I began my career in 1984 fresh out of college and wanting to make a difference by supporting the Department of Defense, specifically as part of the space programs. I didn’t come from a military family but many of my friends at the time were young 2nd Lieutenants at Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles. I figured there are those who choose to serve 24/7 but my path was to support them by using my technical background and ability to leverage current technologies and integrate them into complex space systems.
My life and my career were full. I was serving my country in the best way that I could. I would look up at the sky and know that the mission of the systems I supported were designed to keep people safe and out of harms’ way. These systems supported “the people at the pointy end of the spear.”
I connected with Jill Hottel, the executive director of the Diving with Heroes, in September 2017. She invited me to do the course work for the HSA and to get back in the pool to refresh my diving skills.
I began preparing to dive with DWH in Utila, one of the Bay Islands (Islas de la Bahia) off the coast of Honduras! The Bay Islands are a part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, second in size to the more famously known Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia.
Prior to leaving for the dive trip, the DWH volunteer team met up to discuss goals for the trip, expectations of the volunteer staff, and lessons learned from previous trips. My role was to support the heroes, befriend them, and help create a stress-free environment. This role seemed so insignificant. Was I prepared mentally and emotionally to support these men and women heroes? How could I assist them in return for their service to our country?
DWH took me, Jill, Michelle, Joe Brickey, and Scott Vadnais as volunteers in support of nine injured veterans. The heroes’ crew was composed of three alumni DWH divers and six first time hero divers. They were men and women, both officer and enlisted who represented the Coast Guard, Air Force, Marines and Army. The age range spanned from 27 up to near-60 and all skill levels from recreational to professional! The group was a hearty and fun-loving crew whose flights brought them from Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and even Western Australia...all to meet up in the San Pedro Sula airport in Honduras. From there the adventure began…
The next six days were spent diving sites like Little Bight, Sting Ray Point, Iron Bound and the sunken ship Halliburton 211. We saw literally thousands of fish from hundreds of species. From a rare-in-the-western-Caribbean Chain Moray Eel, a six-foot-long barracuda, Hawksbill turtles, sting rays, Stoplight Parrotfish, Trunkfish and the beautiful French Angel Fish.
We took turns changing dive partners in order to create bonding across the entire group and to share the diving experiences. Some carried underwater cameras, one diver sported an electric blue Lycra dive suit, one dove adeptly with his prosthetic leg. We supported each other in our love of diving and we freed ourselves from our daily lives to float and co-mingle with our marine flora and aquatic creatures. It was a scuba divers paradise.
Our days started at 0700 in the lodge’s dining hall where we shared breakfast, lunch and dinner and maybe a beer or two. At the end of our meal, each hero or volunteer took a turn sharing his or her life story. There we learned the stories of countless deployments in every conflict post-Vietnam, the number of years served, how they got into diving, their favorite dive experience and their favorite fish.
But it took seeking out each hero one-on-one to hear their whole story. To learn of the physical wounds inflicted from improvised explosive devices, gunfire or bombs, medical devices to ease the back pain from a fused spine, the many losses of fellow soldiers, feelings of “why did I survive?”, and the emotional wounds invisible to the eye but so deep and painful that one hero diver could not dredge up the hurt and instead sat silent and just gazed into space. They said, “You don’t want to know what I’ve been through, Mary. And I don’t want to re-live it. I spend every day of my life trying to suppress those memories.”
I also learned that not only did these heroes serve their country while wearing the uniform but also that almost all are continuing to serve after their military career has finished. Chris, our British hero diver who lives in Australia, was wounded while serving in the British Army. He led a difficult post-military life but was able to pull himself up out of the bonds of depression to create an organization that is designed to help people with mental health difficulties.
Another hero took his love for working with his hands and went to technical school to learn how to build and re-build classic cars and motorcycles. He owns a business that re-builds, repairs and custom develops cars and motorcycles from the ground up. He teaches other veterans the skills he has mastered and enlists their help in the work he does for clients. Another hero diver has family from Puerto Rico and had been housing them while their home and infrastructure was re-built. It was extremely humbling to learn the stories and to share the time together… It got to the point of my asking myself, “Am I helping them or are they helping me? What more can I do to help others?”
A fourth hero diver, a right-leg amputee, returned to graduate school at Purdue University where he later graduated and began a teaching career in his hometown. He was already the football coach for the town’s junior high school team.
The diving was superb but interacting with the heroes was phenomenal. I work in a community where we always talk about the person at the pointy end of the spear and how we develop systems to protect them. This was my first-time spending quality time with real heroes and it really brought home to me the importance of the mission of the work I do for a living. This trip really enriched my life. Also, finding that most of the heroes are continuing to give back to their communities and fellow vets was very inspiring to me. I learned that we can all do more.
The time with the real heroes of our country renewed my desire to support our country and showed the importance of the mission of the systems we support. So, thank you, Diving with Heroes for the opportunity to help. I’ll be there for you if you need me. And, thank you to our heroes who continue to selflessly serve this great nation and each other.
Mary is a member of the DWH Dive Team. She is a PADI advanced open water diver and aspires to achieve consistent neutral buoyancy. Her favorite marine creature is the seahorse.