WEEKI WACHEE — The first surprise that Roger Thomas got when he slipped into the temperate Weeki Wachee Springs was the water's clarity. He could make out the dozens of mullet, turtles and other small creatures that make the spring their home swimming 30 feet below the surface.
The other surprise for 48-year-old former Marine, who lost his right hand years ago in a military training accident, was how easy it was to maneuver through the springs, even with 40 pounds of scuba gear attached to his body.
"It was unbelievable," Thomas said Thursday evening after his dive. "I think I'm hooked now. I can't wait to go again."
For Bo and Debbie Twillman, there are few rewards greater than knowing they've helped a wounded veteran experience the wonder and beauty of the underwater world.
Through their nonprofit company, Divers4Heroes, the Lakeland couple for two years have offered free introductory diving lessons to any wounded veteran who wants to give the activity a try.
"The idea is to at least get them to try it once," said Debbie Twillman. "A lot of them don't think it's possible for them to learn to dive. They've either lost limbs or are paralyzed or have some other trauma, and they're convinced they can't do it. We're here to show them they can."
Indeed, through an extensive support system that includes volunteer divers around the state, the Twillmans introduced the sport to dozens of men and women, many of whom have gone on to obtain their own scuba certification.
The idea for the program came during a 2006 trip to Key West, where the Twillmans watched several Iraq war veterans attempting to negotiate Duval Street in wheelchairs and on crutches. Facing everyday life was one thing, but the couple also discovered that very few physical recreational programs existed for permanently disabled vets.
Using her marketing skills, Debbie Twillman began contacting local disabled veterans groups and established ties with the recreational rehabilitation program at James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, which agreed to sponsor Divers4Heroes.
Meanwhile, Bo Twillman, an Army veteran and a dive instructor since 1993, set up a network of divers, instructors and dive shops around the state who wanted to help.
"The wonderful thing I discovered is that there are a lot of people out there like us who want to show their gratitude," Twillman said. "These are people who have sacrificed a lot for our country".
Other than permission from their doctors, participants in Divers4Heroes need not bring anything with them to dive. Pool time, tanks and wet suits are provided. As many 10 participants can take part in each class session.
Beginning dives are held in pools, but as divers gain more experience they are welcome to take part in open dives held at various locations around the state, including Ginnie Springs, Living Seas aquarium in Orlando as well as Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.
On Thursday, the Twillmans accompanied three veteran divers in Weeki Wachee Springs as they completed the necessary course work to obtain their diving certificates.
Tamie White, like Roger Thomas, had never strapped on scuba tanks before she met the Twillmans. An 11-year Army veteran who suffered a back injury, diving offered her a release she hadn't felt in a long time.
"It's a wonderful weightless feel. I have no pain when I'm in the water," she said. "It's like I'm normal again."
Those want more information on Divers4Heroes can visit www.divers4heroes.org or call (863) 430-1334.
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 848-1435.