As a retired Army veteran of 21 years and many deployments, I was struggling to keep control of my life. My PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) had gotten progressively worse and I was having great difficulty dealing with life as a civilian. Then in 2015 I discovered scuba diving and my life started to change. Underwater was my safe place where I could get away and not worry about anything other than what I was doing. I was hooked and started diving every chance I could, moving through various courses until I was a divemaster. I was happy while diving but still felt distanced from the civilian community and felt alone in my struggles.
Then one day I read an article about Diving with Heroes and their mission. I immediately reached out to them to thank them for what they were doing for our veterans and offered any assistance I could provide. A few months later, I was on a trip with them to Útila, Honduras. I was both excited at the opportunity to dive a new destination and to hopefully help a few fellow veterans as well. I never expected this trip to impact my life in such a positive manner. The diving itself was amazing, but even better was being back around my fellow veterans and an organization that truly cared about us and the sacrifices we all made during our time in the military. We all had an opportunity to share our stories about our time in the military and in my case, to share how much diving was helping me. Hearing my fellow veterans’ stories, I realized that I was not alone and that together we can move forward with our lives. I was able to help with some of the dive training during the trip and help some of the newer divers during our dives. Being back around my fellow veterans and having the opportunity to share my love of diving was the spark I needed to start moving my life in the right direction. I left the trip with a bunch of new friends and a new outlook on life.
Several months later, I had an opportunity get back together with Diving with Heroes and dive at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. My wife came along on the trip and had an opportunity to meet many of the people she had heard so much about. During a get together shortly after we arrived, we were all looking through a slideshow of the trip we had been on. A picture of me on the dive boat came up and my wife mentioned that she actually had a copy of the picture blown up and framed next to our bed. She went on to say it was her favorite picture of me because she believed in was the happiest she had seen me in a very long time. As I listened to my wife speak and looked around at the folks we were with, I realized that she was right. I was the happiest I had been in as long as I could remember, and Diving with Heroes was a huge part of my happiness. For me, the Diving with Heroes team is more than an organization trying to help our veterans, they are family and not a day goes by that I don’t think about the team and the amazing people I have met through them. I look forward to spending more time with them and sharing my love of diving with other veterans to hopefully help them move forward like I have.
Neal and his wife Cindy live in Hampton, Georgia. Neal served in the Army for 21 years and retired as a Sergeant Major. Neal is now a NAUI assistant instructor and a PADI divemaster/DSD leader. He is working towards his PADI master scuba diver trainer certification, as well as his full cave and technical wreck diver certifications.