When Air Force Veteran John Hartwell was diagnosed with ALS five years ago, he started making plans. He wanted to spend time with his family and continue to enjoy as many hobbies as he could – especially scuba diving and traveling.

John’s VA care team was searching for adaptive sports opportunities for him in 2020, and he was selected for The Hero Dive at the Georgia Aquarium with adaptive scuba-diving non-profit, LifeWaters. As his ALS progressed and the pandemic limited his opportunities, John started to worry he would not be able to dive again.

The Hero Dive

Scuba diving can sound scary or intimidating to some, particularly for those who may be paralyzed or have limited ability. But once in the water, divers enter a world of weightlessness and those with mobility impairments find that they can move independently and easily underwater just like everyone else. As LifeWaters founder Charley Wright says, “You don’t need a wheelchair in the water.”

Wright, a spinal cord injury therapist at the St. Louis VA, saw an opportunity to support those with mobility impairments with the healing potential of scuba diving. The Hero Dive started when the non-profit was contacted about a Veteran’s last wish to scuba dive with his family. “It’s a life-changing experience,” Wright said. “The dive itself is the cherry on top, what’s everything is what happens before and after.”


Video courtesy of KMOV St. Louis, Producer: John O’Sullivan, Videographer: Schewislzer Lewis

Although Hero Dives have a somber tone, everyone involved knows the value and absolute honor of granting a Veteran one of their final wishes.

Georgia Aquarium: Journey with Gentle Giants

Entering into the Georgia Aquarium is breath taking, especially its 6.3 million gallon tank filled with creatures of the sea. Huge whale sharks, a sea turtle named Tank, giant manta rays and thousands of other species reside in the Ocean Voyager exhibit, one of the largest single aquatic exhibits in the world; and you can snorkel or dive in it.

It’s the ultimate diving or snorkel trip, because you are guaranteed to see and be close to a stunning array of sea life, which is why the Georgia Aquarium is a favorite location for adapted scuba diving non-profit, LifeWaters

Do it while you can

John Hartwell’s motto is, “Do it while you can.” Hartwell is the fifth Hero Dive participant for LifeWaters. He’s an Air Force Veteran who served from 1971-1975 and is an experienced scuba diver thanks to the GI Bill. He laughs about being an Air Force lab tech serving in Thailand and how knowing certain test results got you perks on base.

He is articulate, with a well-timed sense of humor, and gets an excited gleam in his eyes when he talks about diving and traveling with his family.

Hartwell’s initial dive was scheduled for 2020, then delayed a year due to COVID-19. Over that time, he lost mobility in his arms, making getting in the water an even bigger challenge. While he didn’t get to dive all the way to the bottom of the Ocean Voyager exhibit, he was in the water, which is one of his most favorite things. His family was there with him at the Georgia Aquarium and viewed the LifeWaters group while they were in the expansive tank.

When asked about what he would tell others if they get a terminal diagnosis, Hartwell’s answer is to “travel, travel while you are able,” and that is exactly what he’s done. After being in the water twice over a recent weekend at the Georgia Aquarium, his next big travel plans will take him to Ireland in the fall. He is concerned about his mobility and the logistics in getting there, but remains hopeful.

Getting care at VA with ALS

When asked about his VA care, Hartwell’s response is that it’s “fabulous.” He was at a private health care facility when he was diagnosed, and one of the staff asked if he was a Veteran. When he said yes, he was put in touch with the local PVA (Paralyzed Veterans of America) chapter and they helped him file claims paperwork, allowing him to receive benefits and VA health care. His care team at the Miami VA have assisted him with his overall health, home and vehicle adaptions and adaptive sports opportunities.

“Samanda Vasquez and her staff asked me if i wanted to go sky diving or ski down a mountain! Unfortunately, those events were cancelled because of the pandemic. I’m so glad this dive was possible,” Hartwell said.

Adaptive Scuba with LifeWaters

While at the Georgia Aquarium with Hartwell and his family, LifeWaters was also training another group on adaptive diving. There are so many things to coordinate and consider and each diver has different abilities, LifeWaters volunteers are Scubility certified through Scuba Diving International. If you are interested in becoming a volunteer or are an eligible candidate for adaptive diving, visit their website or email training@lifewaters.org.

The sharing of any non-VA information does not constitute an endorsement of products and services on the part of VA.


Peggy Willoughby and John O’Sullivan (KMOV) contributed to this story. 

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One Comment

  1. Edward J. Palumbo June 3, 2021 at 8:59 pm

    I am a Portland (Oregon) Vuet Nam-era USMC veteran and would like to assist other veterans in scuba diving. I am a PADI Rescue Diver and have been certified for more than 25 years. Guidance would be appreciated.
    Edward J. Palumbo

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