Racing Unser family teaches wounded soldiers at Fort Bliss to scuba dive

Diving instructors with the Cody Unser First Step Foundation introduce wounded soldiers from the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Bliss to the sport of scuba diving.


By DAVID BURGE | El Paso Times, Texas | Published: May 5, 2014

FORT BLISS, Texas — The famous racing Unser family of New Mexico has seen firsthand the power of the sport of scuba diving and its healing effects for the disabled.

Last week, Shelley Unser and a team of diving instructors with the Cody Unser First Step Foundation visited Fort Bliss to spread the word to wounded warriors at the Warrior Transition Battalion.

They gave two introductory scuba sessions to wounded, injured and ill soldiers at the Replica Aquatic Center and plan to come back at least three more times this spring and summer to do additional sessions.

Unser credits scuba diving with preventing her daughter, Cody, from sinking into despair and giving up after Cody became paralyzed from the chest down at age 12 from a rare condition known as transverse myelitis.

Cody Unser is the granddaughter of Al Unser Sr. and daughter of Al Unser Jr., racing legends who hail from Albuquerque.

Cody has used scuba to stay active and keep her spirits up, said Shelley Unser, Cody's mother and the ex-wife of Al Unser Jr. Cody Unser is now 27 years old and going to school at George Washington University, where she is working on a master's degree in public health.

"I watched scuba diving save my daughter's life," Shelley Unser said. "I believe this will help these guys (wounded soldiers) recover from some of the psychological war wounds that they've suffered and get them re-engaged back into life."

The foundation teamed up with Johns Hopkins University to do a neurological and psychological study of the effects of scuba diving. A key finding showed that participants who dove during a four-day period showed an 80 percent to 100 percent reduction in post-traumatic stress symptoms for at least six weeks, Unser said.

Unser is hoping once soldiers are introduced to scuba, they will take it up as a lifelong sport they can do with their families.

Scuba diving is "the great equalizer" and water can help to negate the effects of whatever injuries a soldier is suffering from, she said.

"If your brother was injured and he came back (from war), you could do this with him," she said.

Cody Unser saw young veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from physical and psychological wounds, her mother said.

"She said, 'They are my age; I want to help them,'" Shelly Unser said.

The Cody Unser First Step Foundation was started in 1999, originally to spread awareness about transverse myelitis. Its scuba diving program is its "quality-of-life" initiative, Shelley Unser said. The foundation has been working with veterans since 2007.

"Cody's motto is 'Changing lives one dive at a time,'" her mother said.

Scuba diving is the "new therapy" for anyone who is suffering from a wound or injury, Shelly Unser said.

Unser said she is hoping to get permission from the Army to expand her foundation's relationship with Fort Bliss and later take wounded soldiers to Balmorhea State Park near the Davis Mountains in West Texas, have them dive in open water there and get them certified in the sport of scuba, she said.

Casey Harthorn was the lead instructor on the dive team that the Unser foundation brought to Fort Bliss.

Wounded soldiers benefit from scuba because they are concentrating so much on learning to breathe under water that "a lot of their worldly troubles go away," said Harthorn, a retired Air Force master sergeant who lives in Las Cruces.

Scuba also has been shown to vastly improve the symptoms from post-traumatic stress, he added.

"They think a lot of it is the oxygenation part of it," he said, noting that you have to breathe deeply and slowly to be able to do scuba.

Marc Cattapan, adaptive sports coordinator for the Fort Bliss Warrior Transition Battalion, said the Unser foundation will be back later this month and again in June and July to introduce more wounded soldiers to scuba.

Being weightless in the water makes the sport perfect for wounded soldiers to participate in, Cattapan said.

"They are weightless so a lot of their injuries won't affect them as severely as on land," Cattapan said. "It's basically a gentle sport and adapts really well to an injured body."

Getting involved in scuba can get wounded soldiers moving, keep their joints lubricated and can even help to alleviate pain, Cattapan said.

"The more motion you can get in a body when you are recovering from an injury, illness or being wounded, the better off you will be," he said.

Sgt. 1st Class Ernesto Jimenez, a 35-year-old native of Stockton, Calif., has two degenerative disks where his neck and back meet, resulting from the constant wear and tear of being in the Army. He also suffers from vertigo.

Jimenez was certified in scuba when he was stationed in Kuwait but hadn't done the sport for several years. He was one of a handful of wounded and injured soldiers who participated at last week's scuba sessions.

"It was really great," he said. Jimenez said he will bring his wife to the next scuba session that the Unser foundation gives at the installation, so they can do the sport together.

Scuba has definite benefits for soldiers who are suffering from wounds or injuries, Jimenez said.

"You are so buoyant in the water," he said. "You are so loose. It doesn't put any restrictions on you. You can move around freely and you don't feel the weight. You can be in there all day long and not worry about pain. The only thing I have to worry about is shriveling up like a raisin."

Learn more

•The Cody Unser First Step Foundation will return to Fort Bliss on May 12, June 16 and July 14 to give more introductory scuba sessions at the Replica Aquatic Center, 5035 Dickman Road.

•The program is open to wounded, injured and ill soldiers assigned to the Warrior Transition Battalion, the battalion's staff and family members age 10 and older.

•To register, contact Marc Cattapan, adaptive sports coordinator with the Warrior Transition Battalion, at marc.a.cattapan.ctr@mail.mil.

•To learn more about the Unser foundation or make a donation, visit codysfirststep.org or email cufsf@aol.com.

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