Army Major Joe Claburn spiraled through a curtain of silvery bubbles. Retired Army Sgt. Shane Heath hovered motionless inches above a coral head waiting for a fish to come out of its hiding place. His one remaining hand gripped an underwater camera. Marine Sgt. Greg Edwards bounced slowly across the white sand bottom. He kicked up small plumes with the stubs of his legs. His slow-motion bounding made him look like Neil Armstrong moving across the lunar surface. Each man moved up, down, sideways, and diagonally in the water column with the grace of gravity-defying superheroes.
© Steve Simonsen
Marine Sgt. Greg Edwards and SUDS founder John Thompson scuba diving.
"The only time I don't hurt is when I'm underwater," said Claburn, and he should know about pain. A veteran of four missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, a bad parachute deployment crashed him into a tree, and then dropped him 85 feet to the ground, breaking his back, ribs, legs, tailbone and shattering numerous others. "The doctors gave me a 30 percent chance of walking, but I got out of my wheelchair eight weeks ago, and now I'm scuba diving. When I'm weightless the pain goes away instantly; it is truly amazing."
This February, Claburn and five other wounded soldiers traveled to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands to partake in scuba certification offered by an organization called SUDS [Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba]. The group's founder, John Thompson, started the effort two years ago while visiting wounded vets at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. "You can't walk into a facility like that, see all the wounded men, and not get involved." John's experience in the military and time spent as a diving instructor combined to form this unique activity for the men. "Water is a great equalizer; these guys can do almost anything underwater that a person with both legs and arms can do."
© Steve Simonsen
Sgt. Joel Dulshanti, an amputee veteran, floats in the waters of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
I had been told about the upcoming dive trip by Michelle Winkel, a dive instructor and photographer from Houston. The television potential hit me like a train. I spent a few frustrating weeks shopping the idea around to contacts at various news magazines, when a friend suggested I approach ABC reporter Bob Woodruff. Bob had been gravely wounded by a roadside bomb while filming in Iraq. He now dedicates a large portion of his reports to issues surrounding veterans, and their re-entry to civilian life after combat. His producer, Christine Romo, loved the idea, and even though Bob was unreachable in the Galapagos Islands, within an hour, she had gotten the 'green light' from both "Good Morning America Weekend," and "World News with Charles Gibson."
I agreed to travel a few days ahead of Woodruff to shoot footage of the soldiers arriving in the Virgin Islands, and film their first dives. Sailing on the ferry from St. Thomas to St. John, Greg Edwards was taking his first look at paradise. "I've never been anywhere but Alabama and Iraq. This is awesome!" SUDS exists on donations, and the local islanders came out to help. Accommodations, food, and diving activities were all donated. Upon seeing the men board the dive boat, two large cash donations were spontaneously presented to Thompson by people having lunch on the beach, effectively covering the soldiers' diving expenses, which came to over $1,900.
Filming the story was going to be fairly easy. What concerned me was how the men would accept me, and how they felt about being filmed for a network news organization. The first night at dinner I had the opportunity to introduce myself to the group and explain the thrust of the story. My extensive background as a diver and my embedment with U.S. troops in Iraq gave me some credibility, but inside I knew that my obligation was to do the very best job, and shoot the very best material I possibly could for these guys to really tell their story.
© Steve Simonsen
Preparing to film war amputee Sgt. Shane Heath before entering the water to scuba dive.
I decided to shoot the piece using my Sony HVR-Z1U, in High Definition NTSC, without any 'film-like' effects. I would not have a sound technician, so I would record ambient sound with the onboard microphone and use a wireless lavaliere when Woodruff arrived to perform interviews. I would shoot the underwater footage using the same Z1U camera inside my "Amphibico Phenom" housing. It is an impressive tool with very good optics, perfect underwater balance and external controls for any camera adjustments I wanted to make while underwater. I did not use any underwater lights as most of the diving would be fairly shallow, and the housing has a 'color correction' filter that works very well in most cases to cut the blue light dominance in deeper water.
Watching the men prepare for their dive was quite a sight. Various prosthetic arms, legs, feet and hands were popped off and traded for more waterproof substitutes, or just done without. Men with missing legs were carried by instructors across the beach and out to the waiting boat which was moored in about 4 feet of water offshore. Once onboard dual amputee Sgt. Edwards scooted across the deck on his hands, and assembled his gear. Most of the men were beginner divers, who had completed their classroom and pool training in the hospital. This would be their first experience in the open ocean where they would work with instructors to perform underwater drills for their safety and finish their requirements to become certified divers, capable of diving anywhere in the world they want.
© Steve Simonsen
ABC reporter Bob Woodruff prepares to dive while preparing a report on SUDS: Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba.
As a cameraman, I realized I was in the midst of a very special event. I used a wide-angle adapter on my camera which made filming the divers on a crowded boat much easier. The ride was a beautiful passage through the green islands and blue water, and an opportunity for traveling shots. When we got to the dive site, instructors ran over the gear checklists the men would need to learn by rote. Army sniper Joel Dulshanti was shot through both legs, losing one below the knee. He used stainless steel pins to pivot and lock the prosthetic leg he would swim with, pointing his plastic foot forward. He put a swim fin on it and joked, "I can do ballet with this foot." Having lost both legs above the knee to a landmine, Sgt. Edwards tried 'stubbies,' which are very short prosthetic legs with pivoting feet; he also put webbed gloves on his hands for upper body swimming use. Eventually he decided against using the legs at all. Joe Claburn grimaced horribly as he stood up with the weight of diving gear taxing his broken spine, but made his way to the stern and splashed in. You could see the smile return to his face. I filmed Shane Heath single-handedly [literally] pull his gear on, and whenever someone reached to help him pull a strap or a buckle, he politely said, "No thanks, I have to do this myself." When I got in the water with my underwater camera for a 'split-level' sequence of him flipping off the back of the boat, I asked Shane to cue me so I could shoot him hitting the water. He looked at me and mused, "Shoot me? I've already been blown up once!"
Underwater, the divers broke into groups with their instructors. Some were practicing retrieving their air hoses in case it gets kicked away. Some were removing then replacing and clearing their facemasks, which is a vital skill. Claburn and his groups were swimming patterns with waterproof compasses, learning navigation. All the activity made for great footage and spoke to the fact that this wasn't just a dive vacation. These guys were really achieving and working towards something. Not everyone who sets out to become a certified diver passes their course, but these soldiers were doing extremely well.
Woodruff and Romo came down two days later, and almost didn't make it due to a snowstorm in New York. Over coffee the morning after their late arrival, I showed them raw footage of divers with missing legs flying like birds silhouetted against the sun. They were thrilled; it was gorgeous material. We joined the dive boat that afternoon and Bob did an interview with Edwards and Heath about how they were wounded, and what brought them to SUDS. Heath said that when he stepped on the bomb that would destroy his left leg and arm, he was laying in his own blood, crazed with pain, looking at his wounds and worrying, "Will I ever swim again?" He plans to go on to achieve advanced scuba certification.
© Steve Simonsen
Tim Cothren with his "Amphibico Phenom" waterproof housing for the Sony Z1U High-Definition camera.
Filming in the tropics is a dual-edged sword. On one hand it is eye candy; on the other, the bright sun can be tough to work with. Shadows and backlight can play havoc with the exposures, especially doing interviews. I brought my Kobald HMI and a silver showcard to help out. Luckily for me the weather was not blazingly sunny when we shot most of the interviews, and the HMI was all I needed for fill light. Back at the villa the men were staying at, we shot two more interviews, again getting background stories about the injuries, each of which was terrifying, and made one realize how amazing it is these guys are able to talk to us at all.
Bob wanted to scuba dive with the soldiers, but his injury is so severe his doctors would not allow it. I was horrified when on our last day, while snorkeling on the surface, Woodruff took a deep breath and shot downward, zooming past me, my scuba gear and my camera all the way to the bottom to shake hands with Sgt. Edwards who was finishing his dive near the anchor at 35 feet. While filming him you can hear me on the tape exclaim into my regulator mouthpiece, "I really don't believe this!" Then Bob did it again and again. I wondered what his doctors would have said if they saw the footage, but I got some great shots of him with the diver together underwater. Bob later said, "What I have learned is that whenever people meet soldiers injured in these wars they want to help. They want to spend time with them. Learn more about them because so few in our country know many GIs in these current wars. And for those who lost their arms or legs there is nothing better than diving into the ocean with this sense of freedom."
In all I shot almost 6 hours of material. ABC News held the piece for a few weeks. It finally aired March 22, on the Sunday version of "Good Morning America." The total running time was just a little over 2 minutes, 25 seconds. As of writing this, another version is waiting to air on "World News Tonight."
For further information about SUDS, their activities and how to help them, go to http://www.sudsdiving.org.