Veterans with PTSD find relief swimming with whale sharks at the Georgia Aquarium
More than 600 service members are expected to swim with the sharks and their aquatic companions this year
When Brian Hood slipped into the cool saltwater, down to where the manta rays drift by in a slow-motion ballet, the gunfire and explosions from that spring day in Baghdad nine years ago, which have reverberated in his mind ever since, didn’t matter so much. The retired Army staff sergeant from Fort Mitchell, Alabama, walks with a cane; suffers from tinnitus in his left ear; and relies on 19 medications to help him cope with PTSD, a traumatic brain injury, and damage to joints in his neck and back. But in the water Hood was weightless, capable, relieved, and possessed of an implausible calmness, given the enormity of many of the thousands of animals around him. In the glass tunnel that bisects the Georgia Aquarium’s blockbuster exhibit, Ocean Voyager, the scuba diver spotted his wife—on land she’s his driver and crutch—and posed for a photo he’ll never forget. It was the highpoint, thus far, of Hood’s three-year involvement with the Wounded Warrior Project, which he credits with getting him off his couch, sobered up, scuba certified, and believing in alternative therapies that include horseback riding and now swimming with whale sharks.
“Once you hit the water, it’s so relaxing; all anxiety is gone,” said Ric O’Brien, a Wounded Warrior Project leader and Vietnam veteran who’s helped coordinate dives and snorkeling excursions for 150 service members in the 6.3-million-gallon habitat. “You’re away from your PTSD. You’re away from any injuries you have. It’s just you and the aquarium.”
As part of a larger mission to honor the U.S. military, the Georgia Aquarium launched its Veterans Immersion Program (VIP) in 2008 with a team of Handicapped Scuba Certified Dive Masters and Instructors (the world’s largest) that can handle vets of all abilities, including those with quadriplegia and amputations. More than 600 service members are expected to swim with the four whale sharks and their aquatic companions from three different oceans this year—plus nearly 5,000 civilians as part of the Journey with Gentle Giants program ($236 for a standard ticket). Officials say the tank’s therapeutic benefits have extended far beyond the military community; Shepherd Center patients, terminally ill folks fulfilling last wishes, autistic teens, the blind, and stressed-out business people have all turned to the tank for rehabilitative help.
“It’s a place of healing—from the breakup of a boyfriend or the wounds of war,” said Susan Oglesby, an aquatic therapist who designed and staffed the programs for public access.
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