From Veteran to Dive Center Owner
By SDI Ambassador Jason Mengel
How I Discovered the Benefits of Diving for Veterans
70% of the world is underwater, with 80% of the ocean yet to be explored. We are regularly finding new things under the ocean. But more surprising is how many veterans, like me, are finding themselves there too. Diving offers a whole new world down there, one where we can learn to cope with mental health and physical conditions; perhaps even find peace.
My name is Jason, and I am a Scuba Diving International (SDI) Ambassador. I am also an SDI TDI Instructor Trainer, living on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Looking back, teenage me would never believe I would end up here as an adult. Coming from a strong military family, I joined the Australian Army at the age of 18 and fully expected to make it a lifetime career. Unfortunately, it was cut short with 13 years of service after injury forced me medically out of my dream job. Leaving the Army was not just the end of my career; I lost my job, my friends, and my sense of purpose. The only things I had were my family and my hobby of Scuba Diving. However, neither my family nor my hobby could understand what I was going through. Both were soon replaced by alcohol and dark thoughts, anything to numb the feeling I had.
Chasing my Passion
After about a year, I decided to get back into diving and try to recapture the passion I once felt. It started small, with a job cleaning the big tanks at the local aquarium. I’ll never forget my first time back in the water, a day with no expectations and a moment that sparked everything. I remember assembling my equipment, doing my buddy checks, and jumping in the water to clean the windows. It took but a few minutes to adjust to my surroundings, and then it hit me: silence. Peace. The sense of freedom. Becoming neutrally buoyant underwater and just floating lifted the weight off my back; both figuratively and physically. I felt myself relax as I floated underwater. Nothing could weigh me down. This is the peace of scuba diving. It is the ability to focus on your breathing and think about your surroundings there and then. It is a feeling like no other. And from there, I knew I had to do this on a continued basis. From that moment, I started to dive on a more regular basis and turned my hobby into a passion. In turn, it brought a more positive focus to my life. I was drinking less (because alcohol and diving do not mix), and I was socializing–rather than social distancing in the darkness of my house. The scuba diving community is both supportive and very social, which helped me manage another great hurdle. For me, scuba diving changed everything.
Sharing my Passion
Over four years, I continued to dive and work at my local dive shop Remote Area Dive. I started to meet other local veterans from around my area. One veteran, in particular, made a big impact on me. I first met him when he walked into my shop and asked about scuba diving. He was a bit rough looking, smelt like alcohol, and looked like he was being forced to be there. After introducing myself, we started to chat about his service and tours overseas. Our light chat turned into a two-hour conversation with his first booking for a dive course. A couple of weeks later on day one of the course in the pool, I saw him smile. The following day, his partner called me to say thank you for the pool session. He had gone home so excited, eager to tell his wife and their son all about it. Since then, we have become very good mates, sharing stories and lives together. He later told me that the night before he walked into my shop, he had sat in the bathtub with a loaded shotgun in his mouth. Seeing such a strong person go from that state of mind to the person he is today–it’s hard to describe. He is such a happy, loving father and husband, and it makes me so proud to be his friend. It also is a stark reminder of the power of scuba diving and how it can be a tool in treating pain and PTSD. Since then, Remote Area Dive runs Scuba Diving programs for current and ex-service members of the Military.
Seeing Positive Results
Through our ongoing programs, we have seen people break the cycle of alcohol abuse and isolation at home through these programs. They have become regular divers; some even progress to Scuba Diving instructors, mentoring other veterans in the process. On average, we are certifying around 50 veterans a year. None of this would be possible without the help of my fellow Australian Defense Force veteran Michael Wood and the ongoing support from Oasis Townsville. Physically, scuba diving gives us an environment to feel strong and independent. But socially, it gives us just as much strength in a healthy community.
The Dream to Change a Life
Our dream, our passion, is to save a life through engagement of Scuba Diving. If we could prevent all veteran suicides, that would be amazing. But we know we cannot. What we can do is let every veteran know we are here to talk. We are here to help in any way we can. Perhaps we can prevent the cycle of suicide through an introduction to scuba diving. We can show them that moment of silence and freedom and give them the at ease feeling again. You never know when it might be the thing that changes your life for the better.
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