Feature - Freedom Float - July 2018

GEORGIA AQUARIUM

 Through the Georgia Aquarium's "Veteran Immersion Program," service personnel participate in rehabilitation and reintegration therapy by swimming in the "Ocean Voyager" habitat. (Credit: Georgia Aquarium"

Combat veterans find SOLACE floating in the Georgia Aquarium

by Scott Fais

“I remember my face felt like it was burning … on fire,” recalls Bren Briggs, 51. The up-armored Humvee the now-retired U.S. Army officer was traveling in had just flipped over in the Iraqi desert, leaving him inverted.

“I was upside down, and I had to get out,” he says.

While Briggs was not literally engulfed in flames, the pain from a crushed windpipe and broken jaw was scorching.

“I reached up and snapped my jaw back into place,” Briggs remembers. 

The lack of medical attention in the weeks following the accident resulted in necrosis—where the cells in Briggs’ face began to die. 

Upon return to the United States, Briggs required surgery on his nose, lips, chin, an eye socket, and what Briggs calls a “double Le Fort,” where surgeons removed his upper and lower jaw, reconstructed them in a tray, and ultimately returned them inside his skull.

“My whole face has been rebuilt,” Briggs says casually. While his salt-and-pepper beard covers the scars, the emotional wounds from 28 years on and off the battlefield are more than skin deep.

“Being gone [at war] is hard. Coming home not as who you went over as … is harder,” Briggs quietly says as his eyes begin to well with emotion.

After his return to the United States, Briggs faced not only multiple surgeries, but also a divorce from his wife and distance from his children.

To cope with the lingering effects of war, Briggs joined other veterans when again suiting up, this time in a softer set of armor—a wetsuit—as they swam inside the 6.3 million-gallon “Ocean Voyager” habitat at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta.  

Partnering with nonprofit organizations that assist military veterans, each Wednesday the Georgia Aquarium offers the “Veterans Immersion Program,” where service personnel participate in rehabilitation and reintegration therapy.

“Getting an opportunity where you’re in the water, with these beautiful animals, where they can release all the things on their shoulders—all the burdens, the rocks they may be carrying back from the combat zone—is very therapeutic for a stressful mind,” says Gratitude America Executive Director Michael Anthony.

Gratitude America supports American military veterans through nature-based recreation and post-traumatic growth upon returning from combat. 

The waters of the Georgia Aquarium are perfect to aid in therapy. The buoyancy of the saltwater, mixed with the absence of sound underwater, is a retreat from the pressures many veterans face.

“There’s a high expectation as a warrior, that they come back and do great things in the United States. That’s stressful,” Anthony says, adding many will try and hide their post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. 

SCOTT FAIS

After adjusting their snorkels and masks, veterans slip into the water to begin the immersive experience. (Credit: Georgia Aquarium)

Before entering the therapeutic waters, servicemen and servicewomen first take part in an orientation before getting fitted for wetsuits. The safety briefing explains how snorkels work, what route participants will follow, and what to do if one of the four 30-foot-long, 20.6-ton whale sharks approaches them (whale sharks eat plant matter and plankton, and have a throat the size of a golf ball).

“Everyone always dreams of swimming with our whale sharks,” says James Beack, a dive coordinator at the Georgia Aquarium.

For the past eight years, Beack has assisted those taking part in the “Veterans Immersion Program,” calling the weekly swim the thing that “fuels” his spirit.

“We hear of these people that do great things,” Beack says of the men and women of the U.S. armed forces. “They’re doing something that matters.”

In their wetsuits topped with a floatation device, the veterans look as if they are again in uniform. As a group, they slowly enter the water from a floating dock on the water’s surface. From there, masks and snorkels are adjusted while everyone is given 10 minutes to slowly acclimate to the water before guides like Beack lead veterans on their half-hour swim.

The massive whale sharks routinely glide by swimmers, while giant manta rays pass under participants with their 10-foot wingspans. Graceful sharks, thousands of fish, and a rescued sea turtle accompany the swimmers, along with a videographer the Georgia Aquarium provides, who records the swim as a take-home keepsake. 

Loved ones and friends of the veterans can watch from below, while navigating “Ocean Voyage’s” submerged tunnel. A two-story gallery window also gives guests a look at the veterans—many who find the experience transformative.

“In this water…” Briggs begins to say, but quickly pauses in order to collect himself, “there’s just something. Everything else is gone—there’s no pain—it’s just gone. It’s a component that’s hard to put into words.”

It’s something Beack has seen firsthand. 

SCOTT FAIS“Oftentimes when the veterans arrive, they are solemn, very quiet. But when they get out of that water, they are beaming from one ear to another—just as happy as can be,” Beack says.

Retired U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Harold Peck Jr. classifies as one of them.

“Once I got in the water, I couldn’t believe how peaceful it was. It calmed me down,” Peck says upon exiting dripping wet.

At age 48, and following five tours of duty in Iraq, Peck still looks like a soldier: his crew cut hairstyle is kept short, while his bulging biceps, and chiseled chest look like the physique belonging to a 19-year-old recruit at boot camp. Take one look and Peck appears to be the picture of health. Yet, like many veterans, Peck joined the “Veterans Immersion Program” to quiet his mind and bring calm to his body. Seldom does Peck sit still—his sun-kissed tan arms and legs are full of motion, that’s until he floated and let go.

“When I think of anything that is monumental or precious in my life, today will be one of them,” Peck reveals.

After a failed marriage, bouts with depression, and imagery from the ravages of war still clouding his mind, Peck says he repeats “good thoughts” each morning as his “coping strategy” for the day ahead.

“Now I have something to add to that,” he says following the experience.

Since the program’s inception in 2008, more than 3,500 veterans and active-duty military personnel have benefited from the “Veteran’s Immersion Program.”

“If we can take this experience to the rest of our life, and let things go the same way we did here, and be emotionally buoyant, and not be weighed down by the heaviness, boy, that would be something to package and give to everybody,” Briggs concludes with a grin.

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A giant whale shark moves in to get a closer look at the veterans swimming in the 6.3 million gallon "Ocean Voyager" habitat at the Georgia Aquarium. (Credit: Georgia Aquarium).

Of the 2.2 million American troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 ...

  • Up to 20 veterans commit suicide a day
  • Between 20-30 percent of deployed troops test positive for depression or post-traumatic stress disorder
  • 100,000 soldiers today take prescribed anti-anxiety medication

Source: Gratitude America