British servicemen seriously wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq are on the mend in a pioneering underwater healing programme in Florida
Twelve divers are suspended in a semi-circle over pale sand, a few yards from the ribs of a wrecked sailing ship. Six of them are younger than the others. The one next to me is the only diver not wearing a wetsuit. He is a big fellow who looks like an athlete gone to seed. His legs, chest and his left shoulder are webbed with scars. I had seen them before the dive, as we sat on the rocking boat in the early morning sun, but now the refracting underwater light has turned the scar tissue a startling white. All six of the younger men have scarred limbs. One has a prosthetic leg; the diving fin attached to it bends down at an awkward angle.
The man next to me has tattoos where there are no scars, and they too stand out clearly in the water. On his left calf is the “soldier’s cross” — a helmet, rifle and boots — above the legend “Al Anbar 06-07”. Another tattoo makes clear he is a US marine, as is the stocky young man with the prosthetic leg. The man next to him is a British Royal Marine commando. The remaining three are all British soldiers from the Royal Anglians, an infantry regiment that has seen some of the fiercest fighting in Afghanistan.
The four British and two American servicemen are here, off the coast of the Florida Keys, not for adventure training, or on holiday, but as part of a revolutionary recovery programme. Deptherapy’s proponents believe it offers extraordinarily powerful physical and psychological benefits to those who have been injured in combat. For one thing, the weightlessness experienced while scuba diving offers relief from pain. It can also provide amputees and even quadriplegics with a freedom to move that they lack on land. It especially helps the complicated combinations of injuries caused by IEDs.Deptherapy staff also believe that diving with enriched air can speed the healing of internal infection.
They had a parade for us. There was a fly-past by F-16 jets from the local airbase. It was unbelievable
Although deptherapy was developed in Florida and most of its beneficiaries have been American troops, it is the brainchild of a Briton. Born in Edinburgh, Fraser Bathgate, 49, is a pioneer of disabled diving.
He was one of Scotland’s most promising young climbers when he was paralysed below the waist in a fall at the age of 23. Five years later, he became the first wheelchair-bound man ever to qualify as a diving instructor.
The experience freed him of the depression that had stalked him since losing the use of his lower body. Over the last two decades, he has trained hundreds of instructors in the techniques and technology of disabled diving.
His work with veterans began five years ago, initially just with US servicemen. It was only after Bathgate met Royal Marine Lance-Corporal Matt Croucher GC that British troops started to come on the biannual trips to Key Largo.
Croucher, 27, was awarded the George Cross after throwing himself on a Taliban grenade in Afghanistan to save his comrades. He was part of the first deptherapy trip to include Britons, and has come on several since. He helps to raise funds for the flights to Florida. Once there, the men’s lodging, food, dives and activities are paid for by the Key Largo community.
I meet the Anglians and the American marines on this trip as they train in a Key Largo pool. Each man has at least one instructor with him in the water, while Bathgate watches from his wheelchair. Most of them are already turning red in the sun. They have been in town for less than a day, but the Anglians are in a state of mild shock. At Miami airport, four uniformed police officers had whisked them through passport control and customs, ahead of startled first-class passengers. They were then taken to meet the local head of Homeland Security and Customs, toasted with Cuban coffees, and given a two-car police escort.
They arrived to a huge barbecue thrown for “wounded warriors” at Rib Daddy’s restaurant in Key Largo. Croucher has experienced this welcome several times, but still marvels at it: “They’re more patriotic for Britain than we are at home!” He laughs. On his first trip “it had been announced on the radio that British soldiers were coming, and they had a parade for us, and people lining the streets for miles, waving Union Jacks. There was a fly-past by F-16 jets from the local airbase. It was unbelievable.”
The diving instructors, all volunteers, are carefully selected. They must be able to deal with the anger-management issues of soldiers with post-traumatic stress, as well as the technical challenges of handicapped diving. Most are ex-servicemen themselves. Bathgate’s deputy, Richard Cullen, 60, who runs the vital pastoral side of the programme, is not a veteran, but he is not exactly a “civvy” either. A burly former officer in the Metropolitan Police, he once led anti-terrorist and riot control units. Here, as one of the highest-qualified diving instructors, he accompanies the soldier with the most serious internal injuries on the dives.
That soldier is Arron Dindyal, 29. He served in the Royal Anglians for seven years, but left the “very supportive” regiment this spring. After being caught in a mortar attack in Iraq in 2005, Dindyal developed ulcerative colitis. This resulted in the loss of his large intestine, half his small intestine and part of his spleen. Some of the missing organs have been replaced with artificial piping, but Dindyal is still in constant pain. He flew to Key Largo for deptherapy last year: “It was the first time I’ve been pain-free in four years,” he says, “but I think I benefited mentally more than physically. It saved my marriage, coming out here. My wife said I was a different person.”
Private Owen Pick, who lost his right leg, is lowered into the water (Stephen Frink)Private Owen Pick, 19, was wounded last year in Afghanistan, and had his right leg amputated last month. His section had been clearing a compound in Helmand province when a mine shattered his leg. His friend Private Kevin Pryke, 25, was on an earlier deployment in Afghanistan in 2007.
During a fierce battle, Pryke, laden with full kit and weapon, carried a wounded comrade on his shoulder some 600 metres. He declined to be considered for a medal as he was “just doing my job”. On another mission, he smashed his knee against a rock while heavily laden. Pryke is waiting to have his entire kneecap replaced, though he is keen to get back to full duty.
Several of the divers use a new motorised propulsion device called a Pegasus Thruster to propel them. Small, lightweight and resembling a coffee grinder, it attaches to the back of an air tank. Jeremy Stengel, the US marine with the prosthetic leg, says that whenever he uses it he “can hear the James Bond theme” in his head.
Stengel admits he was suicidal before his first deptherapy trip two years ago. He had been wounded in an IED explosion in Iraq that killed two other marines. As well as the damage to both of his legs, leading to the amputation of one of them, he suffered a broken back — which had to be rebroken and straightened — and also lost his spleen. For two years he had to use a colostomy bag.
It really has been such a life-altering experience. As soon as I go in the water I become a completely changed guy
“It’s such a great day when you can take a shit like a normal human being,” Stengel says drily, sitting at one of the Key Largo bars. “For me, deptherapy really has been such a complete life-altering experience. Before I got involved I just sat in my room. By the end of the trip I was going out and doing things again. As soon as I go in the water, I become a completely changed guy.” Why is diving so psychologically powerful? Partly it is the yoga-like concentration required, the way you have to focus on and calm your breathing. Drew Richardson, president of Padi (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) the world’s largest scuba organisation, who accompanied the soldiers, believes it is the “immersion in an alien, hostile environment, encounters with undersea life” and “the three-dimensional sensory experience of diving that helps these kids feel human again”.
One of the project’s key backers and patrons is Dr David Williamson, a leading authority on traumatic brain injury, based at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland. Williamson, originally from Scotland, says many aspects of deptherapy work wonders — “from the physics of the diving environment, to the peer support and camaraderie”. He is equally enthusiastic about the way that diving fulfils emotional and psychological needs. “Rehabilitation is about getting back to normal life. These are very active guys; these are warriors and athletes, they are looking for stimulation and challenge.”
But as Fraser Bathgate is quick to point out, the diving “is only half of the programme”. The men’s interaction “with this extraordinary community”, and with each other, plays a considerable part in their recuperation. Key Largo is an unpretentious small town whose patriotism is proclaimed by “Support Our Troops” banners and bumper stickers. On the troops’ second night in town, the six are dinner guests of the local lodge of the Loyal Order of Moose. Over the next few evenings they are hosted by Key Largo’s branches of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).
Everywhere the men go, people come up to thank them. At the VFW bar, Bathgate watches the Anglians mix with locals, some of whom look like extras in a biker film. Though their hosts can be a good four decades older, the conversation flows freely. “For our guys this is such a good thing,” he says.“They are being looked after and they are being thanked. In Britain the closest thing to that was Wootton Bassett. That was fantastic, but by then, of course, it is too late.”
The British soldiers are bemused but happy to be bought drinks. “I’ve never been bought a drink before by a stranger, except at the Royal British Legion,” one tells me. In the evenings, after their barbecues with local organisations, the wounded warriors hit the bars and tell war stories. At one bar there is dancing. Owen Pick, a dance enthusiast, watches the floor. I wonder how his own dancing will be once his leg has been replaced. He is cool about his imminent operation. “It’s the squaddie mentality,” he explains. “You just get on with things.” Like the other Anglians, he would like to get back on the front line.
All of the men joke about their injuries: they threaten to buy Owen a pirate hat to go with his peg leg; they tell Arron he should get body armour to keep his guts in. The gallows humour seems to seal a solidarity in the combined Anglo-American group. Croucher believes the programme restores lost camaraderie: “It gives the guys back something that they’ve been missing since they have been injured.” He also sees how they inspire each other. Many decide afterwards to get involved with counselling other injured men, or, like Kevin Pryke, decide to become diving instructors themselves.
Often there comes a point when a wounded man unburdens himself to another. Bathgate points out that “both the Americans and Brits are more likely to open up to the other than to their fellow countrymen”. It was Matt Croucher who first picked this up. He noticed that a US marine who had lost both legs “spent 90% of the time talking to a British marine”.
Towards the end of the week, the British troops invite the US marines over to Britain for Remembrance Sunday. “I am really happy they are coming,” says Dindyal, “but part of me worries that we’ll be embarrassed, as the reception they’ll get from the locals won’t be anything like the treatment we are getting here.”