Bob Vesseliza (left) and Lyn Litchke help Purple Heart recipient Steven Schulz into scuba gear, at the Try SCUBA event, Saturday Nov. 5, 2022.

Mission Support SCUBA (MSS) hosted its Try SCUBA event to give veterans an introduction to scuba diving under the guidance of professional instructors at Dive Shop San Marcos and the San Marcos Activity Center on Nov. 5

The Try SCUBA event gives veterans an introductory lesson into the world of scuba diving without financial or time commitments. It allows veterans who are physically unable to go through the certification program to experience the benefits of diving.

“A couple of times a year we bring veterans in to figure out if they like to dive or not,” Vesseliza said. “But what's important is even if they don't learn to dive, a lot of folks think it's therapeutic just getting in the water, putting your head underwater and blowing bubbles.”

MSS started out as Operation SCUBA in 2015 as a Texas State program that taught scuba diving to veteran students. In 2019, Texas State stopped funding the program. With help from Dive Shop San Marcos, Bob Vesseliza, an Army veteran and a scuba instructor for Operation Scuba co-founded MSS with other scuba-loving veterans.

Today, MSS is a non-profit organization that relies on donations and sponsors to let all veterans, not just those who attend Texas State, experience scuba without financial pressure.

Try SCUBA is an introduction into scuba diving, encouraging veterans into joining MSS's full Open Water scuba course, which takes place at least twice a year. After a diver gets their certification with MSS, he or she has the opportunity to assist the South Hays Fire Department Dive Team in search and recovery missions. The community also goes on frequent community recreational dives.

“A lot of other groups will certify people and take them on certification dives and then they don't see them anymore,” Vesseliza said. “We do not only teach folks how to dive but we try to keep them involved in water.”

During Try SCUBA events, the instructors cater to the physical needs of any veteran who wants to participate. The afternoon session of Try SCUBA took place at the pool at the San Marcos Activity Center, which is ADA accessible. The location change was so that veterans in wheelchairs could experience scuba diving.

Steven Schulz is an injured Marine veteran who was able to dive because of Try SCUBA. In 2005, Schulz had a traumatic brain injury while serving in Iraq that left him half-blind and half paralyzed. For his service, he was awarded a Purple Heart and has met four presidents. To be able to safely dive, he had help from two instructors to put on the equipment and navigate in the water. The two instructors swam on either side of Schulz, letting him dive in a safe way.

Even though this was not Schulz's first experience with scuba, he was excited to have the opportunity to get in the water.

“It was pretty nice,” Schulz said. “I like the freedom of being able to just go around and be free under the water.”

Caliber Therapies is a specialized therapy company that sponsored the Try SCUBA event. Katie Vara, a recreational therapist and the founder of Caliber Therapies, wanted to sponsor the event so veterans could try diving without worrying about the financial toll of scuba equipment.

Vara believes that scuba can provide both physical and emotional support.

“Scuba actually helps with stability,” Vara said. “It has some physical, social and emotional domains that help you with anxiety and depression. It can also help give a social component to it and you can meet other people with a similar interest. So you can start building some social capital in that way. So it's really, really beneficial across many of the human domains.”

Try SCUBA was in part organized by Texas State therapeutic recreation graduate students from Lyn Litchke’s Issues and Trends in TR Services class. Some of the students got in the water themselves to get hands-on experience with scuba diving as recreational therapy.

Scuba diving requires deep, slow and intentional breaths that calm the diver in the water. Vesseliza believes that scuba diving can help mental health.

“[Controlled breathing] actually switches that track in your brain so you get all the benefits. of relaxation just by breathing in, because you're not able to focus on anything else,” Litchke said. “It really just lights up a different center in the brain.”

Scuba also helps alleviate chronic pain. Because divers float in the water, they don't feel the weight of their own bodies. This weightlessness puts the divers joints under less stress, allowing them a larger range of movement with less pain. The pressure of the water also limits arm or leg tremors because the water holds the body in place.

“I like how much of the weight [being in the water] just takes off my joints and my body, especially with being injured,” Cale Chaney, a first-time diver and Army veteran, said. “I loved it, it was freeing.”

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