Wounded war vets find diving in Keys therapeutic
Scott Schroeder had just finished a dive at the Western Sambo Ecological Reserve off Key West, but before climbing onto the boat, the U...
KEY WEST, Fla. — Scott Schroeder had just finished a dive at the Western Sambo Ecological Reserve off Key West, but before climbing onto the boat, the U.S. Army man of 24 years — 20 of them with the elite Special Forces — needed help.
"Could somebody get my leg?" he asked.
About 25 feet below, resting on the ocean's bottom, was one of his sea prostheses, with a flipper attached. His other artificial sea leg was dangling from what remains of his right thigh.
Schroeder, 45, was laughing about his dilemma.
A positive attitude goes a long way in recovering from injuries as grave as the ones he suffered just seven months ago in Afghanistan when the modified Humvee he was riding in ran over a roadside bomb.
Schroeder's world changed in that instant. So did his family's.
"Yes, I was injured," the chief warrant officer said. "But the whole family was really injured, too. I was willing to accept the risk and the sacrifices. They didn't choose it."
Healing as a family is why Schroeder, his wife of 23 years, Laura, and their 16-year-old son, Zach, were in Key West, taking part in the Task Force Dagger Foundation's recreational therapy program.
Task Force Dagger was the code name for the Special Operations Unit formed shortly after 9/11 and charged with bringing down the Taliban regime and denying sanctuary to al-Qaida, said Keith David, volunteer managing director of the Texas-based nonprofit, which was established in 2009.
In just two years, the foundation has helped 112 wounded Special Operations soldiers and their families on a shoestring budget of $95,000.
"I think the Special Operations soldier is a lot of time very focused, very driven, almost always a Type A person," David said. "When they fall down, they keep getting up, and they don't give up."
That is the case of the 10 wounded warriors, who along with 15 family members were in the Keys learning or relearning to dive with lost limbs and other injuries as therapy for body and soul.
"They don't want pity; they are professional soldiers," said David, a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces for 15 years. "They just are trying to learn a new skill."
Schroeder, who served on the same team as David in the 1990s, had talked to his old friend in 2009 about how he could help the foundation.
"I never thought I would be on the receiving end," he said.
Less than a year ago, Schroeder deployed to Afghanistan, his first tour of duty there since 2001, when he was part of the original Task Force Dagger operation.
Between those deployments, he had served in Iraq on more missions than he can count, sometimes spending four months in Iraq, four months home.
He had suffered minor injuries, but on Dec. 9 he almost lost his life in Zabul Province in southern Afghanistan.
"We were going village by village by village, working hard to have the Afghanis take control of their own lives," Schroeder said.
Several other Humvees had driven over or past the roadside bomb. "I think it went off right under me," he said.
He remembers losing one leg in the explosion and about 20 minutes later being carried onto a helicopter. He woke up days later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, his wife at his side. He soon learned he also had lost his other leg above the knee and that his right arm was so damaged it might require amputation.
From that moment, he had a new mission: to get better. For six months, with his wife, son and parents taking turns to ensure round-the-clock support, Schroeder focused on saving his arm and learning to walk on prostheses.
The family diving trip to the Keys became a highlighted date on the calendar.
"When your whole life revolves around the hospital, something like this trip can become a milestone you mentally focus on," said Laura Schroeder, who left her job as a landscaping architect in Clarksville, Tenn., to be at her husband's side as he recovered in Bethesda, Md.
"We knew in July we were going to the beach and learning to scuba dive. It's something we always wanted to take Zach to do."
Before his first open-water dive, the teenager said he was hoping to see a shark.
Mother and son, along with several other Task Force Dagger Foundation participants, began classes in a pool, graduating to the warm waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Scott Schroeder was certified to dive in 1989, in the Red Sea, but he hadn't been diving since 2002. Now, he had to negotiate the underwater world with artificial legs and a right arm that has limited use.
"Up until about a month ago, I didn't know if I could do it," he said. "You have your hesitations about getting into the water. But yeah, I can do it. And I'm just glad my family is here with me to spend this time doing therapy together."
The last seven months have been a rollercoaster for the Schroeders. Scott said there were days he felt like he had frostbite in his toes, even though his legs now stop halfway down his thigh.
Laura calls herself the eternal optimist, and doesn't know why her husband suffered this horrible fate just at the time he was contemplating retirement.
"Laura and I agreed we both could have a bad day," Schroeder said. "We just couldn't have it together."
But Tuesday was a good day for the whole family, even if Scott's sea legs didn't stay on underwater.
Laura and Zach practiced dive skills with their instructor before exploring the patch reef. Soon, dad and son were looking under coral together at lionfish.
There would be no shark sightings on this dive, but the family went on several more before returning to Maryland, where Scott will resume his rehabilitation.
When he shows proficiency with the artificial legs he has now, he will be fitted for ones that have movable knees for more mobility. He hopes to get close to his old height of 6 feet.
"They say the technology has come a long way," Schroeder said. "But to me, they still seem archaic."
At Walter Reed, Schroeder met Vice President Joseph Biden, now-retired Defense Secretary Robert Gates and members of his beloved Chicago Blackhawks, who brought him a signed jersey and showed off their Stanley Cup.
Sen. Richard Lugar, who is from Schroeder's native Indiana, also paid him a visit. Lugar offered to sponsor Zach for the Senate page program. The teenager wasn't convinced at first, but he is going to give it a try.
"We are sticking together as a family, no matter where we are at," Scott Schroeder said.
Now that he has been able to conquer the sea without legs, Schroeder said his next quest is to sky-dive again. He jumped from a whopping 27,000 feet while on infiltration missions.
"The Army has been a great life," Schroeder said. "I stayed in way past retirement because I wanted to be on the team. That's all I've known how to do. Now, especially with the injuries, I don't know what I am going to do for a second career."
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