Shortly before Veterans Day, Veterans Ocean Adventures a Miami-based nonprofit that teaches veterans to scuba dive, sail and more, hosted a memorial scuba diving trip to honor one of its members. Steve Carraderro, a former Army sergeant, passed away unexpectedly last year.
Carraderro served three tours in Iraq before being medically discharged. After returning home, Carraderro linked up with VOA. Carrederro’s widow, Jennifer, says diving with VOA was crucial to adapting to civilian life with PTSD. “It was his getaway,” Carraderro said, “It was like therapy for him.”
The group dove around the Neptune Society Memorial Reef, leaving flower and wreaths in Carraderro's honor. “Besides being a scuba diving group, [VOA] was like family for him,” said Jennifer Carraderro. Veterans and volunteers who attended the dive agreed, emphasizing that VOA becomes a tight-knit community, helping vets reintegrate and avoid isolation.
Transitioning from military to civilian life can be challenging, but VOA founder Branson Rector saw the challenge as an opportunity to share what he calls the “healing power of water” with fellow service members.
Rector founded the group in 2009 after retiring from a 21-year army career. VOA provides classes, helps divers get certified and organizes trips all at no cost to the veterans. The nonprofit relies on donations, grants and volunteers to provide its outdoor programs.
Veterans Ocean Adventures now has a core group of 30 trained volunteers and serves more than 450 veterans each year. This year, VOA expects to reach 600 vets.
VOA works with veterans with disabilities, ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to full paralysis. VOA rigorously trains volunteers to be “buddy divers,” responsible for assisting disabled vets with some of the physical challenges of diving. Rector emphasized that even with help, being able to dive can be extremely empowering for these veterans.
“Diving is great in that when we get in the water it removes the biggest obstacle for individuals with disabilities, and that’s gravity, said Rector. “When they’re under water, they look just like the rest of the divers.”
Clare Christle, a VOA member who sustained a serious back injury while in the National Guard, said scuba diving helped him regain his ability to walk. Six years ago, Christle’s spinal cord injury left him temporarily paralyzed. Now, Christle says, scuba diving with VOA played a crucial role in his recovery.
“It’s amazing how therapeutic diving can be,” Christle said. “I’m not putting weight on my spine, and I don’t feel the pain under water.”
Scuba diving can also be a source of relief for veterans with PTSD. Rudy Watt, a retired first generation sergeant who served more than 20 years in the army, joined VOA after coming back to Miami from Iraq.
“Life itself was a big challenge for me at that point,” said Watt, “I lost interest in everything I was doing, started to hibernate away, [and had] anger problems and hyper alertness.” Watt said scuba diving helps him relax and relieves some of the symptoms of PTSD, making it possible for him to sleep without medication after a dive.
Many of the veterans who join VOA go on to become volunteers and buddy divers themselves. “Veterans are often looking for their next mission, even after they come home,” explained Rector, "And for some, that mission is helping other veterans."