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Thrill-seeking wounded warriors get a chance to swim with sharks

170209 pdza sharkdive 18 Thrill seeking wounded warriors get a chance to swim with sharks

Operation Shark Dive at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington. (Photo/Ingrid Barrentine)

By Caitlin M. Kenney

The Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington has partnered with the Warrior Transition Battalion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord to provide an immersive aquatic experience for wounded warriors.

The free program, called “Operation Shark Dive,” allows soldiers to safely immerse themselves in a shark tank while “learning breathing techniques,” according to a Department of Defense article.

The soldiers undergo the experience as part of the battalion’s adaptive sports program — designed to allow them to remain active and engaged in their community.

Operation Shark Dive is an expanded form of an experience the aquarium had offered, for a fee, to other visitors, said Zoo and Aquarium Deputy Director John Houck — combining the shark tank experience with education, he said, on“the rather daunting conservation challenges that sharks face in the wild.”

“We just thought it was kind of a no-brainer to extend this program to warriors from Joint Base Lewis-McChord,” Houck said, “because that is such an important part of the fabric of our community.”

The program is run by the aquarium’s dive team, whose members have received special training in working with people who have disabilities.  Before taking part, each wounded service member fills out a questionnaire so that the divers understand his or her health needs.

During each session, four soldiers learn about the sharks in the habitat they are about to enter. They then put on dry suits and, with dive team members, are — inside a cage — lowered into the tank.

170209 pdza sharkdive 13 Thrill seeking wounded warriors get a chance to swim with sharks

Operation Shark Dive at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington. (Photo/Ingrid Barrentine)

The wounded warriors stay under the water, watching the sharks, for 20 to 30 minutes. If divers are comfortable enough, Houck said, the dive team can open a door in the cage, providing participants an unobstructed view of the sharks and the habitat.

“It’s been incredibly uplifting…for the participants,” Houck noted, “and I can say that in 100 percent of the cases of the 40 participants we’ve had so far. But it’s also tremendously meaningful to the dive team that does this because there is a real sense of giving something back.”

“These are people that have served our country and it’s an important component in our community as I mentioned,” he added. “And that’s really strongly motivating and very satisfying for us to be able to provide that and to see the reaction that it produces.”

“We can see that they enjoy it, they express that,” he said.

Houck says he can’t speak to how the experience might specifically help with each participant’s health issues, but he knows they leave smiling.

“Fun is a component of everything we do here and it’s exciting,” he said.

He encourages other community organizations to look for similar opportunities to reach out to service members and veterans.

“If you have something in a military community like ours and you have resource and you see that it’s possible to take that step to give back something to the people who have served our country, then go for it,” Houck said. “The experience has been extremely rewarding for us.”

Connect: @CaitlinMKenney | Caitlin@ConnectingVets.com

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