The expression “come on in, the water’s fine” is meant literally at the National Naval Medical Center (NNMC) in Bethesda, Maryland.
SUDS instructors—and Red Cross volunteers—Jane Spencer, Titus Mott and Danny Facciola.
Peter Macias/American Red Cross
Titus Mott discusses scuba equipment with Juan Alcivar, an Army veteran.
Peter Macias/American Red Cross
Service members injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who are under physical or occupational therapy care, have the opportunity to learn scuba diving thanks to a partnership between the American Red Cross and the non-profit organization SUDS—Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba.
Ten instructors teach the program at NNMC and Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) in Washington, D.C. All instructors are Red Cross volunteers.
Since the founding of SUDS in 2007, approximately 160 students have completed the classroom training, and around 70 have earned their full scuba certification. What speaks louder than the numbers, though, are the reactions from injured veterans trying scuba diving for the first time.
“The best moments are the smiles you see at the end of their first dive—it never fails, it happens every time!” said Danny Facciola, a SUDS instructor and former member of the Navy.
Participants earn their scuba certification by completing an online academic portion; learning and practicing skills in an enclosed body of water (such as a pool); and finally, completing four open-water dives in six months. Some of SUDS’s recent dive trips have included Morehead City, North Carolina; Ft. Lauderdale, Florida; and St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands.
Although they hadn’t yet dipped a toe in the water on their first day in the program, Juan Alcivar and his wife were already envisioning an open-water dive off a Caribbean island. He has been in physical therapy since 2007, and learned to swim last year at the encouragement of Larry Hammond, the SUDS training director at WRAMC. Hammond then suggested Alcivar try scuba diving, which could be beneficial for his leg injury.
“It’s really rewarding to see these guys push themselves and get excited about what they’re doing—just seeing their excitement is the best part,” said Jane Spencer, a SUDS instructor who has 20 years experience teaching scuba diving, and is also certified to teach handicapped scuba.
Titus Mott, an instructor since 2007, echoed that feeling, saying that he loves to see the light go on when students connect what they’ve learned on paper to what they’re doing in the water.
Both Facciola and Mott say the relationships they build with their students is one of the highlights of volunteering for this program.
“I know this might sound cheesy,” said Facciola, “but the best part is that I’ve met some incredible people through this, and it’s my chance to give back. It’s a skill I can offer that I think a lot of people can benefit from.”
For Spencer, getting to combine a sport she’s passionate about with the chance to help veterans is a perfect opportunity. With a niece in the Army, Spencer often told herself, “Don’t worry, there are good people there who will take care of her.” Then she thought, “Why can’t I be one of those people? I need to be one of the people who care for those who earn our freedom.”
For more information about SUDS, visit sudsdiving.org.
About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and counsels victims of disasters; provides nearly half of the nation's blood supply; teaches lifesaving skills; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a charitable organization — not a government agency — and depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its humanitarian mission. For more information, please visit www.redcross.org or join our blog at www.redcrosschat.org.