How to save a life one dive at a time

What makes Deptherapy, the charity for injured armed service personnel, so effective, so life-changing, and so deserving of our support? LOUISE TREWAVAS was encamped with the troops in Safaga to ask the questions. Photography by DMITRY KNYAZEV.

THE MAGIC BEGINS as soon as I arrive at the airport. There is genuine excitement and joy on the faces of the (mostly incredibly young) ex-service personnel around me. The sign above the Thompson airline check-in desk welcomes Deptherapy, and staff are on hand to offer assistance to the guys, who are in wheelchairs or walking with aids.

Not that help is needed. All of them appear cheerfully self-reliant when it comes to getting themselves around.

We’re all kitted out in matching Deptherapy T-shirts and there’s a group photo to mark the start of the trip. We’re also celebrating Richard Cullen’s “Point of Light” award from 10 Downing Street (News, July) in recognition of his outstanding work with the charity.

What does it do? It promotes the rehabilitation through scuba-diving of UK armed services personnel who have suffered life-changing mental or physical injuries.

So why am I here? I think you could call it “embedding”, as when news reporters are attached to military units. Some say it distorts the objectivity of a journalist to become so close and involved, but I make no apology. I won’t pretend that I can stand back and be objective about this.

I don’t think you could experience what I’ve experienced with Deptherapy and fail to be less than thoroughly impressed.

The dives that heal

It’s a strange and wonderful thing to watch the shape that divers make as they practise their drills and skills in a pool at Roots Red Sea in Safaga.

On this occasion, some of the shapes are shorter and different than expected – a man with two shortened legs and swooping arms pirouettes opposite his buddy as he performs a buoyancy exercise.

It’s the same process for us all – water supports our bodies in a kinder way than gravity, but we all need some practice to find our balance in this new environment.

For the guys who have lost limbs in combat situations, diving can offer a welcome freedom. The veterans have described it as literally lifting the weight of injury away.

For those recovering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), diving gives them a window into a bright new world of possibility, powerful enough to break through a cycle of disturbing memories and self-destructive thoughts.

This may look like regular pool-work. It’s actually a process of healing.

Perfect students

If you glance over at the group of people training with Deptherapy, some have obvious injuries: Craig, Chris, Andy and Luke have had limbs amputated, and H has a degenerative spine condition, so walks with aids.

Others have suffered serious injuries that are invisible: Danny, here with his wife Lisa, is a cancer survivor; Gary was blinded in one eye by an explosion; Neil has a permanent brain injury.

Most have experienced PTSD, which has a devastating impact but is undetectable to a casual observer.

Some in the diving community may consider this group “problematic” when it comes to learning diving skills, but in almost every case the opposite is true. These are ex-military personnel! They instinctively respond well to instruction.

They’re accustomed to running drills and repeating exercises. They make no fuss. They fear no discomfort.
And from what I can see, they’re absolutely loving it! You couldn’t find a better bunch of students.

Outstanding instructors

I’m impressed watching the work of the instructors. I think this is where the charity provides a massive lesson in excellence for mainstream diver-training organisations.

Why? Because when you’re working to exacting standards with non-standard students, you have to be able to innovate and adapt your teaching methods and the kit so that the trainees can achieve the skills.

Complex challenges are being tackled, and invaluable experience gained. The Deptherapy instructors are supremely competent, calm, patient and caring. And the results show.

Their approach looks like this:

  • Consider the individual, and how best to use their abilities and strengths;
  • Take time to get the basics right: correct weighting, trim, buoyancy, along with the fit of kit to allow easy access to all the controls;
  • Work through each skill together, so that the trainee can fully participate in finding an effective solution.

The Deptherapy approach is the opposite of the commonly found “one size fits all” style of teaching. This is where an instructor demonstrates a skill to a large group of students and observes them as they mimick each move, often without any real thought or understanding of what the skill is or why it’s needed. Tick-box training.

An example of a core training issue being tackled by the team is the teaching of the Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent (CESA) to double or triple amputees. If you have no legs, you can’t fin upwards and have to swim with your arms (or arm). You also have to be able to control your buoyancy.

So the guys work on a pattern of switching quickly but calmly between swimming and buoyancy control to achieve the skill. It’s genius. I think every diver would benefit from learning how to make an emergency ascent without fins.

Just imagine how many common issues and wasted dives could be avoided if all students benefitted from this quality of instruction.

Throughout our week at Roots, some students are working towards Open Water qualification, others doing the Advanced course. Then there’s Chris Middleton, a Deptherapy superstar, who is taking his Dive Master qualification.

Our goal is that the whole team will be qualified to dive on the wreck of the Salem Express at the end of the week.

Apart from H, who had a perforated eardrum, all but one of the other students completed their training. One veteran who had suffered a permanent brain injury had impaired short-term memory, so couldn’t retain critical safety information, such as how to monitor his air supply. This proved much harder to deal with than all of the physical injuries.

Dive the wreck!

During the week the whole team takes part in a reef and beach clean-up near Safaga, and also marks the annual Armed Forces Day by holding a special ceremony in the compound at Roots to “name” lost but remembered comrades.

The week’s finale is a boat trip out to the Salem Express. So I’m finning along the wreck, shooting a bit of video. I’ve just been along one of the walkways and got savaged by an angry clownfish. As I pan my camera towards the top of the wreck, a figure comes zooming past me.

It’s Andy, pushing his way through the water with his arms; as elegant as any turtle and looking as happy as any diver can be. Below me, Danny and his wife Lisa are holding hands as they cruise effortlessly around the ship’s bridge.

If scuba diving didn’t already exist, you’d have to invent it – just for moments like these.

The future is bright

For the Deptherapy stars, it’s on to the next mission – keeping their skills up for an expedition to Truk Lagoon in 2018, and fund-raising for the charity to make sure they can get there. If you’re going to the Dive Show, visit the Deptherapy stand.

Chris Middleton is continuing on his pathway to becoming a PADI instructor.

I have every confidence that his expertise will be an invaluable resource for the charity and for the mainstream diving community in the future.

Having spent a week in the company of some amazing characters, I’d like to say this: don’t feel sorry for these guys. They absolutely don’t feel sorry for themselves, and that is their greatest strength. So support them, respect them, and cheer them on.

If you’re as lucky as I was, you may get to dive with them one day.

What can you do?

  • Raise awareness of the charity and its work.
  • Raise funds.
  • Respect these guys. We will all benefit from their efforts.

The faces of Deptherapy

David ‘H’ Hubbard left the military and was diagnosed with a degenerative spine injury. He uses walking aids and sometimes a wheelchair. After day one in the pool he discovered that he had a perforated eardrum (an old injury – his party trick was blowing smoke out of his ear).

Unfortunately this meant that he couldn’t get it wet for risk of infection, so no diving or snorkelling. However, he cheerfully came along on every activity and helped out, including on the boat at the end of the week. He’s a charming man and great company.


Superstar! A double amputee, he lost both legs after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan in 2011 and had a long and painful road to recovery. He feels that Deptherapy and Richard Cullen turned his life around. What he lacks in legs, he more than makes up for with his boisterous personality. He is a born leader and entertainer. In the future I fully expect him to be working as a PADI instructor in a mainstream diving environment as well as being a leading light in Deptherapy. He’s a treasure.


He’s fit! He’s a former paratrooper and has a single amputation below the knee after kneeling on an IED during a mine-clearing operation. This doesn’t appear to have slowed him down one iota. He works as a fitness instructor and was up at 6am each morning for his workout. He has a special prosthetic leg for scuba-diving but mostly dives without it for reasons of buoyancy. Super-capable.


Caught up in an explosion of two IEDs in Afghanistan seven years ago, he was blinded in the right eye and suffered acute PTSD. He’s a gifted writer, poet and a creative force to be reckoned with. He’s also a PADI ambassador for the oceans and Advanced Open Water diver. He was recently at Wraysbury doing his drysuit course, so probably coming to a UK diving destination soon, and is working for his Dive Master qualification.


Danny came home from Afghanistan and was diagnosed with cancer, then PTSD. His relationship with his wife and children was in jeopardy and he felt suicidal. When he got involved with Deptherapy he describes feeling that “the demons in my head went away”. His wife Lisa came out to dive with him, and together they completed the AOW course. The charity saves marriages as well as lives.


He is a triple amputee.

He was blown up aged 18 in Afghanistan in 2009 and – in his own words – was “a total mess”. He lost both legs above the knee and most of one arm. His face was extensively reconstructed.

At the start of the week people were concerned that he might not have any Eustachian tube to allow him to equalise effectively. He loves sailing and almost qualified for the Paralympic sailing team. He excelled in his pool skills and buddied with Chris Middleton on open-water dives. He’s raring to take the others sailing and to dive Truk Lagoon with Deptherapy in 2018.


He is a double amputee. He lost his legs to his hip in Afghanistan in 2011, so uses a wheelchair. He also lost several fingers. He’s the quiet man to Chris Middleton’s motor mouth, but the pair are a bundle of mischief together. Andy was an archery medallist in the Invictus games and has the fearlessness of a warrior under water.

How Deptherapy works: 9 steps to success

  1. Prepare! Every activity is well planned in advance. The briefing is meticulous and provides people with clear understanding of what to expect and what to do. I was hugely impressed on receiving and reading through a copy of Deptherapy’s anti-bullying policy; firstly that it had such a policy, and secondly at the clear, no-nonsense approach. Dive clubs could benefit enormously by adopting this practice.
  2. Everybody is made to feel special, important and included. Putting everyone into a Deptherapy T-shirt is more than just a handy way of identifying group-members at the airport. It makes you part of something bigger than yourself, with a responsibility to behave accordingly.

  3. Celebrating each achievement as a group helps to maintain a positive team-based vibe. A permanent record is kept by having properly organised team photos to mark each event, and put out on social media.

  4. Personal attention, beyond diving instruction: plenty of time and thought is given to working through each individual’s unique challenges in the water, but diving is simply a tool to help people to move beyond their immediate circumstances and open their eyes to a world of exciting new possibilities and positive experiences.

    The focus is on the whole person and getting them to a happier, healthier place.

  5. We are family: the camaraderie, support and good-natured banter that so many people miss when they find themselves out of the services is on offer as part of the Deptherapy family, and that’s important. Pretty much every Deptherapy volunteer comes from the police or armed services, and many have suffered from PTSD or life-changing injuries. So there’s an unspoken level of understanding and respect between instructor and student.

    The people being trained today have the opportunity and encouragement to be the Deptherapy ambassadors and instructors of tomorrow.
  6. No compromise on quality: standards expected of the trainees are expected of everyone. The teaching and equipment may be adapted and customised to the individual, but the level of skill expected is the same, if not higher.

    The PADI qualifications awarded are the standard recognised qualifications, and the same progression is encouraged and expected. Nobody is patronised, and nobody involved with Deptherapy would accept a lesser standard for the trainees. A good quality of behaviour and attitude is expected at every point of the trip, too. People are told if they’re falling short and are given an opportunity to change. There are consequences. Everyone is responsible and held accountable for their actions.

  7. There is no free ride. Everyone involved is expected to contribute to the work of the charity and take responsibility as a diver. For example everyone, regardless of status, carried out a reef and beach clean-up activity with the dive-centre. And since returning, many are taking up the USA and UK Armed Forces “22 (press ups) For 22 (days)” challenge to raise awareness and funds for charities working with PTSD sufferers.
  8. Looking forward with pride and ambition: while everyone involved is encouraged to talk openly about injuries and past experiences, the focus is very much on the future.

    The approach is to shape a “mission” for each person, both short-term and further ahead.

    As each step is achieved, individuals can see how it helps to get them towards a bigger goal. There are no limits, just pride in achievements.

  9. Saving and enhancing lives – one dive at a time: Deptherapy works by restoring self-esteem, belonging, a sense of purpose and pride. Through diving and diver training it offers the chance for people to “be their best self”. It offers them experiences that are beyond themselves.


While most divers are supportive of Deptherapy, it’s not universal. I can’t identify how much of the hostility is anti-military, routine ignorance and prejudice towards people with disabilities or just divers being arsey.

Here is an example of a recent exchange between Deptherapy and a Scuba Instructor, shared on the group’s Facebook page:

SCUBA INSTRUCTOR: “Thanks for the information about Deptherapy Education but in my view you do breach PADI Standards. I have just watched Chris Middleton’s video from Thailand and at least one breach is obvious.”

DEPTHERAPY: “We do not breach or ignore standards, we adapt them.”

SCUBA INSTRUCTOR: “Look, I have been an instructor for a number of years, do the leg amputees dive with prosthetic legs?”

DEPTHERAPY: “Rarely. How does that relate to PADI Standards?”

Scuba Instructor: “Well, Confined Water Dive students have to complete a giant stride entry. How do people like Chris do that?”

DEPTHERAPY: “The standard is a deepwater entry. A giant stride is just one way to get in the water; equally a backwards roll, or a sideways roll is quite acceptable.”

SCUBA INSTRUCTOR: “Do you make this up as you go along?”

DEPTHERAPY: “Find attached the confined and open water sections relating to water entry – the words are a deepwater entry – not exclusively a giant stride.”

The instructor did not reply.


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