Conservation attractions

“Ocean in the Ozarks” provides relief for disabled veterans

Who would have thought that the pain of war could be eased by taking a dive with some sharks in the middle of the Missouri Ozarks?

An innovative new program through the Missouri-based not-for-profit organization LifeWaters is doing just that, in a partnership with Johnny Morris’ Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium in Springfield.

SCUBA diving in warm, tropical waters offers surprising benefits for disabled military veterans. WOW is making the ocean experience more accessible than ever – literally opening a sea of possibilities in their backyard.

In addition to rediscovering the freedom that their bodies no longer offer them, SCUBA diving also helps veterans combat PTSD and can alleviate chronic pain for 7-10 days. For vets who have only faced challenges and limitations since their injury, this experience can be incredibly powerful.

Veterans have the chance to jump into a 300,000-gallon circular aquarium teeming with sharks, goliath groupers, leopard rays and hundreds of colorful reef fish. The unique multi-level design provides a dramatic environment for divers and spectators alike.

The veterans taking the plunge recently included Army veteran Aaron Bailey, who suffers from significant PTSD after a service-related injury; and Marine Corps veteran Jeffery Combs, who had a motorcycle accident that resulted in a broken back and put him in a wheelchair.

The dive helped both men find relief from their pain, underwater and unconstricted from the forces of gravity.

“For me, diving is completely freeing, to get out of the wheelchair, to get into the water,” Combs told the Springfield News-Leader. “The only time I’m pain-free is when I’m in the water. You get that weightlessness and all the pain goes away. It’s magic. It’s peaceful.”

LifeWaters is a St. Louis-based program that helps people with severe injuries overcome their disabilities by learning to SCUBA dive. It takes many of its clients – most of whom are injured veterans, on open-ocean dives to Cozumel or Bonaire, or other warm-water diving destinations.

The trip to Springfield and WOW is more manageable, financially and for the individuals helped by the experience.

LifeWaters executive director Gary Bufalo said he appreciates Bass Pro Shops and Wonders of Wildlife opening its aquarium to its disabled divers.

“This is an absolutely amazing opportunity for many of our vets — guys in wheelchairs, amputees, people with PTSD — to get an escape from their life and scuba dive,” Bufalo told the News-Leader. “Scuba diving literally changes their lives. It’s absolutely amazing to see the transformation in our LifeWaters adaptive divers. It makes my heart happy to be a piece of this organization.”

Bailey said the “calmness of diving” that he discovered through LifeWaters has been a lifesaver for him as he struggled to deal with PTSD.

“Oh, it’s amazing, it’s absolutely amazing,” he said. “Them reaching out to veterans to do this, you can’t thank ’em enough.”