Held in a dark, confined space with nothing but metal bars for protection, the four went face to face with some of the world’s most dangerous killers: sharks.
But for these Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers, it’s not so scary.
“I’ve been in worse things,” said Rani Batrouni, who suffers from chronic pain.
Batrouni and three other soldiers took part in Thursday’s premier Operation Shark Dive at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.
Diving with sharks helps treat pain, depression and post traumatic stress disorder.
“Operation Shark Dive gives an opportunity to the soldier to be in an environment that is exhilarating and has an adrenaline rush and high emotions,” physical therapist Lou McGranaghan said. “This gives a controlled opportunity for a soldier to use his skills for managing his emotions.”
Thursday, after a briefing on diving protocol, the exhibit’s sharks and shark conservation, the soldiers donned wetsuits. With breathing regulators on, they entered a cage and were submerged in the shark tank.
For Cameron Hughes, a heavy equipment operator and self-described “adrenaline junkie,” Operation Shark Dive was a chance to conquer his fear of being underwater.
“It made me feel a lot calmer, learning how to breathe like that. A lot calmer,” he said. “Normally I am a very irritable person. Being in the water, overcoming a fear — it felt great. I feel like a whole new person.”
Alternative therapies, including meditation, acupuncture, yoga — and now, shark diving — have become increasingly popular with service members and veterans around the country.
According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, almost 90 percent of VA facilities offer alternative treatment programs.
For now, Operation Shark Dive is the zoo’s only therapy program using animals.
The zoo opened shark dives to the public two years ago, but Operation Shark Dive was a plan from the beginning, said zoo deputy director John Houck.
“We wanted to get the program in good shape,” he said. “We wanted to make sure the dive team had lots of practice with people with disabilities and that they had all the proper training.”
After the dive, with wet hair and a smile, Jeremy Daniels laughed as he described his “new addiction.”
“To me, it felt like coming home,” said Daniels, a squad leader and combat medic. “The closest experience would be like coming home from being gone for a long time.”
To take part
In partnership with the JBLM Warrior Transition Battalion, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium will offer eight slots a month for soldiers to dive in the zoo’s South Pacific Aquarium. The project is sponsored by a grant from the Puget Sound Energy Foundation and other local partners.