Three U.S. Armed Forces veterans joined an all-female dive team for a week in November to conduct shipwreck surveys at Channel Islands National Park. They were sponsored by the Wounded American Veterans Experience SCUBA (WAVES), a program that helps vets recover from trauma. The rest of the team included archaeologists, biologists, and instructors with the National Park Service (NPS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“I am lucky, blessed, and honored to be here,” said Gina Harden, who started her U.S. Navy career as the branch’s seventh female military deep sea diver. “With my 35 years as a navy diver, I can help mentor these veterans, to listen, to be a sounding board, and to support them.”
The other two participants were U.S. Army veterans Bonnie Casler and Alexandria McIntyre. “It’s the calm underwater,” said Casler, “the bubbles, the peace and quiet, that I haven’t felt in years.”
“This is a big deal to step out of those safe zones,” said McIntyre. “WAVES has brought me a sense of comfort and confidence. Things get better; you just have to find the thing that gets you better.”
More than 150 historic ship and aircraft have been reported lost in sanctuary and park waters, with 30 having been located and surveyed. The wreck sites are protected under state and federal law. As recently as 2012, archeologists discovered the remains of the George E. Billings, a Pacific Coast schooner employed in the lumber trade during the early 1900s. “The NPS and WAVES have been working together for several years to support injured veterans,” said Park Superintendent Ethan McKinley. “We are honored to provide these veterans an opportunity to heal and to experience the spectacular kelp forests at Channel Islands National Park.”