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Vets Brush up Scuba Skills on St. John

March 2, 2009 — War wounds aren't slowing down a group of Iraq and Afghanistan U.S. Army veterans: They're on St. John for six days to hone their Scuba skills through a program operated out of Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C.
"This program reminds you that you can do things that are fun," said Alabama resident Joe Claburn, 32. "Life isn't over."
Claburn had a parachute malfunction in Germany a week after he left Afghanistan. He was severely injured, and doctors only gave him a 30-percent chance of walking again. But by Feb. 4, his 32nd birthday, he was able to walk with a cane.
Gilberto Correa, 24, didn't Scuba dive growing up in Puerto Rico, but he's hooked. He has completed his open-water certification and is working on advanced certification.
"It's relaxing and quiet," he said.
Others in the group are missing limbs, but they've strapped on their prostheses and headed for the dive boat.
Shane Heath, 29, of Concord, N.C., has his master diver's certificate. He's working on the best way to set up his diving gear so he can dive on his own, although he's missing an arm and a leg.
"I'm hurt, but I need to enjoy life," Heath said.
Joel Dulashanti, 22, of Cincinnati, said the weightlessness he experiences underwater is a big help. And he really enjoys what he sees when he gets under the water surfaces.
The divers are working with Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba (SUDS), a non-profit program that has operated out of Walter Reed for two years.
"It's logistically a little tough," SUDS organizer Carla Chatterton said of the trek from Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas to the ferry, across Pillsbury Sound to St. John and from the Cruz Bay ferry dock to their St. John base.
She and another SUDS staff member, Michelle Ehrenberg, were on hand Monday to cook up meals and help with other details.
Five of the divers are staying at Villa Florian, a Gifft Hill villa owned by Boston residents Deborah Bernstein and Scott Whalen. Another is at the Westin Resort and Villas. Bernstein, Whalen and the Westin donated accommodations.
"It's to say 'thank you,'" Bernstein said. "You do it with whatever you have."
The divers are going out with Low Key Watersports.
Across the island, restaurants donated meals. They include the Banana Deck, Donkey Diner, the Fishtrap, Lime Inn, Sun Dog Café, High Tide, Woody's Seafood Saloon, Shipwreck Landing, the Inn at Tamarind Court, Island Blues, the Balcony and Quiet Mon Pub.
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