Matt Richardson lives life from a mostly seated position, thanks to an encounter with friendly fire four years ago in Baghdad that left the infantry sergeant a quadriplegic.
This summer, a group of diving enthusiasts got Richardson out of his wheelchair and into the crystal waters surrounding Cayman Brac, of the Caribbean's Cayman Islands family. For five days, Richardson made two dives a day, exploring a sunken Russian frigate, coral reefs and other under-water wonders.
"It's probably one of the coolest things I've ever done," said Richardson, 25. "Being down there, it was amazing. I've seen stuff like that on TV, but never in real life."
Richardson was one of eight people with significant physical challenges — including five former military members — treated to the weeklong excursion by Dive Pirates Foundation, a Houston-based nonprofit group promoting adaptive diving.
With the help of donations, fundraisers and membership dollars, the foundation covers the cost of training, certifying and equipping the recipients before taking them on the annual Cayman Brac diving trip. The group also outfits a buddy who accompanies each diver. In Richardson's case, he had three buddies with him on his dives.
The foundation has about 15 active chapters throughout the country and numerous dive shops that help people with a wide range of physical challenges experience scuba diving, said Theresa Brown-Cortez, executive director. Richardson received his training through Woods & Water Outdoor Sports Center in Brandon.
"The great thing about scuba is that it's very mobile for people with mobility issues," said Brown-Cortez. "Many of the people that have done it say they feel like they're flying under water."
Dive Pirates started as a social club around 2003, but after a few of the instructors got trained in adaptive diving the group began focusing on military men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with severe injuries. The group became an official nonprofit foundation in 2005. The primary focus still is on injured soldiers, Brown-Cortez said, but members work with anyone with a disability.
"We never turn anyone away, but sometimes they may have to wait," she said.
Richardson originally is from West Virginia, but moved to the Tampa area with his mother for treatment at the Veterans Administration's spinal cord rehabilitation center. He had been in Iraq for nine months and was two days away from heading home on his midtour leave when his 4th Infantry Division unit got into heavy fighting on July 7, 2008. The unit had been constructing a wall to thwart rocket attacks on the Green Zone from insurgents based in Sadr City.
"No regrets," said Richardson, who had three years in the Army when he was injured. He would, however, like to find the medic who saved his life. All he knows is that the guy was from a nearby patrol base.
Richardson lives an active, independent life now with his golden retriever, Daisy. He does get some assistance with household chores. His girlfriend, Alura, is a frequent visitor and he participates in a wheelchair rugby league. A friend in the league told him about Dive Pirates.
He appreciates everything that went into getting him in the water and, now that he has the equipment, plans to continue diving locally as much as possible. He's also planning to return to Cayman Brac next month on a Dive Pirates reunion trip.