In a search for self-discovery, I set out November 10, 2018, to link up with eight fellow injured veterans and veteran advocate Jill Hottel, of Diving with Heroes (DWH), on a trip to the Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI) on Little Cayman. Nervously I sat at Dulles International Airport chatting with fellow veteran Ryan Rivera when Jill and Scott Vadnais, DWH’s director of communication, approached us. Jill’s demeanor immediately put Ryan and I at ease, and we set off on a journey that would quickly alter the way I viewed the oceans forever.
The Climb | Life after the military has had its ups and downs. I was privileged to serve for over 20 years with some of America’s best and bravest, and it’s hard to imagine replicating the types of feelings you get when you’re among the world’s most elite. Now, rather than the adrenaline rushes earned in service, I look mostly for the beauty in life through art, nature and now also in the oceans, thanks to Jill’s nonprofit Diving with Heroes.
My path to the ocean was seemingly paved vertical, so getting to where I am now was a hard climb; it took healing. Not the type of healing rendered by the 126 medicines the Department of Defense and Veterans’ Affairs Administration have prescribed me over the past eight years, but an authentic, peaceful and blissful, actual healing. Frankly, I have a lot to heal from.
In total I was diagnosed with 158 different injuries or illnesses during my military service, but most notably I was shot with a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG), hit with an improvised explosive device (IED) blast, and have suffered burn and shrapnel wounds, back trauma, two traumatic brain injuries (TBI), nerve damage, hearing loss, chronic knee issues, and internal damage to my lungs, liver and gastro-intestinal track.
While in the military I committed myself to showing the world what it is to love, hate, laugh and be afraid – to showcase the world as it is, while revealing how life could be. However, the military was great about censoring creativity and keeping me in a photojournalistic box, so to blossom as an artist it was paramount that I first leave the service, which I had no qualms with being I already dedicated two decades of my youth to the government and made some steep sacrifices along the way. Still, with a plethora of medical issues (despite being nearly all combat-related), leaving the military was an uphill battle. It took the DoD and VA about two years to recognize my ailments as being service-limiting and service-connected, despite 1,164 pages of documentation in my DoD medical records. So, in 2016 I began a terrific battle for my own freedom, which eventually came in January 2018 when I was medically retired. Through I achieved a significant victory when I was finally medically retired and deemed 100 percent total and permanently disabled by the VA, I would still face an enormous fight against my own body, both physically and mentally, before I could follow my dreams of making art underwater.
I suffered my second TBI on April 4, 2011, during an intense fight where a team of 11 of us fended off a complex Taliban ambush of nearly 140 enemy fighters. During the second day of that fight, the Taliban began hitting my team with back-to-back RPGs, and the fifth one on our location hit roughly five feet behind me in the sand, but when it exploded it fragged me with burning hot shrapnel and threw me through the air and head-first into a wall. I spent a while recovering from the injury, and faced multiple internal battles with the invisible wounds of war. However, none of that ever stopped me from making art, it just altered my art and poetry into something darker and more disturbing. But through years of exposure to blasts, burn pits and toxic environments, I developed a unique lung disease.
A medical evaluation board started so the DoD and VA could determine if I were fit to continue to serve. As my aspiration of retiring from the military was coming closer, my dream of becoming an underwater photographer was slipping away. It’s simple biology...if I can’t breathe going up a single flight of stairs, there’s no way I would ever be cleared to scuba dive.
Into the Sea | Finally, in early 2018 my lungs finally began responding to the years of steroids and therapy, and the sarcoidosis symptoms lessened. By June 2018 I was cleared by Fort Belvoir Community Hospital’s head pulmonologist to scuba dive during my upcoming July 2018 trip to Okinawa, Japan. Because I didn’t have time to become open water certified by then, however, I was relegated to only resort fun dives or snorkeling. When I returned from Okinawa in August I immediately contacted DWH and pleaded with Jill to help me get dive certified. She jumped hurdles and made sure I was certified and able to attend the CCMI trip in November 2018.
As I move forward in life diving and making art, and assisting veteran initiatives, I will forever be grateful to DWH, with Jill and Scott; CCMI and their team of Katie Correia, Sam Hope and Maisy Fuller; and the life-long friends I have met along the way. I am well on my way to realizing my goal of making art under the oceans.
Kevin lives in Manteo, North Carolina. He was medically retired from the Air Force in 2018 as a senior master sergeant. Presently Kevin is in school simultaneously working on a masters of fine arts degree and a doctorate of media communications. He is also a PADI Rescue Diver. Kevin wants to continue diving, doing his part to help restore the oceans and coral reefs while also making art to highlight the plight of ocean life and the possibilities of how beautiful it could be again. Ultimately, his goal is to coerce a forward-thinking and truly woke mind, forcing everyday people to awake into this extraordinary world and inspire them to act.