PICTURED: On the bow of the Sea Ranger, from left: Gina Harden, Alexandria McIntyre, Jessica Keller, Bonnie Casler and Kristin Hoppa. Photo courtesy of Channel Islands National Park
On Monday, Nov. 18, eight passengers boarded a boat for a four-day excursion to Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands. That in and of itself was unremarkable — thousands of snorkelers, scuba divers, kayakers and other outdoor enthusiasts visit Channel Islands National Park (CINP) every year to see this special collection of islands, its sea caves and dense kelp forests teeming with oceanic wildlife. But this was not your typical group of tourists.
Aboard the Sea Ranger that week were an archaeologist, a submerged resource expert, a dive officer, a boat captain, a dive instructor and three U.S. military veterans— all women.
“We were eight women of various backgrounds and levels of diving and boating experience,” explains Kelly Moore, CINP dive officer.
The group was taking part in a joint project between the National Park Service and WAVES, a Temecula-based nonprofit organization that aims to heal veterans through scuba diving.
“A wonderful way to find peace”
WAVES stands for Wounded American Veterans Experience SCUBA diving, and it looks to the “unique properties of the aquatic environment” to offer a combination of adventure, camaraderie and rehabilitation to military service members who have experienced service-related trauma. Those that WAVES has helped include amputees, individuals with spinal cord and brain injuries and people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
What benefits does scuba diving offer these individuals?
According to the WAVES website, water is a therapeutic environment, offering weightlessness and “limited audio input . . . Underwater, there is the soothing sound of breathing through your regulators as your bubbles float effortlessly to the surface. Movements are slower, gravity is sapped of its strength and muscles move more freely.” Where other physical activities may be too taxing or downright dangerous for an injured body, scuba diving can be calming and soothing.
Moore sees diving as “a way to escape into another world,” describing the underwater environment as “calm, quiet, weightless and at peace. It’s a wonderful way to find peace in nature and ourselves.”
“Veterans with PTSD really struggle to find that calmness in their day to day,” she continues. “Scuba diving allows them to reconnect with themselves.”
“The peace and quiet under the water is so therapeutic for me,” confirms Bonnie Casler. Casler served in the Army for 23 years, achieving the rank of Master Sergeant. “Everything in the ocean seems to be slow motion. Even the fish. And it helps me to slow down.”
Healing down under
Most veterans who participate in the WAVES Project have no diving experience. The organization provides classes to participants, helping them get certified. It also allows them to bring a “dive buddy” along with them, if desired.
“This is to assist the veteran with feeling secure and also helps build a positive activity for the veteran to experience and share with their family or friend,” says Casler, who participated in the November WAVES trip to the Channel Islands. “Disabilities such as PTSD and other anxiety disorders can cause great isolation from family and friends.”
She recalls observing other veterans participating in the program, and seeing how experiencing it with spouses, children or other family members really helped rebuild the bonds between them.
As Casler discovered, it helped her find her way back to herself as well.
Born in 1955 in upstate New York, Casler joined the U.S. Army Reserves in 1977. As a physical activity specialist, she helped soldiers who weren’t passing their physical fitness tests get into shape. Later, at 22 years of age, she went on active duty and was selected to become a recruiter.
“I had no idea that the master sergeant making the selection was a predator,” Casler recalls.
Even now, it’s difficult for Casler to talk about the trauma she endured at the hands of her First Sergeant, a well-decorated war veteran who initially seemed like a supportive mentor.
“At first he groomed me. He spent time training me and making me the best recruiter in the company,” she explains.
It wasn’t long, however, before he attacked Casler in her home, and threatened her with violence and loss of her career should she ever report him or tell anyone of his abuse. Like many women service members she knew with similar stories, she “soldiered on” and said nothing.
“I come from a generation where we served and we kept what we saw and experienced close to our hearts,” she explains. “We were not allowed to talk about anything. We sucked it up and drove on. Our mission was our focus.”
She endured the abuse from her immediate supervisor for the next three years — as did, according to Casler, the men under his command, some of whom would eventually die by suicide.
These experiences left their mark, inflicting Casler with acute anxiety, nightmares and other symptoms. In addition, she had foot and spinal injuries resulting from years carrying heavy equipment in ill-fitting combat boots. It took 30 years for a formal diagnosis, but Casler was eventually diagnosed with acute PTSD.
In 2017, Casler learned about WAVES from other military veterans. She’d harbored a lifelong desire to experience scuba diving, and with the encouragement of her family — her grandson in particular, who took some initial courses with her — and the gentle support of the dive instructors at WAVES, she was eventually able to overcome her fears and earn her dive certification.
Learning to trust
Both Casler and fellow veteran Alexandria McIntyre were certified when they joined the CINP expedition in November, but neither were experienced scuba divers. As a result, dive officer Moore says that from the outset, the goal of the trip was to “help support female veterans by offering a unique opportunity, and foster new relationships with the National Park Service and WAVES.” The emphasis was, first and foremost, on “comfortability and safety.”
Helping her in this endeavor was a team of exceptionally experienced divers, including boat captain Diane Brooks, NPS archaeologist Kristin Hoppa, NOAA dive instructor Jessica Keller and NPS submerged resource expert Carol Linteau. One very special member of the group was Naval Commander Gina Harden.
Moore describes Harden as “a very decorated retired Navy diver” who was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame in 2003. “She did a lot of rigorous, advanced dives,” Moore says. “There weren’t a lot of women diving in the Navy then, and she had lots of interesting stories about that.”
“It was an honor to meet such an accomplished female veteran,” Casler says. “Her career and accomplishments are well known. I couldn’t wait to spend time chatting and learning from her.”
Together the team dove into what Moore calls the “cathedral-like experience” of the kelp forests near Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands, “allowing them to see all the different wonders down there.” They even did some shallow water dives near the Equator, a fishing boat that sunk in 1949.
The trip was not without its trials, however. On one of the early dives, Casler had a panic attack underwater.
“It went back to being a soldier and feeling responsible for people,” Casler recalls. “I had a need to know where everybody was.”
When Casler couldn’t initially find her dive buddy, Moore, it sent her into a panic. Once Moore was located, however (she was right above Casler — who couldn’t look up due to a neck issue), the two connected. Holding onto each other’s buoyancy compensators and making eye contact, they communicated via hand signals. Once Casler had calmed down, Moore suggested that they return to the surface. Casler was about to agree . . . until she realized that “I wanted to finish.”
“I wanted to be the strong sergeant that I am,” Casler recalls. “I saw those divers, those strong women . . . seeing these professional women and their strength — I was that same kind of person until somebody hurt me.”
Casler found her way back to that strong, assured sergeant she had been in her youth, and continued on with the dive, which she enjoyed immensely. Others were to follow, and with each her confidence grew.
“Challenging themselves, learning to trust — there’s a lot of impact that WAVES is having,” Moore says. “We were supporting [military veterans] as they overcame some big mental and emotional challenges.”
The more experienced divers were affected by the trip as well.
“It was a lesson to us in how to be effective dive leaders,” Moore says.
Going through those experiences together built tremendous bonds between the eight women. Casler and Moore both acknowledge the camaraderie that developed during the trip.
“We all felt it on day one,” Moore remembers. “The bonds were already forming. There’s a sisterhood there.”
These are bonds that endure, Casler says, noting that all the women from the trip have stayed in touch via email and social media. “If Kelly or Diane or someone sent me an email, I’d be there.”
“Everyone is equal”
Recover, discover and rebuild — those are the three “arms” of the WAVES Project, which aims to help wounded veterans heal in a supportive underwater environment, while they explore the wonders of the ocean and improve relationships with family and friends. It’s a laudable mission, and has helped hundreds of military veterans since it was founded by Barbara and Steve Rubin in 2013.
Most of those individuals are men — and that’s something that WAVES hopes to change moving forward.
“They are pioneers for the WAVES group,” Moore says of Casler and McIntyre. “There are very few women veterans who are divers in WAVES.”
“I’m hoping that other women veterans would just give it a try,” Casler says. “Have what the men have — that’s what’s missing now. . . . Diving knows no age, disability or body shape. When you get the gear on and get in the water, everyone is equal.”
“I connected with some fantastic women,” she says in conclusion. “And now we’re sisters for life.”
WAVES Project, 27412 Enterprise Circle West, Suite 106, Temecula, 951-308-0049, www.wavesproject.org.
Channel Islands National Park, 1901 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura, 805-658-5730, www.nps.gov/chis.