Finding a new life beneath the waves: Diving instructor helping injured servicemen overcome disabilities

Fraser Bathgate helps an injured serviceman get to grips with diving
Fraser Bathgate helps an injured serviceman get to grips with diving
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THE warm water of one of the world’s most beautiful coral reefs, crystal clear and alive with vivid colours – a world away from the dirt, chaos and horror of bloody war.

Into the calm ocean slips a serviceman, body broken by enemy explosives, mind and spirit crushed by the slow and painful crawl back to reality, a nightmare journey from field of war to sterile hospital bed and months of gruelling rehabilitation.

Fraser Bathgate

Fraser Bathgate

And it’s in that soothing water, in what Fraser Bathgate likes to call “a giant fish IMAX, a massive aquarium with no limits” that something rather spectacular happens.

For as they dive in the warmth, almost without fail brave servicemen whose lives seemed doomed to pain, discover something they thought had slipped away forever – a life that’s once more worth living.

Fraser, a paraplegic who battled against his own disability following a climbing accident to become an expert diver, sees these minor miracles unfold both in and out of the ocean. Beneath the waves as the battle-scarred discover a new world unfurl before them in weightless suspension where, once more, they have independence and control of their bodies, and then later on dry land as the talk inevitably turns to war, injuries, recovery and the different lives they now lead.

Twice a year Edinburgh-based Fraser gathers groups of British servicemen whose terrible battlefield injuries have left them physically and mentally scarred, and transports them to the warm comfort of Florida. There they take part in a unique scuba diving school, Deptherapy, that has achieved remarkable results in helping not only to introduce them to a fascinating underwater world, but also open their traumatised minds, release demons and launch a whole new healing process.

For what started as a means of helping wounded soldiers enjoy a new kind of activity, soon revealed hidden benefits – an ability to not only soothe the damage done by war, but even help mend minds and prevent further tragedy.

“There was one guy,” recalls Fraser, “who’d sat up the night before coming along to dive. He had his service revolver and he was flipping a coin: heads or tails. Where it landed depended on whether he ended it all there and then or he came on the diving trip with us.

“He was at dinner after the dive, talking about it. What set me off was when he turned to me and said ‘you’ve saved my life’. You feel then that you’ve had a lot to do with helping someone.”

Earlier this week his contribution to helping the disabled, and more recently injured servicemen, experience the wonders of the deep was recognised when he became the first Scot to be inducted into the diving community’s global Hall of Fame. He joins the likes of Jacques-Yves Cousteau and his son Jean-Michel, celebrity divers such as actor Lloyd Bridges and author Clive Cussler, environmentalists, underwater cameramen and equipment innovators in being recognised for contributions to diving with a Reaching Out award.

Quite an achievement for someone who chanced upon the sport after a climbing accident at the age of 23 left him disabled, miserable and questioning where his own life would lead.

“Someone stole my safety gear,” he recalls. He was 25ft up a training wall at the time. Distracted by the theft, he plunged straight to the ground with nothing to break his fall. His legs took the full impact of his fall, pushing bone upward until it compressed his spine.

Once fit, healthy and adventurous – a bit like the servicemen he helps today – Fraser retreated into dark moods which only lifted when, desperate to lure him from his misery, his sister suggested a trip to Dubai where a couple at a local diving school insisted his disability posed no difficulty to him learning the sport.

Twenty-five years on and Fraser, 48, is the world’s leading disabled dive expert, the first fully qualified paraplegic diving instructor and the force behind the courses which are changing injured servicemen’s lives.

The Depthology Foundation was launched four years ago, almost by accident after he was invited to Fort Campbell in Kentucky to share his disabled diving expertise with the 101st Airborne Division, known as the Screaming Eagles.

He took six disabled war veterans to the world’s largest dive centre at Key Largo, and showed them a world rich in colour and teeming with sea life that they’d never before experienced.

Apart from the thrill of being able to move, unsupported and free in the water, the veterans – some of whom had never spoken of their injuries and war traumas – bonded in a way no-one had suspected would happen. Perhaps influenced by Fraser’s own experiences of overcoming disability, they talked openly, often for the first time, of their injuries, their feelings and their fears.

“It turned out the downtime is just as important as the diving,” recalls Fraser, who lives in Lochend. “Talking among themselves can be as therapeutic as time in the water.

“In one case, the actual incident dated back about nine years but this guy had never spoken about it. It turned out his best friend went to take what should have been his position. His friend was the one who got blown up and killed.

“This guy blamed himself,” adds Fraser. “But he found he could talk about it and offload completely. It turned around his whole outlook.”

Since 2007 Fraser has led two trips a year to Florida and others to the Caymen Islands, taking British injured servicemen along with US counterparts – another element to his unique programme which he believes has helped open doors in fragile minds.

“Having the British and American troops mixing is working incredibly well,” he explains. “They are able to talk about things like the differences in equipment, the food, how they are treated. They have a fantastic rapport.”

For the British servicemen who take part, the therapy starts the moment they touch down on American soil where they met by a “guard of honour” of police outriders and VIP-style hospitality from locals.

Once in the water, they experience a wealth of sensations: “They get complete freedom. They’ve been in a wheelchair and now they are in an environment where they have 360-degree movement and a dynamic to their world that they didn’t have before,” says Fraser. “They discover they can do something that they maybe thought was beyond them prior to that.”

Among the British servicemen to take part have been young men with missing limbs, a British Iraq veteran whose bravery earned him the George Cross medal but left him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, others with shrapnel injuries and internal damage from bullets and bombs. One, who for security reasons can be identified only as Owen, says diving has helped change his life. “I was blown up in 2010, shattered my leg from knee down, shattered heel, foot, the whole lot.

“Diving makes you see that you can still do stuff in the water, it doesn’t hurt. Being in the water, being with the people is so nice . . . it’s a release. There’s plenty that would benefit from it.”

The benefits, agrees Fraser, are evident in the programme’s success rate: 98 per cent of those who try it, continue it.

“I remember one doctor I was working with had spent a lot of money on a sensory room and he said that this is the next level, immersing them in their senses. Not just sight, sound, touch and feel but they are surrounded and immersed in this warm clear water in the world’s third largest barrier reef, where there are groupers, spiny lobsters, angel fish, clown fish. It’s a giant fish IMAX, an aquarium with no limits.

“I just want people to get a chance to have a shot at what I do,” he adds. “By giving them that little shot sometimes it’s enough to change their lives.”

For more details go to www.deptherapy.co.uk

AS RELEVANT TODAY AS IT HAS EVER BEEN

By Neil Griffiths, Royal British Legion Scotland

THIS year marks the 90th anniversary of the Scottish Poppy Appeal.

The men of the First World War would be surprised, if gratified, to know that all these years later communities still gather round war memorials in November wearing the same poppy that was introduced to raise funds for them.

They would be dismayed to hear 29-year-old Private Paul Lambert of 1 SCOTS, who lost his legs in an IED explosion in Afghanistan, declaring: “I always wore the poppy to remember my grandfather. Now, with your help, the poppy can rebuild my life.”

Dismayed, but they would understand. They knew better than most that wars create casualties. The British Armed Forces have been in action since the end of the Second World War and the list of victims grows with each passing year. This is why the poppy remains as relevant today as ever.

It was in 1921 that collars and lapels in Britain first bore the bright red paper bloom which instantly gained a special place in our culture. Although the poppies were initially imported from devastated areas of France, it took only until 1926 for the Scottish Appeal to have its own factory.

The Lady Haig Poppy Factory in Edinburgh produces all Scotland’s five million poppies, 8000 wreaths and 60,000 collecting tins.

The appeal, organised by Poppyscotland, is enjoying a run of ever-bigger totals. Last year’s record of £2.35 million was a five per cent increase on 2009, showing us that the public continues to acknowledge the debt of honour we owe our Service people. The charity gave £800,000 to 1360 individuals and £959,000 to 15 organisations. Veterans received assistance towards emergency home repairs, temporary accommodation and home adaptations, re-training grants and small business loans, while organisations such as mental health charity Combat Stress and housing charity Scottish Veterans’ Garden City Association benefited too. Last year Poppyscotland launched the Armed Forces Advice Project to offer free confidential advice to serving personnel, veterans and their families in Scotland, where Citizens Advice Scotland staff assist with a wide-range of issues, including finances, benefits, housing and employment.

In the past four years, Poppyscotland has increased average expenditure per beneficiary by 84 per cent. While this reflects the rising cost of care in today’s climate, the link between modern conflicts and those of the First World War trenches will always be the poppy. It has endured as a symbol of blood, fragility, death, rebirth and remembrance.

Those who died serving their country, or who suffer still, must not be forgotten. This is where the poppy, as a symbol of remembrance and heroic fundraiser, continues to play a vital role. It has also come to represent war, peace, hope and sacrifice but with a stubborn sense of regeneration too. The poppy remains a compelling symbol and is needed now as much as it ever was.