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Combat Wounded & Injured Veterans, SCUBAnauts Team Up to Help Mote Marine Laboratory Restore Life to Florida


Florida’s coral reef got a boost Monday, July 29, when volunteers from the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge and SCUBAnauts International St. Petersburg and Tarpon Springs Chapters joined scientists from Mote Marine Laboratory at work in Mote’s coral reef nursery in the Florida Keys.

More than six years ago, Mote established an underwater coral nursery where scientists grow fragments of coral — particularly the threatened staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) — for replanting on decimated or damaged sections of reef within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

When the corals reach a suitable size, new coral fragments are snipped off, or propagated, to create new corals — similar to the way new plants are grown from cuttings of existing plants. On Monday, the youngsters and the veterans helped scientists hang the snipped sections of coral on special “trees” where the corals can continue to grow. The SCUBAnauts and Veterans will be going out again Tuesday, July 30, with Mote to continue the work.


By joining forces, Mote has the opportunity to involve citizen scientists in reef restoration and give them hands-on opportunities to learn more about ways reefs can be returned to health. It also helps produce more coral fragments to help restore Florida’s reef. By the end of the two-day mission, the SCUBAnauts and Veterans are expected to produce some 2,000 coral fragments, bringing the number of staghorn corals growing in Mote’s nursery to about 10,000.

In addition to helping with the efforts to restore Florida’s coral reef, the partnership also allows the SCUBAnauts to learn more about real-world restoration and conservation and it allows the veterans to demonstrate to other combat wounded veterans facing similar challenges and obstacles that anything can be overcome.  Vulneror non Vincor: “I am wounded-not conquered,” is the team’s inspirational motto. Through this cross-mentorship program, SCUBAnaut youth and veterans overcome personal challenges to create a positive change for the reefs and each other.


This is the second year that the SCUBAnauts and participants in the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge have worked with Mote to help maintain and propagate corals from the nursery. This year, Mote will also be working with SCUBAnauts to identify a restoration site that the group can take on as a long-term monitoring project. By adopting this site, SCUBAnaut youth will develop a sense of stewardship for these reefs as they observe first-hand the changes in the transplanted corals.

“We worked with the SCUBAnauts and veterans last year and were really impressed by their enthusiasm, efficiency and skill,” said Erich Bartels, Manager of Mote’s Coral Reef Science and Monitoring Program who oversees the coral nursery project. “Thanks to their help, we were able to quickly propagate numerous new staghorn coral fragments at our nursery and conduct crucial monitoring at several of our restoration sites. We’re doing the same thing again this year. Having these groups with us really gives our project many extra sets of hands so we can propagate more coral for restoration.”

SCUBAnauts International’s mission is to guide young men and women ages 12 through 18 along an exciting pathway for personal development by involving them in the marine sciences through underwater marine research activities, such as special environmental and undersea conservation projects, that build character, promote active citizenship and develop effective leadership skills. Twenty SCUBAnauts and two snorkelnauts are participating this year.

The Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge improves the lives of wounded and injured Veterans through rehabilitative high-adventure and therapeutic outdoor challenges while furthering the physiological, biomedical and pathological sciences associated with their injuries. Eight combat wounded and injured veterans are participating.

“This is the second year I’ve come out for this challenge,” said U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Billy Costello, a transfemoral amputee who lost his right leg after stepping on a landmine when he was deployed to Afghanistan. “It’s amazing to see how much some of the coral had grown since last year and to see the progress that Mote’s doing on the science. And teaming up with the SCUBAnauts — it’s just great to see these kids know what to do underwater and take command of the situation when they need to. This is a really impressive set of kids.”


The kids were no less impressed by the veterans. “I can’t help but feel excited and proud of what I’m doing to help the ocean and the fish that live in the ocean,” said Mia Foisy, 13, after spending the morning working side-by-side underwater with John Kremer, Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician 1st Class (Ret.), who lost both legs after stepping on a landmine in Afghanistan. He was making his first dive since his injury. “It is really amazing to work with the veterans. Sometimes I think I have a problem, but to watch and see the problems they’ve overcome, well, I think how could I not overcome my own problem?”

That’s exactly the what SCUBAnaut and Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge organizers hope both groups come away with, said Dr. Elizabeth Moses, Chief Scientist for SCUBAnauts International. “Through a team-based approach between youth and the Combat Wounded Veterans, we expect to see not only an increased appreciation and understanding of our ocean's natural resources found within our National Marine Sanctuaries but an appreciation for the amazing feats of our nation's veterans and youth. They build leadership, teamwork, scientific diving, communication and critical thinking skills as they develop and present their own research projects based on their work with Mote and SCUBAnaut professional scientists.  The kids go through extensive scientific and dive training to be part of this program but it is an amazing opportunity I wish I had when I was teenager.”

The underwater challenge — along with other expeditions the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge participants undertake — also allows the veterans to lead by example, said David Olson, the group’s founder. “Our wounded servicemen and women make a powerful impact and example on youth and those who face similar circumstances. Through these challenge experiences, they demonstrate to others that despite their injuries, they too, can overcome seemingly insurmountable personal challenges, while advancing rehabilitative research.  Challenge, research, inspire are the principals that govern our program.“


As part of this challenge expedition, combat wounded veterans also collected valuable information and medical data through a partnership with St. Petersburg College. The data they’re gathering contributes to the science of human performance, rehabilitation and recreation in extreme aquatic environments.  One of the objectives of the prosthetic case study is to note ways to improve and expand prospects for amputee service members who wish to return to active duty, specifically focusing on controlling and adapting volume changes inside the prosthetic socket during extended periods of high activity.  The team is also evaluating the impact of underwater activity on traumatic brain injury patients and the potential benefit it may have on future treatment options.

Michael McCauley LCO, RPR, a graduate of St. Petersburg College, is currently completing his orthotics residency and will be testing the amputees’ diving capabilities using their respective prosthetic limbs. The unique information gathered is being prepared for dissemination to relevant groups including the Veterans Administration as well as orthotics and prosthetics rehabilitation professionals who will find it useful to advance the state of science and inform the rehabilitative care of others with similar needs.

Prosthetist Arlene Gillis, Program Director at the J.E. Hanger College of Orthotics and Prosthetics at St. Petersburg College, is analyzing and recording data on the above-the-knee and below-the-knee amputees. “It’s been a very successful trip so far,” she said. “Diving and swimming is an area of prosthetics that does not have a lot of support. But clearly there’s a need.”

Since its creation in 2010, the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge has provided numerous rehabilitative high-adventure challenges to multiple limb amputee servicemen and women, the


majority of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries (TBI) while conducting value-added biomedical research advancing the science of prosthetic limb, traumatic brain injury and lung transplant physiology. 

“Without a doubt, the hardest mission these combat wounded and injured veterans have ever been on is the mission of continuing to serve a purpose in their life and to improve the quality of their lives with their families,” said Aviation Ordnanceman Master Chief Will Wilson, the Deputy Chief of the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge. “It’s good for us to dive as a team and to help science and reestablish a coral reef. We’ve got one ocean and we’ve got to take care of it. And anytime you get top side from a dive and you’re seeing people smiling from ear to ear… well, that’s all good.”

This restoration event is being supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and The Nature Conservancy’s Community-Based Restoration Program, the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation (www.nmsfocean.org), private donors, Fury Watersports in Key West, Mote and its Protect Our Reefs license plate program. Participating veterans are based at Naval Air Station Key West, Trumbo Point, and supported by the U.S. Army Special Forces Underwater Operations School, the J.E. Hanger College of Orthotics and Prosthetics at St. Petersburg College, Derby Lane, Dive Key West and the Oceanic Warrior Program.

“When I was a little boy living in Key West, my father was stationed at Naval Air Station Key West, and both of my brothers were career military who themselves suffered casualties of combat, so this mission holds special meaning for me,” said Mote President and CEO, Dr. Michael P. Crosby. “By bringing their significant mission- driven skills and expertise to bear on this project, these veterans who sacrificed for our country are now playing a crucial role in helping us further reef restoration in the Florida Keys. Supporting the next generation of scientists is also a priority of Mote’s 2020 Vision and Strategic Plan so the involvement of the SCUBAnauts is also another important reason why Mote is proud to support this effort.”


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