In August of this year, a group of veterans touched down on balmy Bonaire: their mission to absorb the camaraderie, excitement, and therapy of scuba diving. Wounded in their time of service, these men and women joined the Handicapped Scuba Diving Alliance (HSDA) of New Jersey for a weeklong adventure in one of scuba diving’s crown jewels: an aquatic paradise disconnected from the noise and grind of contemporary life. Bonded by a common goal, they and their allies in the HSDA sought solace and fellowship with themselves, and with their generous hosts; and they returned home forever changed by the experience.
Article by John Tapley; photos courtesy Stew Snyder
On the first day of Operation Bonaire 2019, 10 veterans, all members of the Wounded Warrior Project®, gathered with HSDA members and were met by representatives from the Bonaire Tourism Board: Helen Mercera-Thode, Derchlien Vrolijk and Rolando Martin. Orlando Francisca, owner of Rent to Fun Tours, and a longtime ally of the HSDA trips, provided travel services to the group’s host hotel, Captain Don’s Habitat. Along the way, they were escorted in style by the Iron Order motorcycle club, and after a quick check-in at Captain Don’s, were off to dinner at the Zee Zicht restaurant.
While the trip’s focus was on scuba diving, the group experienced the full scope of Bonaire travel, with Bonaire’s government and local businesses and organizations providing accommodations. Each day offered something unique, be it cuisine, culture, or just experiencing the cool atmosphere and adventure of the Caribbean Netherlands island.
“What they saw on the island was unbelievable because there wasn’t only scuba diving. The tourism board set up things: we went on an island tour of the northern part of it; we went on a southern tour on four wheelers; we went down and around town on motorcycles! We went to different restaurants every night,” says Stew Snyder, president and founder of HSDA.
Over the next three days of the seven-day operation, the parties enjoyed Bonaire’s unique seaside flavors, took in dives in some of the world’s most renowned waters, and engaged in local music and culture. Day five offered a boat dive to Klein Bonaire: a visually stunning reef recognized for its large variety of sea life.
For veteran participant and HSDA volunteer Gilroy Parks, who has PTSD and suffered a permanent injury to his arm, scuba diving has opened an entirely new world of freedom and exploration, and Bonaire has been a significant marker on his journey as an adaptive diver.
“This has been a Godsend to me. Being depressed… this has opened up a whole new world, giving me a peace of mind and relaxation I didn’t have for quite a while,” Parks expresses. “There’s no other way to explain it! It’s great! If you ever want to go scuba diving, that’s the hottest and best place to go! To see the fish, the shipwreck, the mammals, coral, and the colors!
“The beauty of the island is magnificent, the water around the island are gin clear, its rich marine life, the island’s lizards, donkeys and birds, and the flamingos are marvelous to see,” says Synder. “The beaches, lagoons, caverns and desert-like hills are striking.”
The adaptive divers and their escorts dipped into the wreck of the Hilma Hooker the next day and enjoyed exploring the prolific ship’s length – about 240 feet. According to Snyder, they largely considered it the pinnacle of Bonaire in diving.
“One person was afraid to go down,” says Snyder. “They’d go down 10 feet near the dock… and it took me two days to coax them down. When they saw their first wreck in front of Captain Don’s, their whole friggin’ life changed. ‘Let’s go! Let’s go diving! Where are we going?’”
Following this daring dive (and after lunch), the entourage met again with the Iron Order MC who escorted them to an evening celebration held by the Bonaire government. Commissioner Nina den Heyer delivered a speech and presented each veteran with a certificate, flag pin, and medallion, signifying their new status as Bonaire ambassadors. As the penultimate day began to wane, the adaptive divers and their buddies joined up with the Iron Order MC and dined at their club house.
Snyder, who has maintained close relationships with Bonaire’s government, was delighted by the hospitality and fellowship.
“The dinner was amazing. It’s how people in the government treat you. They’re very respectful! You’re then 10 minutes and you have 10 friends!” exclaims Snyder. “There’s no animosity or bad feelings. It’s like a miracle on an island!”
“It was about the people – how nice they were and how they made us feel welcome.” Parks adds.
On the final, and seventh day, the veterans and HSDA reps met with Rent to Fun again, and toured Bonaire’s coast aboard four-wheelers, followed by a stop at souvenir shop Jewel of Bonaire, and a final dinner at the Rum Runner.
The HSDA is the result of longtime scuba diver and instructor Stew Snyder who has worked with disabled people, including children and veterans, for 50 years. Headquartered in New Jersey, the 501(c)3 non-profit works diligently with local organizations to train new adaptive divers, instilling in them confidence and determination: its motto, “Helping people discover their abilities.” The HSDA is a member of the Handicapped Scuba Association (HSA): an association that empowers adaptive divers on a global scale.
“Don’t doubt peoples’ abilities. Give them a chance,” says Snyder, “because they will definitely surprise you. We have kids that come in – they might have cerebral palsy and be in a wheelchair for 10 years – and they get in the water and move their legs a little bit. People can do things even when they have handicaps. They can make things work out.”
“The joy he’s brought, and not only to us veterans… to see the smile on the kids and how happy they are spending an hour or two in the pool with us. It’s like Christmas,” Parks exclaims.
The operation was made possible through generous donations from dozens of businesses and organizations. Henderson Wetsuits USA, Cressi USA, Princeton Tec, and PADI provided adaptive scuba diving gear. The Bonaire Tourism Corporation and Bonaire Government provided hospitality, while additional funds were raised via HSDA’s GoFundMe page.
This invigorating trip was held in memory of scuba diving luminary S. Lee Selisky. Selisky served as Diving Equipment Marketing Association (DEMA) president and director, served and chaired the Historical Diving Society USA, sat on the board of governors of the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame, and continued working in the dive industry on the Divers Alert Network (DAN) until his passing in July of 2018.
Going forward, Snyder and company are excited for next year’s trip, and next year’s, and next year’s. Where there is determination and the strength to persevere, adaptive divers and their mentors, trainers, and friends will go for it. Operation Bonaire; mission complete.