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On site: A week diving with SUDS and our military heroes

(DiverWire) Contributing writer Dawn Callahan is a big supporter of SUDS. She just returned from a trip to Turks & Caicos. Here’s her first-person re-cap of the week.

This was perhaps the most extraordinary dive trip I’d had even been on.  The azure water was the perfect temperature, the beautiful sea life abound, the tropical scenery was fantastic.  However, all of those reasons is not what made this trip so special.  It was the group of divers I was privileged to accompany on their trip to Turks & Caicos.  Six very special men who belong to the organization SUDS, Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba, came on this trip to improve their diving skills, where they first became certified a few years ago at Walter Reed Hospital, after being injured in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The nonprofit organization is funded by donations and the generosity of people who believe in the work SUDS is doing to facilitate the rehabilitation program conducted in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) at Bethesda.

Arriving in Provo, the excitement began just knowing this is a tropical island known for its fantastic diving and local nightlife.  Mostly, it was a trip that has been anticipated to going on for a long time. My involvement with SUDS began years earlier, however this was the first time I would experience spending a week with the injured veterans diving.

The purpose of this trip was to train four of the divers to their AOW certifications and two of the divers were on an alumni trip, already certified in their AOW.

The first dive was to acclimate the divers to the water, check buoyancy, all the basics we like to do after a lapse in diving activities, which went flawlessly.  The second dive would set the tone and was something I will never forget and it has changed me forever.  As we descended, the first animal we saw was a large, fat barracuda.  We descended all around him and he didn’t move, probably curious about all of these intruders entering into his realm.  Before long, the first Caribbean Reef Shark arrived off in the distance, keeping a curious eye on what was occurring.  Before long, another arrived into the area and the two began coming closer, circling the group of eleven of us.  In my past, I have seen divers, including myself, cautiously watch sharks circling around. However, what I witnessed was dramatic.

The divers began to swim and interact with the sharks.  There was an emotional epiphany at that moment.  These were men who faced danger everyday during their time spent in the wars, and had suffered injuries far worse than these sharks could inflict on them, they seemed fearless.  Bravery at its finest, it was drawing me in, I don’t believe I have ever been face to face with any shark, yet the courage was addictive. The entire dive was spent with the sharks, totaling four.

That night we headed into town to celebrate at “The Sharkbite” restaurant, very appropriate after the day we had spent together. There we were lucky to meet up with a longtime supporter of SUDS, Cindy Howard, owner of DJ DiveLocker in Lyle, IL who happen to be in Provo. Great times were had by all.

The days continues aboard the “Provo Challenger” as we were diving with Dive Provo  This shop was a great selection for this trip as it accommodated and was supportive of our divers.  Each day, the boat was for only our group, so not only did we get great service from the crew, dives were specifically focused on our group’s needs.  The next three days of diving sites were spent in the French Cay and West Cay areas, which were an hour or more to get there.  The boat ride there was worth it.  Sites included “Driveway”, “Double D”, “The Crack” and “Galley” among others were spent with beautiful, interactive Caribbean sharks, as well as large groupers, nurse sharks, turtles, and a wide variety of colorful sort and hard coral, honeycomb trunkfish, Arrow crab, flamingo tongue and many other indigenous animals of the Caribbean area. And of course, the Lionfish.

Ian van Walleghem was instrumental in making this trip possible.  A resident and long time friend of one of the SUDS instructor Carson, lives on the island and was able to arrange for a luxury home on the beach donated for the week for all of us to stay in, which made the trip even more special.  His generosity didn’t stop there as he served as the host of the group during the week.  People like him are instrumental in making the SUDS program successful. With a combination of skill learning and exploring with the guys, it was an experience always to cherish.  Having seen my work and involvement in realtime, it has been worth every minute.  SUDS President John Thompson has given Dan, Dave, Marco, Tyler, Tom and Derick, six of the many injured veterans an opportunity to explore a new course for their lives, physically and spiritually.  To be a part of this has also added a new facet to my life and diving with these men has made me proud to be a part of their experience.

Just knowing that I am participating in changing lives and seeing it happen is a blessing.

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