Diving to heal the wounds of war

Story by Elizabeth M. Collins, Soldiers magazine


Captain David McRaney spent much of his 2010 deployment to Afghanistan looking forward to one thing: learning to scuba dive with his wife, Jennifer, in Australia. She was already certified and it would be an activity they could do together.

His dream seemed gone forever when, shortly after dinnertime on Labor Day, Forward Operating Base Howz-e Madad in southern Afghanistan came under attack from small arms fire and rocket propelled grenades. Although McRaney’s background is infantry, he had deployed as a support officer for the Logistics Civil Augmentation Program, and was serving as a liaison between the Army and contractors responsible for expanding the base and providing basic services. He shared quarters with the contractors and guarded the their bunker entrance throughout the 45-minute attack. Then a mortar hit a barrier about 10 feet from him, killing three contractors, blowing out McRaney’s right eardrum and spraying shrapnel into his right arm, his right eye – and his brain.

He doesn’t remember much after that, only hearing “a roaring sound almost and being thrown to the side. The next thing I remember doing, I was on my hands and knees and I couldn’t see. I had blood pouring down in my eyes. I took off my glasses … and they were totally just gone. The lenses were completely blown out of them. I was able to stand up, and with help, I was able to walk to the aid station.

“They don’t know how. I have shrapnel in the right temporal lobe and the cerebellum. A lot of times, if you have cerebellum damage, you have to learn how to walk all over again, but … apparently I just don’t use my head that much. The parts that were hurt? I wasn’t using them,” he joked, adding that he went on to have “kind of a discussion, I wouldn’t call it an argument” with a medic at the aid station. A registered nurse back home in Georgia, McRaney didn’t think the medic was applying a tourniquet to his arm correctly.

His wife who is also a nurse, with a background in trauma care, argued with doctors and nurses throughout his long recovery, prepared to fight for the therapies and procedures she knew would be best for her husband. “We started calling ourselves the ‘Damn McRaneys’ because that’s kind of how we felt: ‘Yup. The Damn McRaneys are back.’ I wish everybody had an advocate like that. It’s been very hard to watch other people who don’t have any idea of what to fight for and just kind of go along in the system. You want to take care of everybody,” she said.

McRaney was terrified to be alone those first few weeks he was in the hospital, Jennifer said, adding that she felt guilty anytime she left his side, even to eat. He needed six surgeries to remove the shrapnel from his arm, a rusting fragment of metal from his eye and the largest piece from his brain. The smaller fragments were too deep, and if surgeons had removed them, McRaney might never have walked again. As it was, he needed vision therapy and speech therapy to help him with his stutter and finding words, something he still struggles with when he’s tired. He also, his wife said, has a terrible memory.

All of that disappears when he’s under water.

Disappointed that he never got to take his diving trip to Australia, McRaney signed up for Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba as soon as his doctors cleared him. Founded by John Thompson at the now-closed Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington in 2005, the program helps wounded warriors become certified in different types of scuba. Thompson said diving can act as physical therapy and a confidence builder. McRaney added that the classes and studying required for certification mentally challenged him, helping his brain to heal.

“It’s a definite confidence booster,” Thompson said, explaining that he often has Soldiers in the pool within four months of their injuries. “A lot of these guys, when they come back with these severe injuries, they go to a dark place, but then they see, ‘You know what? I can scuba dive and I can do it just as well as anybody else.’ It can be a catalyst for other opportunities that they may have.

“You’re down under water and you don’t have any sounds going on … a lot of these guys are coming from combat with a lot of stuff going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s just a very tranquil, peaceful environment down below and being down there with all the marine life. They’re in an anti-gravity environment. … We have a young man who’s … missing both of his legs above the knee and he’s in a wheelchair, but right now he’s not in a wheelchair. He’s down there diving just like everyone else. It’s very therapeutic.”

McRaney agreed, explaining that his “new normal” means he’s often reluctant to leave the house. With an injury that makes it all but impossible to return to the nursing job he loved, he said diving is the only activity he’s good at doing.

“It just feels really nice, when … there’s a bunch of civilians around and they’re all talking about where they’ve been diving and stuff, and they get in the water and you start seeing them dive and … they look like they’re spazzing out under water. They can’t swim right,” McRaney said. “They don’t have good buoyancy and I’m just gliding along. It just feels good to be good at something again. It’s been awhile. I used to be a really good nurse, and I’m just not anymore. I was really depressed up until I finally started getting in the pool and working on my skills.”

“He’s so much better at it than I am,” added Jennifer.

McRaney has now dived off the coasts of Bonaire, Puerto Rico, Cuba and North Carolina. His most unique dive, however, is probably his most recent: On a Sunday afternoon in June, he joined nine other wounded warriors at the National Aquarium in Baltimore as they glided through a shadowy, soothing world, swimming with moray eels, angelfish, zebra sharks, rays and even a 450-pound sea turtle called Calypso, an amputee herself.

They had been invited on the special dive in the aquarium’s Atlantic Coral Reef and Wings in the Water exhibits for the second year in a row as part of a collaboration between SUDS, the aquarium and the Coast Guard. It was, according to organizers and participants, a huge success. Their prosthetics hidden beneath wetsuits, their traumatic brain injuries temporarily forgotten, the injured veterans were buoyant, as able-bodied as any of the volunteers who accompanied them.

“The physical limitations that they may have on land evaporate once they hit the water,” said Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Jeffrey Charlot, who arranged Coast Guard and Department of Defense support for the event. “The gravity, the weight, the limitations of maybe missing a leg, maybe missing two legs, those are all gone. Once you hit the water and you’re neutrally buoyant, you are as physical as everybody else in the water. You have the same limitations (as an able-bodied diver), none of the restrictions (of your injury). It completely frees up a wounded diver to get outside of him or herself and simply observe and enjoy the environment around them.”

The wounded warriors received specialty aquarium diver certifications after the dive, but the highlight for most, including McRaney, was the chance to pet Calypso, who seems to feel a special kinship with her fellow amputees. During last year’s dive, Charlot remembered, she singled out a double amputee, and “Calypso, for some reason, loved this man. She swam over and sat down on his lap and held him in place and he just scratched her belly. It was exactly like a dog, like a 500-pound dog.”

“She gets around just fine, like most of the guys I know,” McRaney pointed out, saying he wasn’t about to pass up opportunity to pet her. “That’s really neat. In the wild I’ve seen a couple, but they don’t come up to you at all. That was something special.”

And that diving trip to Australia? McRaney is planning to go in the next couple of years, but unlike the aquarium, whether he sees any wildlife is totally up to chance. It’s OK, though, because, as he said, “I just like being in the water. It doesn’t matter what it’s like.”

To learn more about Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba, visit http://sudsdiving.org/.

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