing ears on a descent or keeping balanced, he said. In training, divers act out different scenarios they might encounter — emergency ascents or empty air tanks — and role play to understand the difficulties disabled divers experience.

Wednesday’s rough swells felled more than one diver. Halfway through the second dive, Deslauriers had to surface when he got sick. Dive buddy Eric Boos surfaced too, locked his knees against Deslauriers’ tank and pulled him back to keep his head up to prevent him from sucking in water. Deslauriers took the seasickness in stride.

“I got more in me,” he shouted, when others would have whimpered. Back on deck, he joked, “It was just watermelon and Pepsi.”

Elliott, who has been training adaptive divers for more than a decade, said achieving buoyancy — when divers can rise and ascend simply by breathing — is the critical “astronaut” moment they work hardest to teach divers. He also said his disabled divers tend to be better students than his able-bodied divers.

“They do things every day that we take for granted,” he said. “Their heads are in the game.”

©2015 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Joe Deslauriers, an explosive ordnance disposal technician from the 1st Special Operations Civil Engineer Squadron, speaks during a ceremony at the Pentagon, Nov. 14, 2012. Deslauriers received the Silver Star for gallantry in action.

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