WASHINGTON - Six months after an explosive device cost him his lower right arm, Wisconsin Army National Guard sergeant and world-class athlete Darrell "J.R." Salzman has found the great equalizer.
"The hardest thing that I've had to do [since the injury] was actually here," Salzman said as he floated in full scuba-diving gear in Walter Reed Army Medical Center's aquatic therapy pool in early June. "You have to tread water for 10 minutes. Treading water for 10 minutes with half a hand that was so hard to do. So hard. A couple of times, I went underwater, but I fought it out and stuck with it. I'm still here. I made it."
An explosively formed penetrator (EFP) cost Salzman his right arm below his elbow and the ring finger on his left hand; it also inflicted left-hand nerve damage that affected surviving fingers.
It is John W. Thompson, a former Colorado National Guard Soldier who is Salzman's volunteer scuba instructor, who calls water the great equalizer, and Salzman and other wounded warriors say they agree.
"Many things are just easier to do in the water for amputees," Thompson said.
Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba Diving (SUDS) is a new, all-volunteer program for wounded warriors at Walter Reed. About 25 amputees have been through SUDS since February, and six more service members get the opportunity every two weeks.
SUDS is the brainchild of Thompson, a former Outward Bound instructor who is certified by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) and by the Handicapped Scuba Association (HSA).
"It is absolutely the most rewarding thing I have ever been involved in," Thompson said. "I am truly inspired by the Soldiers at Walter Reed."
The goal is to challenge wounded warriors from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom and give them a skill that they can continue to enjoy into old age, Thompson said.
New to scuba diving, Salzman is far from new to the water. "I'm in the water all the time," he said. "It's my life in the summer. I love it."
A homebuilder by trade, Salzman, of Menomonie, Wisc., has been a lumberjack sports competitor from age 5, specializing in log-rolling and boom-running.
A fixture on ESPN's Great Outdoor Games, Salzman won 14 medals and ESPN's 2005 ESPY Award for Best Outdoor Sports Athlete. He has been a semi-pro and pro, tied for the all-time medal winner in the Great Outdoor Games, and set log-rolling and boom-running world records.
On Dec. 19, 2006, Salzman and two other Soldiers were the lead scouts for a fuel tanker convoy when an EFP hit the vehicle they were riding in.
"One second I'm sitting in the vehicle telling my driver something," Salzman said. "Next, I'm waking up. My whole body hurts. My arm hurts. Everything got really loud. I had lost my arm. â€¦ I was reaching for something at the time. Had I not been reaching for it, I just would have had some injuries on my left hand. But I had my arm up, and I lost my arm."
Salzman, 27, plans to return to college and perhaps teach industrial education, or shop. "Every semester, I'm going to make up a new story about how I lost my arm," he joked. "These kids are not going to know what to think."
He has decorated his prosthesis with a blue flame design, points out his injuries to all who ask in whatever degree of detail they want, and treats his amputation as a new challenge to work around.
"With my injuries, I have to relearn everything," he said. "I used to be right-handed. Now I'm left-handed, but I have a damaged left hand, so I've got to relearn everything, from tying my shoes to packing my bag."
In the aquatic therapy pool, Salzman is relearning and expanding his water skills. "I had never scuba-dived before in my life," he said. "It's a whole other world. I can pretty much do everything in the pool that I could do before, with my injuries."
In August, Thompson plans to take six wounded warriors to Bonaire, a Caribbean island in the Netherlands Antilles, for open-water dives required for certification. Later this year, he hopes to take a trip to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he once taught recreational scuba to deployed service members, including National Guard members.
"It's definitely boosted his confidence," said Salzman's wife, Josie, 20. "He got in the water and he can do it just fine, just like any other person."
Chad Watson, 24, a Marine Reservist injured by an improvised explosive device in Fallujah, Iraq on Nov. 29, 2006, finds weightlessness and quiet in the pool.
"You feel more normal in the water," Watson said.
"You have to imagine waking up from a drug-induced coma not having limbs," said Army Staff Sgt. Jacque Keeslar, 37. Both his legs were amputated after he was wounded June 27, 2006, by an improvised explosive device in Iraq. "A lot of things go through your mind, what you can and can't do. Anything you can do â€¦ is an accomplishment."
Salzman said he is repeatedly reminded that he is missing part of his right arm. He experiences phantom limb, the sensation that his arm is still there. Sometimes, he believes in his sleep that his arm is still all there, rediscovering its absence all over again upon waking.
Other therapeutic programs available to wounded warriors at Walter Reed include fly fishing, deep-sea fishing and kayaking.
"There are a lot of programs going on at Walter Reed that help," Keeslar said. "It's amazing to me how many programs are out there that help wounded veterans."
Keeslar was a certified scuba diver before his injury. "I still want to dive," he said. "I still want to ride a motorcycle. They give you the opportunity to be able to come in here and realize that there's really nothing that's changed that you still can do all the things that you wanted to do. It's going to be a little bit challenging, or you need different equipment."
Five weeks after his injury, Keeslar completed a five-mile handbike race. Five months after his injury, he completed the New York Marathon on a handbike.
"I don't think it's just me," he said. "It's everybody that's in the military. We have that drive-spirit. We're always up to a challenge. Now that I have no legs, everything's a challenge."
Contributors to SUDS include the Annapolis Scuba Center, the Chatham Bay Foundation, Disabled Sports USA and PADI.
- To learn more about the Soldiers Undertaking Scuba Diving program, visit www.sudsdiving.org
- To donate to SUDS, visit Disabled Sports USA at www.dsusa.org and specify that the donation is for the SUDS program.