combat-wounded-coral-farm-peteBy Howard Altman | Tampa Tribune

Shortly before 10 a.m., on the dock outside Mote Marine Laboratory, dozens of divers prepare for an underwater mission that will meld science with the triumph of the human spirit.

As gear and food and ice are stowed aboard the small flotilla of waiting boats on a sweltering Monday morning, Mike McCauley, a researcher with the J.E. Hanger College of Orthotics and Prosthetics at St. Petersburg College, hauls equipment highlighting the unusual nature of this excursion.

“Where do I put these?” asks McCauley, a big smile on his face, of the three prosthetic sea legs he is carrying.

The legs belong to some of six men on the trip who lost limbs while serving their country. They are taking part in a trip organized by a retired Navy captain from Palm Harbor whose organization – the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge – has partnered with St. Petersburg College to find ways of building better prosthetics. But in addition to being underwater research subjects, the men are also taking part in an operation with a group of young divers from the Tampa Bay area to help restore the Gulf of Mexico’s population of staghorn coral, which was nearly wiped out a few years ago.

“Anyone can scuba dive,” says Dave Olson, who created the groups and organized the dive. “But underwater research? That’s something very different. These men were selfless in battle, now they are selfless after their injuries.”

Under a scorching sun, the Sunshine, a 29-foot Prokat boat, rocks in a gentle Gulf breeze about three miles off Summerland Key. Billy Costello, a heavy scuba tank on his back, sits aft and fiddles with the strap on a dive fin he is trying to secure to his prosthetic right foot.

To Costello, an Army staff sergeant with the 3rd Special Forces Group, these are familiar waters.

Three years ago, he attended the Army’s Special Forces Underwater Operations School, located on Naval Air Station Key West. For six weeks, he underwent some of the most grueling – and little known – underwater training the military has to offer.

“When I would go downtown, I would hear people say, ‘Did you see the Navy SEALs training?'” says Costello. “But there are no Navy SEALs training at Key West. It’s all Army combat divers.”

Costello never went out on a combat diving mission, but he was deployed to Afghanistan, to work on the Village Stability Operations program designed to help the Afghans defend themselves. On Sept. 20, 2011, he stepped on an improvised explosive device while on a route-clearing mission in Kandahar Province. He wound up losing his right leg above the knee.

That didn’t stop Costello, 31, who is still on active duty but in the process of medically retiring, from returning to the water.

Almost exactly a year ago, he hooked up with the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge, returning to diving for the first time since his injury. It was also the first year that Olson, who has taken wounded veterans up mountains, through rivers and down into the Grand Canyon, held the diving challenge. Like last year, there are two main goals to Costello’s time underwater. He’s helping researchers find new ways of building prosthetics and helping another group Olson formed – SCUBAnauts International – restore the coral population.

After securing the fin to his prosthetic foot, Costello tests out the breathing apparatus and, with the help of the boat’s de facto dive master, he jumps into the warm, turquoise water. It is so clear that those working with the coral on the sea floor 25 feet below are visible from the surface.

Minutes later, John “JD” Greer, a retired Green Beret major, takes his place in the aft. But before he can follow Costello into the water, he requires a little more help getting his gear on, because he has a claw-like prosthetic where his right hand used to be. In 2006, while assigned to protect U.S. diplomats in Iraq, his vehicle was hit by an array of five IEDs, resulting in the loss of his right arm below the elbow, traumatic brain injury and burns to his chest and left lung.

With his diving mask hanging from the hook on his right hand, Greer, at 56 the oldest of the wounded divers, checks his breathing equipment. He puts on his mask, then his fins. With a shove from boat owner Ben Hayes – a former closer for the Cincinnati Reds and president of the minor league New York-Penn League – Greer hits the water with a loud splash.

Costello and Greer then dive to the bottom, where there are rows of metal tubing secured to the Gulf floor. The Mote research center developed a way to grow staghorn coral by snipping off pieces of live coral, placing them on fishing line and then hanging that fishing line on the metal tubing underwater. The divers – combat wounded and SCUBAnauts – are on a mission to hang the coral to the tubing “just like a Christmas tree,” says Greer.

A day earlier, in the Olympic-sized pool at the Army’s Underwater Operations School where Costello once trained, the St. Petersburg College prosthetics researchers conducted the bulk of their studies on the men missing limbs.

Two of those men – John Kremer, a medically retired Navy explosives ordinance technician and Army Sgt. 1st Class Chris Corbin – each lost both legs to IEDs. With two prosthetic legs each, Kremer, 30, and Corbin, 26, provided the researchers with a greater range of options to study.

One of the main goals of the research was to establish a baseline of how the men performed in the water, according to Arlene Gillis, program director of the prosthetics college.

She and McCauley, along with some local emergency medical technicians from Key West, observed the six amputees as they swam 50 meters with and without their prosthetics.

The EMTs measured heart rate and blood pressure, before and after. A team of videographers captured certain motions the men made as they swam.

“There has been leaps and bounds made in prosthetics on land,” says McCauley. “But when you look for literature on underwater prosthetics, it is very limited and the most recent was in 1998.”

The researchers are trying to calculate the speed and efficiency at which the men move underwater, says McCauley.

“We need to develop prosthetics that will make them more efficient in the water,” says McCauley. “The harder they have to work, the more oxygen they use and the less time they can spend in the water.”

New prosthetics will have many other benefits, for troops and civilians, he says.

Many amputees find that recuperating in a pool after losing a limb is far quicker, and offers greater balance and confidence. But most insurance policies won’t cover prosthetics that can be used in the water.

“If we prove that there is a need, maybe they will,” he says.

As for troops, McCauley says the goal is to improve chances of returning to active duty as well as opportunities for recreation.

Costello, the Army staff sergeant, not only agrees with that, but he is working with St. Petersburg College on new prosthetics based on his own experiences.

He has already developed a prototype.

“Finding the right prosthetics to do the job has been my biggest issue,” says Costello. “I am creating something that will be able to hold up to the demands of combat.”

The new device, says Costello, would allow the user to swim efficiently, then convert quickly to running on land.

“We are in the elementary stages,” says Costello. “The hardest part is actually fabricating it, making the ideas a solid piece.”

The underwater study is one of four Gillis’ team is conducting with the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge, whose missions are now part of the school’s curriculum.

But the researchers at the J.E. Hanger College aren’t the only ones on hand to help design new underwater gear for the wounded.

Jack Snively, the Southern Florida sales manager for Oceanic, which makes diving equipment like fins and masks, accompanied the wounded as an event sponsor. He says he will take some of the ideas Costello and the others came up with and bring them back to the factory.

Veterans rave about dive

About 40 minutes after diving below the surface, Costello pops back up, followed by Greer. The men make their way back aboard the Sunshine, take off their gear and rave about their time below.

“It was great working with the kids,” says Greer, the ruddy, post-dive glow on his face.

Greer’s task was to use a crimping device to secure the coral-laden lines to the metal tubing.

“I sat there and crimped, crimped, crimped,” he says.

After the coral was placed on the tubes, Costello and Greer and the four other amputee divers – Pete Quintanilla, Will Wilson, Kremer and Corbin, plus Roland Vaughan and Casey Roberts, who suffered traumatic brain injuries – spend nearly another hour on a recreational dive several miles away at Looe Key, which offered a wider array of undersea life, including a shark.

Hours later, during a dinner for the whole team back on Naval Air Station Key West, the St. Petersburg College prosthetic researchers say that for them, the mission has been a big success.

“We collected a lot of data and a lot of video,” says McCauley, who hopes to have a study completed in a few months and a prototype of Costello’s innovations in about two years. Next year, he says he hopes to have software that will allow researchers to accurately gauge how much oxygen the divers are using, to better analyze their underwater efficiency.

“Something to look forward to,” he says.

The researchers aren’t the only ones touting success.

The next day, as the divers and SCUBAnauts – girls and boys between 12 and 18 – gather at the dock for another day in the water, Erich Bartels, a staff scientist for Mote, makes an announcement that pleases everyone.

“Last year, we hung about 600 corals in two days,” he says. “Yesterday alone, we hung 800. Let’s see if we can get to 1,000 today.”