U.S. Army combat veteran Josh Conner has known fear. The Bakersfield resident saw it close-up and faced it head-on while serving with the 1st Infantry Division in Fallujah, Iraq in 2004 and 2005.
He came home with combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder as well as physical injuries.
Years later in 2018, he faced a different kind of fear, the kind that comes from donning scuba gear and dropping 60 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean for the first time — and then looking up at the fading light and seeing how far away it seemed.
“It’s about overcoming your fear,” said Conner, 39.
It’s also about finding the comradeship he had in Iraq, but lost when he came home, he said. It’s about doing something that brings peace and tranquility, joy and exhilaration.
Thanks to a local nonprofit called Aqua-Nut Divers, Conner and some two dozen other local disabled veterans have taken an all-expenses-paid plunge into scuba diving, not only as a recreational pursuit, but as a way of healing.
“It’s a new experience. When you’re scuba diving, you live in the moment,” said Martha Schimon, a board member with Aqua-Nut Divers who also helps with training.
A 2011 study conducted by Johns Hopkins University found veterans with spinal cord injuries who underwent a four-day scuba-diving certification saw measurable improvements. And many believe there are benefits for veterans suffering from PTSD and other ailments.
There’s a sense of weightlessness, and a feeling of freedom in the experience of diving, Schimon said. The buddy system used in scuba training helps build new friendships.
“Having the opportunity to breathe and explore underwater is amazing,” said Andy Selga, 26, one of six disabled veterans in this year’s training group.
“While diving you get to escape the stress of the rest of the world,” Selga said.
The training is a combination of classroom-style learning and scuba sessions safely experienced in a swimming pool.
The six veterans are expected to finish their training on Saturday. The program, free to the the six veterans, is called Veterans Empowered through Scuba, or V.E.T.S.
Once they’re finished with the pool training, the group will travel to Catalina Island for their first ocean dive.
“I’m so excited to do the dive off Catalina,” he said.
Once that happens, they will be certified as open-water scuba divers.
Selga, who works for Operation Second Chance, another nonprofit that assists disabled vets, served as a U.S. Army sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns in 2014-15.
It is considered one of the highest honors to serve as a tomb guard. Fewer than 20 percent of all volunteers are accepted for training and of those only a fraction pass the highly-demanding requirements to become full-fledged sentinels.
But Selga fell ill after contracting eosinophilic vasculitis. He was medically retired from the Army in 2017.
When the opportunity arose to receive scuba training, he jumped at the chance.
“I’m at peace being underwater,” he said. “It’s distracting in a good way.”
Conner has continued to dive, and volunteers his photo and video skills for the Aqua-Nut Divers. When he spotted a 300-pound sea bass and other undersea wildlife on an outing, he was hooked.
But there are other benefits the training classes offer that run even closer to the heart.
“I started that scuba diving class as one of six strangers,” he said. “Now we are six friends.”
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