The ocean is a significant part of life in South Florida. But for many disabled veterans, accessing the water is not always easy.
It took Army veteran Don Bickham three years to learn how to sail a boat. Unlike most newcomers to sailing, he couldn’t rely on his eyes.
Bickham’s cataracts began to affect his sight when he served in the Army during Vietnam. When he returned from combat, he underwent a botched surgery that resulted in him losing almost all of his sight. Now he can only partially see from one eye.
Since becoming legally blind, Bickham lost the ability to drive and depends on others to take him around. Learning to sail was a way Bickham could gain some independence, and now he teaches sailing classes to beginners. He has since taken on other sports like biking, fishing and hiking. Bickham was introduced to the watersports organization Shake-A-Leg almost five years ago through veterans affairs.
“Before I would say, 'well, I can’t see that, I can’t do that,'" said Bickham. "But now I may not be able to see it, but I’m going to say, 'Let me try.'"
In South Florida, veterans with physical disabilities and mental disorders like PTSD, depression and anxiety can find it difficult to participate in activities such as diving, snorkeling or sailing. Even a simple trip to the beach can be a strenuous task.
Programs including Shake-A-Leg in Coconut Grove and DiveHeart in Palm Beach give veterans the chance to learn watersports and eventually teach the sports to others — including other veterans.
The Shake-A-Leg organization was founded in Miami in 1990 by Harry Horgan. Partnered with the city of Miami and veteran affairs, the group helps the disabled, veterans and their families. DiveHeart is a nationwide organization, with branches in Atlanta, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
Shake-A-Leg sailing instructor J.P. White, a retired Navy veteran, said that leaving combat and then returning to society can be difficult. “You really feel like you don’t fit in,” White said.
“But when I’m out on the water and I’m sailing, I do fit in, I do understand the rules, I do recognize how things are supposed to work,” White said. “It was something I could identify with when I did get out of the military.”
Army veteran Sharmaynne Thomas has been taking sailing classes at Shake-A-Leg for two months. Her service dog named Lady — a large, white, long-haired American Bulldog — joins her on every trip.
While in the Army, Thomas was in a Jeep accident that left her severely injured. She broke her shoulder, collar bone, hip, both knees and both ankles. She has since recovered from her physical injuries, but still has lingering mental issues and suffers from seizures.
Thomas often relies on Lady to help her leave her house.
“That’s hard because I’d rather be inside where I can control, than be outside and be fearful,” she said.
But when she’s by the water and with other veterans, Thomas said she feels at peace.
“Just something about the sea, something about the ocean, it’s like your mother. You know, like when she rocks you, it feels the same way,” said Thomas.
She said she hopes to eventually become an instructor, so that she is able to spread that same peace to others.
Almost two hours north of Shake-A-Leg, at Palm Beach’s DiveHeart, veteran Larry Yates practices his scuba diving.
Yates has non-combat-related spastic paraplegia and is unable to move his legs. He has been in a wheelchair since he left the Army over 20 years ago. But with the help of his instructor and Marine veteran David DeChant, Yates has practiced diving in a swimming pool. Recently, he dove in the ocean for the first time.
“He’s been working with me for two years and he teaches me everything,” Yates said. “It’s relaxing to have someone that knows what they’re doing and not afraid to work with you. A lot of people, when you’re in a wheelchair, they don’t want you anywhere near them.”
DeChant meets Yates almost every Saturday to train and he is preparing him for his next dive in the keys.
As a former Marine and instructor, DeChant believes other veterans can be healed by the ocean and that getting them into the water can help save their lives.
“To see them touch the sand for the first time or see sharks, or numerous fin fish that are there, or coral, and to see the smiles on their face — it’s just incredible,” DeChant said.