For Marine Corps veteran and Paralyzed Veterans of America member Joey Avellone, the thought of scuba diving in the ocean struck up some fear that it could elicit the memories of the life-changing accident that left him paralyzed.
Paralyzed veteran Joey Avellone and Charley Wright, a recreational therapist at the Jefferson Barracks VAMC. Photo by Dwight Tungett.
Joey was specializing in rescue swimming in the Marine Combat Water Survival Swimming School, when on April 1, 2001, he was accidentally paralyzed from the waist down while trying to save a fellow Marine who fell into the water during a training exercise in Hawaii.
“The last time I was in the ocean, I was praying to God for someone to save me,” Joey said. “But this experience was nothing like that at all. As soon as I got under there, I was totally one with the water.”
Joey was one of nine disabled veterans who traveled to Cozumel, Mexico in mid-August 2013 as part of LifeWaters Scuba, an adaptive scuba diving group run through the Jefferson Barracks VA Medical Center in St. Louis, Mo. The nine veterans joined three other disabled divers as well as several other veterans and representatives from eight states and three countries, making for the largest group LifeWaters has taken to Cozumel thus far.
Charley Wright, along with his wife, Jodi Paniagua, both therapists at the Jefferson Barracks VA, started the LifeWaters program as a nonprofit 12 years ago while working at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, AZ. The program guides potential disabled divers through a process – from medical checks to training to certification. “The trip to Cozumel is the crescendo of the program,” Wright said.
This year’s Cozumel dive trip included the help of three sponsors: H.E.R.O.E.S. Care, the Veterans United Foundation and the Royal Order of the U.S. Military P38 Can Opener Association, which collectively donated $11,000 to help finance the disabled divers’ trips.
Most of the disabled divers completed 10 to 11 dives, each roughly an hour in duration, even despite some bumps and bruises. Joey, for example, broke his thumb on the spoke of his wheelchair on the first day of diving, and while the injury made it difficult for him to hold his nose to equalize or clear his ears, he continued to press on, even closing out the week with a special opportunity to swim with dolphins.
“It’s a Marine Corps trick: mind over matter,” Joey said. “If you don’t mind, then it doesn’t matter. The only thing that mattered to me was getting down deep enough to see all that the ocean had to offer.”
LifeWaters plans to expand the program next year from two boats to three, which will open up the program to 15 disabled divers. The trip, which will take place June 7-14, 2014, has already filled up. Fifteen is the max amount of disabled divers the group will ever take on the trip, in large part because of the level of support involved, including medical staff and one to two buddy divers to accompany each disabled diver, Wright said.
The group will take two additional trips next year to the Atlanta Aquarium, which houses the largest tank in the world, for disabled veterans who may not be able to make the full trip to Cozumel.
“Self confidence among our disabled divers is huge at the end of these trips,” Wright said. “What they’ve completed is pretty awesome. We pull in as a team, yet we’re beyond a team; we’re a family.”
Read more about Paralyzed Veterans of America members
Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.