Monday, March 11, 2013

Scuba Mission

Before embarking on this mission odyssey, a friend at church, aware of my desire to serve a mission and my passion for scuba diving, remarked, “Maybe you’ll get called to a scuba mission.” It was a joke and seemed a bit silly at the time. There is no such thing in the Mormon church as a ‘scuba mission’. However, after ten months in the Florida Jacksonville area our mission sometimes looks like one.

The stars seemed to align perfectly for a scuba mission when the church’s missionary department sent a professional scuba instructor to Florida on a service mission. The parting words from military relations committee leaders in Salt Lake City instructed us to “use your skills and talents to bless the lives of the military members and their families.” Who would have guessed this would involve cylinders of compressed air, neoprene wetsuits, and water? Lots of water.

Sister Draper and her Navy chaplain student
Even before unpacking the last of our household goods, I scuba certified a Navy chaplain. He left on a ship a week later to hunt pirates in the Indian Ocean. While underway, armed with his new status as a certified diver, he explored the enchanting underwater world of Mauritius and the Seychelles.

A few months later I taught scuba to a second Navy sailor and am currently teaching an advanced scuba course to that same Navy chaplain ahead of his next deployment. A Marine Corps family of four will be my newest students in a few weeks. The Deployment Health Center, a Navy department at Naval Air Station Jacksonville (NAS JAX) that works with wounded warriors, asked me to assist with an upcoming introduction-to-scuba course for servicemen coping with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Interest continues to grow. A local dive shop has invited me to teach active duty military members who sign up for lessons. Of course, as both an independent instructor and a missionary, my services cost the students nothing. They pay only for gear rental, dive park or boat fee, and course materials. The local dive shops are aware of my church mission and enthusiastically provide generous discounts, even donating used gear to my students. Elder Draper and I are ready to chip in to defray costs even more for those with an under abundance of funds and an over abundance of desire to be the next Mike Nelson of Sea Hunt fame.

Teaching scuba isn’t the only way we’ve been able to bless the lives of military members by making Florida’s spectacular underwater world accessible. As experienced divers, Elder Draper and I have also participated as dive partners to servicemen in need of a buddy. Safe recreational scuba diving relies on the buddy system. A dive partner within a fin kick or two is just as important as any other piece of scuba equipment a diver takes down into the deep. Serious problems underwater are rare, in part because scuba training focuses on staying out of trouble and getting out of trouble. But a diver who can’t manage a serious problem or becomes anxious and bolts to the surface risks an acute case of decompression sickness or arterial gas embolism that under the worst circumstances can result in death. Snafus underwater can most often be safely resolved underwater, especially with the help of a nearby and attentive dive buddy. That’s were Elder Draper and I come in.

While wiping tables during a USO dinner this summer we met a sailor who was on temporary assignment at NAS JAX from his home port in San Diego. He expressed an interest in diving the waters off Jacksonville before returning to the West Coast but didn’t have anyone to dive with him. He didn’t know where to rent scuba gear or charter a boat. We knew exactly how to help him. Two weeks later the three of us, Elder Draper, me, and David, our new friend, splashed into a calm Florida ocean and enjoyed two beautiful dives filled with goliath grouper, barracuda, shark purses (shark egg cases) with the occupants still snugly inside, and a host of other fascinating sea life at 60 feet. David felt confident and relaxed diving with two experienced dive buddies. As we dropped him off at his billet on base after the adventure he expressed his gratitude and amazement that we went to all the trouble of setting up the excursion, spending the entire day diving with him, and yet would not take any payment for our efforts.

We’ve also been able to help military member non-divers enjoy one of underwater Florida’s greatest treasures: the endangered West Indian Manatee.

Daniel McCray (USS Underwood) and wife Katy
having fun on the manatee trip
Every winter when the Caribbean coastal waters cool down, hundreds of manatees head into Florida’s spring-fed rivers where the water temperature is a year-round balmy 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Nowhere else in Florida is the concentration so great as in the springs of Crystal River. Shallow, clear, calm water make it the perfect place to have an encounter with these gentle, adorable sea cows. In February, Elder Draper and I rented two pontoon boats and filled them with thirteen servicemen and their families for an unforgettable manatee trip. Some had never snorkeled before and found it thrilling to be able to breathe with their faces completely in the water. Not even the day’s cold wind could dampen their enthusiasm. To see mother manatees with their calves was ample reward for their efforts. Everyone loved the trip and all want to do it again.

Of course we are involved in many other rewarding activities of service that do not involve water. A mission is, after all, supposed to be a sacrifice.

In the meantime, my dive bag is packed, the scuba tanks are filled, and the next manatee trip is already on the calendar for 2014.

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