News: Wounded warriors find healing, fun when SUDS comes to GTMO
Story by Sgt. Benjamin Cossel
GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba - More than a 1,000 miles away from Walter Reed Army Hospital, Army Sgt. Matthew White stood at the edge of the water, letting the surf of Guantanamo Bay’s Hidden Beach crash over his legs.
“I always wanted to learn how to scuba dive,” White said. “After I lost my leg, I never thought I would be able to.”
White was with the Army’s storied 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan’s Arghandab River Valley when an improvised explosive device took the bottom half of his left leg.
“I was supposed to get stationed in Hawaii,” he said. “I planned on learning to dive when I got there.”
While rehabbing at Walter Reed, White learned of the Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba organization. He said he knew right away he wanted to be a part of the program.
“Water is the great equalizer,” said John Thompson, SUDS president, in a 2009 Washington Post interview. “When you get them in the water, they don’t have to deal with gravity. The pressure on prosthetics and the pain goes away.”
Founded in 2006, SUDS has helped more than 300 wounded warriors obtain scuba certification. The group’s website notes “by training the warriors in a challenging and rewarding activity, it can help facilitate the rehabilitations process and promote mobility.”
A recognized 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization, SUDS makes two trips, with up to six wounded veterans, to Guantanamo Bay yearly. Joint Task Force Guantanamo Trooper and certified dive instructor Army Capt. Sarah Cleveland wasn’t on hand for the first trip in 2008 but she has worked with the program since the second visit.
“This is one of the most rewarding experiences here on the island,” Cleveland said. “It’s such a good feeling watching these guys go from being nervous about diving at first to accepting it and really enjoying it.”
Along with serving as one of the instructors, Cleveland and members of the Reef Raiders Dive Club and Ocean Enterprises Dive shop spearheaded the logistical efforts needed to bring the Soldiers to Guantanamo Bay.
“We had nearly 100 volunteers from all over donate their time and effort to help this all together,” Cleveland said.
Volunteers cleaned up beaches, move scuba equipment and assisted the wounded warriors in and out of the water.
“Everyone has been so supportive of our efforts,” Cleveland said.
The SUDS crew arrived on Guantanamo Bay, Feb. 17 and began earning their scuba certification. However, the process began before the soldiers even stepped off the plane.
“There was a whole bunch of online courses we had to do, work in the pool and medical clearances we had to get before we could come here,” White explained.
Sitting on the beach on Saturday morning, White said he learned a lot from his dives on Friday and was implementing some of the adjustments for his upcoming dives.
“The split fins really make a difference and I’m working out some of the kinks with the prosthetic,” he said, explaining the varying degrees of pressure from the different depths affected his prosthetic differently.
“This has totally been worth all the effort put it in,” White said. “I plan on going back and telling all of my friends this is something they should do.”
Staff Sgt. Stefanie Mason echoed White’s remarks.
“Standing here above the surface, you just can’t imagine what it’s like under the water,” she said.
Mason has limited use of her right leg and suffered a mild traumatic brain injury due to a vehicle accident while serving with the 352nd Civil Affairs Command in Afghanistan.
“Having all these people out here, helping us, it’s made it really enjoyable,” said Mason.
The trip to Guantanamo Bay is the first time since her accident she has been away from her nonmedical care giver, her mother for an extended period of time.
“My mom was really worried about me coming out here,” she said. “But I’m going to have so many stories to tell her, it’s just been amazing.”
The warriors will dive from the shores of Hidden Beach twice before heading to Cable Beach for a party with all the volunteers who helped bring the event together.
The following day the crew of seven divers and all their instructors will take to the boats for an open water dive, their final set of underwater exploration before heading back to the United States.
Of the many volunteers on the beach Saturday was JTF Guantanamo commander, Rear Adm. Jeffrey Harbeson.
“It’s simply inspiring to see what these men and women have done and accomplished,” the admiral said.“This is really going to open some doors for them and it’s just an honor to be here.”
“This is something I will keep with me for all my life,” said Mason. “All the challenges I’ve had to overcome to finally get certified in Cuba!”