ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- A different type of therapy started at the Veterans Affairs Hospital at Jefferson Barracks aims to take veterans dealing with injuries to depths previously unknown.

LifeWaters helps veterans deal with pain by taking a plunge, but their latest underwater adventure starred a new hero: John Hartwell.

Hartwell served his country for years in the U.S. Air Force, but five years ago he received a deadly diagnosis: Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS. The disease progressively paralyzes its victims, attacking nerve cells and pathways in the brain or spinal cord.

“I've always been an optimist. When I got diagnosed with this, I wasn't too pleased and went through a fairly depressed stage, but the bottom line is everybody's going to die sometime," Hartwell said. "At least I know when I'm going to go better than most and I can plan for it accordingly, which I have.”.

An increasing number of military veterans are being diagnosed with the devastating disease, but the any possible connection between their service and their diagnosis remains a mystery.

Since his diagnosis, Hartwell has kept an optimistic attitude in the face of a daunting future.

“I'm doing pretty well. The arms don't work and the legs are starting to go, but I'm still scooting around in my wheelchair. That way I get some exercise on my legs and you know, do what I can while I can,” he said.

Hartwell is appreciative of the support he's received through the VA in Miami where he lives, as well as organizations across the country. As he said, he “never realized how much support there was for the veterans, I've been pretty lucky.”

That’s why he was grateful when he received the chance to re-live a passion from earlier in his life: scuba diving;  a dream made possible by LifeWaters, an organization based out of the VA in St. Louis.

Charley Wright is a therapist with the VA and one of the founders of LifeWaters.

“We provide the opportunity for people with disabilities to scuba dive under water," he said. "We do anyone from an amputee, to a spinal cord injury, to PTSD.”

Before the pandemic, LifeWaters was taking veterans on hundreds of dives a year. Wright said they started with a few local veterans with spinal cord injuries, and before long, they expanded nationally.

And LifeWaters has a special program for veterans like Hartwell called a Hero Dive.

“The Hero Dive came about a few years ago. We had a veteran here locally diagnosed with ALS. His wish was to scuba dive and to do that with his family” said Wright.

LifeWaters will take the veteran and his family to a controlled environment to scuba and snorkel. Hartwell’s adventure was set for the Georgia Aquarium. Wright said the controlled environment is easier to deal with for those with ALS, plus, “with the aquarium you always know what you are going to get and there is a 100% chance you are going to run into a whale shark.”

Before his adventure, Hartwell spoke about what he was excited about, and was especially eager to see the variety of sea life. 

“Being able to go into an aquarium it's amazing. The number of things you'll see that you'd never see in an open water dive,” he said. 

For these trips, LifeWaters covers the all the costs for the veterans and their families. As a nonprofit, they rely on donations and grants to keep their organization afloat. Co-founder Matt Wilson helps with that part.

“Charley told me his dream about LifeWaters and what his therapy was and was trying to figure out how to put it together,” Wilson said. 

Like Wright, Wilson is also an avid scuba enthusiast. For their venture, Write handles the therapy and Wilson handles the business end of things. But helping veterans is also a personal mission dear to his heart.

“I’m a Marine. I did a tour in the Marine Corps. When Charley presented it to me, I just fell in love with it the idea” said Wilson.

Wilson is also a member of the Downtown St. Louis Rotary Club and his fellow club members also fell in love with LifeWaters, putting together a program between Rotary Club 11 and the nonprofit. 

Before the pandemic, the Rotary Club pledged to finance the next hero dive, wherever it took place.

"We were excited about it. The endowment fund is looking for a different type of project that aren’t funded through other Rotary programs, so we were happy to listen to somebody with a unique and different program,” said Ken Schuman with the Rotary Club’s endowment fund.

Dr. Beth Russell, a past president of the Rotary Club said she was excited to be a part of the process.

“LifeWaters was presented to us as a potential program. That’s how we began our journey and then of course having members of our club diving with the veterans. So, over the years with our community service opportunities, the grants that we've given, we've gotten to know a lot more about Charley and LifeWaters.”

Hartwell’s will be the 5th Hero Dive, and while Wright is excited to help another vet with ALS, he knows too well such stories don't have a happy ending.

As Wright spoke about the program, growing emotional, he said, “we never went out to find Hero Dive it happened on its own…. It’s cool. It’s a cool experience. It’s a life-changing moment, the diving is really the cherry on the cake. It's everything that happens before and after.”

The Georgia Aquarium hosts veterans weekly for events, but the LifeWaters experience is a bit more in-depth.

“There is a ton of behind the scenes effort that goes into it but at the end of the day, it’s all worthwhile” said Chris Miller, manager of the Diver Immersion Program at the Aquarium.

Miller said they work with veterans groups that come into snorkel every Wednesday, but not every group goes underwater like LifeWaters.

After weeks of preparation and more than a year in the making due to COVID-19, on May 7th, 2021, Hartwell finally got his Hero Dive.

"This is a phenomenal opportunity, can’t wait to get in there and see something while I’m diving because most of the other times I’ve been diving, you rarely see anything big and there are plenty of things out there, can’t wait,” he said. 

Because Hartwell does not have control over his upper body, he required a team of helpers to get in the water.

"There is a lot of trust in this, going in the water," said Wilson. "You are talking about the fact that they can’t save themselves if something goes wrong and the trust they put in the LifeWaters team going in there and being there.”

Unfortunately, after multiple attempts, Hartwell was not able to stay under water for a scuba dive, due to the toll ALS had taken on his body.

”ALS can really do a number on your lungs and your body” said Wright, “He's a hell of a trooper, we are still going to do a big swim with the whale sharks.”

With the aid of four helpers, Hartwell has able to snorkel around the massive tank. As therapists held his head steady, he was able to look down on at the depths to catch a glimpse of sea turtles, manta rays and whale sharks. After getting out of the water, Hartwell was ecstatic.

“That was great, that was fantastic. I really appreciate these guys helping me out like that, just made it really easy,” he said. 

Hartwell feels blessed by all the support he's been given and urges anyone in his position to stick to his motto: “Do it while you can."

“By all means anyone who has been given this opportunity. you ought to take it," he said. “I mean thank you, thank you, thank you. This whole group has been fantastic. I’m just very lucky that I got picked for this. What can I say? Absolutely great.”

If you are interested in donating to Lifewaters, there is a link here to donate to the 501c3 recognized nonprofit: https://www.lifewaters.org/

Copyright 2021 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved

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