CLEARWATER — The aging men with titanium legs sat around the pool watching intently as a young woman rolled a gel sleeve over the young dolphin's stump.
Then she slipped on the prosthetic tail.
The devices were different, but the process was identical for both the Winter the dolphin and Al Landers.
"I wonder how it feels for her?'' he said. "I guess for a wild animal it's a little bit difficult for her.''
"The difference is we can slide a sock over ours if ours are too big,'' said Robert West, pointing to a white sock under his prosthesis.
Winter, 2, lost her tail after getting tangled in a rope attached to a crab trap off Cape Canaveral when she was a baby.
Landers, 60, a retired letter carrier who lives in St. Petersburg, lost his right leg above the knee to diabetes two years ago.
West, 60, of Palmetto, lost his right leg below the knee eight years ago to diabetes caused by the Agent Orange he was exposed to when he served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1969.
The two men were at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Monday morning along with three fellow members of the Amputee VA Support Team, or AVAST, from James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in Tampa.
It was the first group to participate in a new program at the aquarium that allows people with physical injuries, including those who have lost limbs, to visit for free and get a special behind-the-scenes tour.
Usually, AVAST, which is made up of guys who love to kid each other, is out on the golf course, shooting pool or eating dinner together.
But on Monday, the men — some veterans, others not — were gathered around an enclosure where Winter, one of the only dolphins in the world to get a prosthetic limb, was swimming.
It was all because West, chairman of AVAST, wrote Winter a letter.
"We were very intrigued by your story and the courage you have demonstrated,'' he wrote. "As we tell all of our amputees, learn to live with the body you have now, don't rush during your rehab process. All living things have their own pace of recovery.''
He told her that her will to survive is an inspiration to the group, sent her a T-shirt and made her an honorary member.
On Monday, the tough retired cop got choked up as Winter prepared to lift her back end out of the water to show off her prosthesis.
"The day she was rescued is the same day my dad died,'' West said. "Now here she is bringing all this attention to amputees all over the world. It's like reincarnation.''
Winter wears her artificial tail for 30 minutes a day a few times a week. The goal is to let her wear it for several hours every day.
The dolphin cannot wear it 24/7 because is she does, she may not be able to regulate her body temperature.
Aquarium CEO David Yates said Winter "loves having it on,'' and she doesn't like it when the staff takes it off her.
She is scheduled to get a new prosthesis any day now. This will be her 15th artificial tail, each one more advanced than the last.
After removing the tail, head trainer Abby Stone asked Winter to jump and she did, twice, leaping out of the water several feet and landing with a splash.
"Good girl,'' said Landers. "Bless her heart.''
Afterward, Winter met almost all the group members one-on-one.
West volunteered to be first, heading down to the platform on his artificial leg, which is lifelike, right down to the University of Florida Gator tattoo.
He reached to pet Winter.
"Hey Bob," Landers yelled, "that's the first woman you've touched in years.''
West said Winter "felt like silk.''
Then it was Landers' turn.
He waved at Winter.
Winter waved back.
"Not bad for a one-legged man,'' said West.
Rudy Salas, 62, of Tampa, also got to pat Winter.
He was only 20 when he stepped on a land mine while on patrol in Vietnam in 1967. It blew off his left leg below the knee. Now he wears a prosthesis with a tattoo of a Marine Corps emblem on the calf.
The two who have been through so much and have so much in common stared at each other for a moment.
"I could see her eye just checking me out,'' Salas said.
Eileen Schulte can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153.