Diving into recovery

Wounded war veterans find relief at bottom of the ocean

August 11, 2011 

  • You can help wounded veterans by attending the following fundraising dinners, which benefit the Independence Fund. The nonprofit group covers expenses for severely injured veterans and their caregivers during Lt. Dan Weekend 2, set for Sept. 14-18 in downtown Beaufort:

    - Plums Restaurant in Beaufort will host a fundraising dinner at 7 p.m. Tuesday. The four-course dinner, with beer pairings by Terrapin Brewing, is $50 a person, with $10 going directly to the Independence Fund. Reservations may be made by calling 843-986-5092 or emailing plums@hargray.com. The keynote speaker is Cmdr. Richard Jadick. Details: www.plumsrestaurant.com

    - The Friends of Lt. Dan are sponsoring a benefit dinner at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Country Club of Hilton Head Island, 70 Skull Creek in Hilton Head Plantation. The keynote speaker is Cmdr. Richard Jadick, a physician who treated wounded soldiers in Iraq war zones and author of "On Call in Hell." Dinner is $50 a person. Reservations and payments must be received by Friday. Details: Tom and Judy Larkin, 843-689-3685, 770-365-3781 or judydlarkin1@aol.com

    For more information, go to www.independencefund.org or www.ldw2.com.

Scott Schroeder had just finished a dive at the Western Sambo Ecological Reserve off Key West, but before climbing onto the boat, the U.S. Army man of 24 years -- 20 of them with the elite Special Forces -- needed help.

"Could somebody get my leg?" he asked.

About 25 feet below, resting on the ocean's bottom, was one of his sea prostheses, with a flipper attached. His other artificial sea leg was dangling from what remains of his right thigh.

Schroeder, 45, was laughing about his dilemma.

A positive attitude goes a long way in recovering from injuries as grave as the ones he suffered seven months ago in Afghanistan when the modified Humvee he was riding in ran over a roadside bomb.

Schroeder's world changed in that instant. So did his family's.

"Yes, I was injured," the chief warrant officer said. "But the whole family was really injured, too. I was willing to accept the risk and the sacrifices. They didn't choose it."

Healing as a family is why Schroeder, his wife of 23 years, Laura, and their 16-year-old son, Zach, were in Key West last month, taking part in the Task Force Dagger Foundation's recreational therapy program.

Task Force Dagger was the code name for the Special Operations Unit formed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and charged with bringing down the Taliban regime and denying sanctuary to al-Qaida, said Keith David, volunteer managing director of the Texas-based nonprofit group.

Formed in 2009, the foundation has helped 112 wounded Special Operations soldiers and their families on a shoestring budget of $95,000.

"I think the Special Operations soldier is a lot of time very focused, very driven, almost always a type-A person," David said. "When they fall down, they keep getting up, and they don't give up."

That is the case of the 10 wounded warriors who, along with 15 family members, were in the Keys learning or relearning to dive with lost limbs and other injuries as therapy for body and soul.

"They don't want pity; they are professional soldiers," said David, a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces for 15 years. "They just are trying to learn a new skill."

Schroeder, who served on the same team as David in the 1990s, had talked to his old friend in 2009 about how he could help the foundation.

"I never thought I would be on the receiving end," he said.

Less than a year ago, Schroeder deployed to Afghanistan, his first tour of duty there since 2001.

Between those deployments, he had served in Iraq on more missions than he can count, sometimes spending four months there, four months home.

He had suffered minor injuries, but on Dec. 9, 2010, he almost lost his life in Zabul Province in southern Afghanistan.

Several other Humvees had driven past the improvised explosive device. "I think it went off right under me," he said.

He remembers losing one leg in the explosion and about 20 minutes later being carried onto a helicopter. He woke up days later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, his wife at his side. He soon learned he also had lost his other leg above the knee and that his right arm was so damaged it might require amputation.

From that moment, he had a new mission: to get better. For six months, with his wife, son and parents taking turns to ensure round-the-clock support, Schroeder focused on saving his arm and learning to walk on prostheses.

The family diving trip to the Keys became a highlighted date on the calendar.

"When your whole life revolves around the hospital, something like this trip can become a milestone you mentally focus on," said Laura Schroeder, who left her job as a landscaping architect in Clarksville, Tenn., to be at her husband's side as he recovered in Bethesda, Md.

"We knew in July we were going to the beach and learning to scuba dive. It's something we always wanted to take Zach to do."

Before his first open-water dive, the teenager said he was hoping to see a shark.

Mother and son, along with several other participants, began classes in a pool, graduating to the warm waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Scott Schroeder was certified to dive in 1989 but hadn't been since 2002. Now, he had to negotiate the underwater world with artificial legs and a right arm that has limited use.

"Up until about a month ago, I didn't know if I could do it," he said. "You have your hesitations about getting into the water. But yeah, I can do it. And I'm just glad my family is here with me to spend this time doing therapy together."

Laura calls herself the eternal optimist but doesn't know why her husband suffered this fate just at the time he was contemplating retirement.

Schroeder said he can't believe how lucky he has to have such a supportive wife. On the boat, Laura wore a red shirt emblazoned with "Freedom" on the front and "Believe in Heroes" on the back.

Now that he has been able to conquer the sea without legs, Schroeder said his next quest is to skydive again. He has jumped from 27,000 feet while on infiltration missions.

"The Army has been a great life," Schroeder said. "I stayed in way past retirement because I wanted to be on the team. That's all I've known how to do."

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