Two weeks of diving for injured veterans and others with mobile disabilities
“Physically, nothing hurts when I’m underwater. I feel natural. When I’m diving I’m just like everybody else. And mentally, because it’s so peaceful down there, it helps me to calm down and relaxes me,” said Retired Army Captain Marlene Krpata three years ago after diving the reefs off Cayman Brac. A far cry from the battleground where she led a team daily to locate and destroy improvised Explosive devices (IEDs). However, it was a mortar attack on her base camp that caused severe injuries to her leg resulting in numerous surgeries; the last of which was amputation.
Now an avid diver who lives in San Diego and dives Catalina Island, Hawaii, and even Fiji, she loves to return to Cayman Brac.
“If you are a super calm diver, the fish can be playful, not intimidated. I was diving the Tibbetts Shipwreck and this fish bolted towards me and was face to face with me; he watched me and I watched him, and that makes a dive super enjoyable, and that’s the only place I have experienced a true connection with nature.”
This June Krpata will be on Cayman Brac to enjoy what she calls the “Zen” of diving with a diving community of friends, some injured military, others dealing with paralysis due to accident or disease, other mainstream divers; brought together by the Dive Pirates Foundation.
During the month of June Cayman Airways will see its share of Dive Pirates coming and going, with two scheduled week-long trips to Cayman Brac involving new and returning divers with disabilities who were introduced to the sport through this foundation that offers diving through adaptive scuba.
“Our approach is to look at what skills an adaptive diver can do on his or her own, and then pair that person with a dive buddy who can assist in those skills that individual needs assistance with while creating a safe open water buddy team,” explained operations director Charley Oxley. “This year we are bringing 12 new adaptive diver recipients to SCUBA dive the warm waters surrounding Cayman Brac while six other past recipients with disabilities are joining us as they want to enjoy diving with like-minded divers who understand the water levels the playing field, and gives them freedom to move.”
Oxley used to be a dive master with Reef Divers II before returning to the states to pursue a nursing career. She joins many professionals who donate their vacation time and talents to provide this diving opportunity for recipients of the Dive Pirates Foundation; now in its 13th year of accepting applicants and providing dive training and fundraising to share this sport with those who have lost some degree of mobility.
“Cayman Brac is ideal for us to share diving with people in wheelchairs, individuals who have amputations, or other circumstances that limits their mobility, because the waters are so very calm, and the reefs are brilliant, you know they will have an unforgettable diving experience,” Oxley continued. “Add that to an accommodating airline (Cayman Airways), a very accessible and welcoming resort (Cayman Brac Beach Resort), and a fantastic dive shop (Reef Divers II) who goes above and beyond to work with our divers, and what you have is an annual trip that keeps getting bigger and better.”
For Krpata, she loves the diving, but she has connected to this group of divers like family.
“We have two things that tie us together, one is we have to learn to live with a disability, the other is the love of diving and water; so there is a respect there that binds us, it creates that esprit de corps, that family of brothers and sisters, people you trust all around you… and this will be my fourth trip and I have developed some great bonds, so a week of diving stress free with this togetherness, around meals, around the pool, fills me with something I really miss from being in the military.”
Krpata says she still battles with PTSD, and revels in the world under water.
“PTSD is always with you, to be able to go under the water, you don’t have the chaotic movement, the chaotic noise, you always have someone who talks too loud, the car that darts in and out, under water the only thing you hear is the breathing in and out of the regulator, to watch the easiness of motion of the wildlife, in and out of the coral, everything is just moving a long, and that peacefulness… you just start living in the moment, and probably living in the moment is the best way to stay relaxed, take it all in.”
The Dive Pirates Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing scuba diving to persons with disabilities and joining them with the mainstream of divers. Its vision is to create a community of adaptive divers that will dive and travel in the mainstream world of scuba diving through education and overcoming obstacles. For more information about the Foundation or to donate go to www.divepirates.org.