As scuba diving science has evolved over the years, so too has scuba technology for disabled, adaptive, divers. During this progression, diving has been elevated as a choice therapy for adaptive divers and veterans: transporting them to a realm of equal calm and excitement: enraptured in solitude, thrilled to read milestones, and a combination thereof. Supporting adaptive diving during 10 of its years is Veteran Ocean Adventures (VOA): a 501(c)(3) non-profit group headquartered in Florida.
Article by John Tapley; photos courtesy Branson Rector
VOA was formed after founder and current president Captain Branson Rector retired from Army service in 2008. While learning of veteran benefits through the VA, and getting acclimated to civilian life, he worked with a veteran’s center counselor in Florida who struggled to guide vets toward outreach programs. According to Captain Rector, Florida boasts a large population of National Guard and Reserves members but few bases or headquarters for active or retired military personnel compared to other states. The captain responded by forming what would eventually become VOA, which was formally founded a year later.
“I said, ‘Hey. Let’s offer a sunset sail to give them a chance to get out on the water. You can be there in a passive recruiting posture… let them know what services you offer.’ We did that, the guys came out, and it was successful. I had been looking for some way to give back and share my love for the water and this all fit. From sunset sails we branched into scuba diving (another sport I liked).”
As VOA’s three-pronged approach began to germinate, Captain Rector worked with disabled, adaptive, scuba divers, and applied the knowledge he acquired toward the program: to better serve and accommodate disabled veterans.
VOA’s programs revolve around three activities on and under the water: sailing, scuba diving, and paddling. Programs are organized regularly to ensure participation in newcomers and current vets alike, and always give them something new around the bend.
“I don’t like to have one-off events,” Captain Rector explains. “The vets are often times looking for something new to try but when they try something and like it, they want to know what’s next. We can’t just take them sailing and say, ‘Oh. I hope you had a nice sail. Tell your friends about it.’”
Enriching vets with sailing know-how is one of VOA’s core components, and beyond sunset sails, it regularly hosts courses with nationally recognized curricula from US Sailing – though the purpose is not for certification so much as learning a new hands-on skill and applying military-style procedures in the process.
Captain Rector elaborates:
“I think learning to sail is great for people in the military in that the training is very much like learning [military] skills: it’s task and teamwork oriented; you have to trust and know your equipment; everyone has their job and rotates positions; you go out as a team and accomplish the task. Plus, it’s very relaxing. You’re learning a new skill and connecting with nature – underpowered without a motor burning gas.”
Veterans Ocean Adventures completes its missions at Biscayne Bay: an expansive stretch of water covering 35 miles of Southern Florida’s coastline with an eight-mile width. The bay is calm and protected (largely thanks to islands that dot the area), and coupled with shallow depths at 10-feet, instills a safe training environment for recipients and VOA volunteers; the waters are warm and eastbound prevailing winds provide constancy for the group’s sailing program. Colorful reefs teeming with tropical fish and sea life are just a stone’s throw from the sandy beach.
Each month, VOA offers a Discover Scuba event (a program designed to introduce the sport to newcomers) ran by a local scuba instructor who provides equipment and training. VOA volunteers working as buddy divers help the instructor with their class, ensuring each participant receives one-on-one support. Adaptive diving, diving for disabled individuals, is another key element of VOA’s scuba program, and VOA buddy divers are required to learn Handicapped Scuba Association (HSA) training certification.
Scuba diving has been recognized for its positive effects on veterans and disabled people: a mission-based, group-oriented task continues the responsible camaraderie of a military unit; the cool, serene underwater expanse evokes calm and connectivity with nature.
“One of the big challenges is that veterans with PTSD and traumatic brain injury tend to isolate,” explains Captain Rector. “They were part of a unit, part of something, and they came back and were a different person [without] that camaraderie. We provide the setting for that.”
“We talk about the healing power of water,” he continues. “Just getting in the water can often times relieve a lot of physical and even emotional pains. A lot of these vets, whether they’re injured or not, some of us age into our disabilities: sore joints and bad backs. Here in Florida we have warm water year-round and getting free from gravity… that solitude in the water has some great effects.”
Senior veteran Ron Sensbach has enveloped himself in VOA’s scuba program. Sensbach, who suffered a spinal cord injury shortly after retiring from his local fire department, joined a spinal cord injury support group meeting attended by Captain Rector, the latter sharing VOA’s unique program.
“My spinal cord injury caused be to be a quadriplegic,” Sensbach recalls. “At this point, I said, ‘I don’t think I can do it because I can’t move my arms and legs.’ I took the number from the nurse and called a couple weeks later. Branson said, ‘We’re not asking you if you can. We’re asking you if you want to give it a try.’”
Sensbach gave it a try and after a VOA Discover Scuba event, he noticed significant physical improvements, which ascended even further as he continued the program. Undeterred in this new mission, he broke past his loneliness and found fellowship in VOA.
“I was slightly walking and being able to move a little bit. I didn’t think it would accomplish much, but with a spinal cord injury, getting in the water was like Heaven: there was no weight on my spine; I was floaty. His crew of certified buddy divers gingerly helped me into the water, put the gear on me, and helped me at my level and speed.
“I’ve improved about 90 percent. I’m able to do things on my own and have been with the program five years now. It’s amazing what they can do for people. There’s other quadriplegics in the group; a blind fellow that dives with us; amputees. It got me off the couch because when I had my injury I thought, ‘This is it. This is my life. I’ll live in my bed and there’s nothing I can do on my own. Who wants to deal with me anyway?’ I found out there is a lot of people out there. When veterans get together, everyone understands each other.”
While VOA does not offer direct scuba certification through its scuba diving program, it has developed partial scholarship programs to encourage certification. After veterans are certified, they can join VOA for a monthly boat dive, which operates March through November, and is accessible to adaptive divers.
Thrice a month, VOA kayaks throughout the Florida Keys and Biscayne Bay with its own fleet: one adventure is dedicated solely to the VA, another a full-moon paddle, and the last a professionally guided mangrove tour at a private fishing outpost in the Keys. The latter instance has been a popular pursuit for couples.
“Again, that is a connection to nature,” says Captain Rector. “I’ve found that with the trips to the Keys, couples will come down and have a reconnection experience as they would on the sunset sail: two people on a tandem kayak in the mangroves.”
As a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, VOA relies on volunteers and fundraising efforts to keep its day-to-day operations and aquatic adventures running.
Lifelong sailor Elizabeth Bernstein serves as a VOA volunteer and has been part of the organization since she moved to Miami seven years ago: she combined her passion for sailing with her interest in volunteering and giving back to the community, further augmented by her family’s military background.
“I started sailing and at that time [Branson Rector] was racing on Wednesday night. He had some boats chartered that were adaptive for people who are disabled. I went out and I would [fundraise] and help with that, then I got involved, pretty quickly, with helping to get him media attention, social media feeds, and fundraising. It still pretty much is Branson and a very small handful of volunteers doing all the work. It became this community for me. I was new in the city… and it became like family. I wasn’t a diver. I learned to dive and went through his buddy training to learn to be a buddy for disabled people.
“It’s great because I come from a veteran family – my dad’s a combat veteran – and I believe strongly in the idea, the fact, these people put their lives on the line and sacrifice a lot in terms of their time, their family, their safety, to protect us and keep us safe and free. It’s a wonderful cause to give back to them.
“Veterans have that ‘no man left behind’ attitude and once you’re part of them, it’s not like they treat me like a veteran, but like family. There’s a lot to learn from a veteran – a lot about resiliency.”
Looking forward, VOA is ever searching for volunteers and opportunities to spread its message of therapy and fellowship within balmy Biscayne Bay. It is currently scheduled to participate in this year’s Seminole Hard Rock Winterfest Boat Parade in Ft. Lauderdale: a mainstay holiday broadcast throughout the United Stated, slated for December 14.
In the 10 years since VOA was formed, it had made great strides in improving the lives of veterans and their loved ones, establishing a camaraderie, a family, among individuals who share an impassioned mission toward improvement and togetherness.
“When I untie the dock line, I truly feel at ease: a military term for ‘relax’. My whole purpose of starting this was to give back and hopefully share that with my fellow veterans. The work we do and the people we touch… we’re preventing that number [of veteran suicides] from getting higher.” says Captain Rector.
“For people who are handicapped or set back: give it a try,” Sensbach concludes. “You can easily say, ‘I can’t do it,’ but with the help of great volunteers, I think you can. I did it and I thought I was stuck in the bed for life. You got to open your eyes and trust in other people. Diving is a trust sport, and when you’re handicapped you have to have trust in your volunteers; and they’ve been so great with everyone.”