A veteran immersion program offered by the Georgia Aquarium allows wounded and injured service members, veterans, and their families to swim alongside whale sharks, manta rays and other sea life in the aquarium's 6.3 million gallon Ocean Voyager tank.
Since its inception, this free program has hosted over 1,300 wounded veterans, service members and military family members.
As reported by Task & Purpose, the aquarium offers an immersion program to the public, but in 2008 it opened the program to wounded veterans for the first time and grew in size and scale from there with eight participants diving at a time during two-hour sessions in the water.
“It was a natural outgrowth of our immersion program for the public,” said Susan Oglesby, who first came to the aquarium in 2006 as a volunteer cleaning the facility’s 185 tons of acrylic windows, and is now the program’s lead instructor and diver. “We invited injured military to come. The disabilities ranged from very obvious ones: missing limbs, spinal cord injuries, to those that are not so obvious, like brain injuries, [post-traumatic stress], and emotional scarring.”
The most rewarding part of the program for Oglesby is seeing the change that occurs once the participants get in the water.
“They’re like ‘Wow. Wow.’ The aspect is totally different,” said Oglesby, who spoke with Task & Purpose while her team was working with a group of wounded soldiers from Fort Benning, Georgia.
“When you take them outside of their comfort zone and drop them into the water, they’re not thinking, ‘Is that thing over there an IED?’ You don’t think about that, because there’s a whale shark the size of a small school bus swimming underneath you,” added Oglesby. “There’s not room for any of that other stuff you were thinking about before. It’s just bigger than life.”
Here's what the Georgia Aquarium website had to say about this veterans program.
Georgia Aquarium is committed to serving the brave men and women, active and retired, who have served us. As a thank you for their incredible service, Georgia Aquarium developed the Veterans Immersion Program in 2008 as a way to support the wounded heroes in our armed forces. Georgia Aquarium is honored to provide this unique adjunctive therapy to compliment current rehabilitation and reintegration programs. Participants challenge themselves with an experience outside their comfort zones, encounter enormous animals, and for some, relax and move in the water in ways they may not be able to on land.
Since its founding, the program has hosted more than 1,300 military personnel and guests who have been physically, emotionally, or mentally wounded – injuries both seen and unseen. Participants of all abilities (from quadriplegia or amputations to post traumatic stress or traumatic brain injuries) are welcome 365 days a year to swim or dive in our 6.3 million gallon gallery, Ocean Voyager Built by The Home Depot. Guests float alongside whale sharks and manta rays coming face to face with some of the ocean’s largest creatures.
These guests are supported by the largest team of Handicapped Scuba Certified Dive Masters and Instructors in the world led by a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist. Each member of the Dive Team is trained to lead disabled divers and swimmers on their journey, ensuring the care and safety of these esteemed guests. Because of the inherent healing properties of water and the sheer magnificence of swimming and diving with these incredible animals, the veterans leave with a positive, awe-inspiring experience that supports the need for ongoing adaptation to life after war.
Georgia Aquarium is committed to serving the brave men and women, active and retired, who have served us. As a thank you for their incredible service, Georgia Aquarium developed the Veterans Immersion Program in 2008 as a way to support the wounded heroes in our armed forces.
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