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Wounded Fort Drum soldiers become certified scuba divers


ALEXANDRIA BAY — Several recovering Fort Drum soldiers got the opportunity to make a splash from Thursday to Sunday.

Eight soldiers from the post’s 3rd Battalion, 85th Mountain Infantry Regiment, also known as the Warrior Transition Unit, spent the four days learning the basics of scuba diving and how to maneuver safely to depths as low as 60 feet.

The group was taught by Lt. Col. Robert M. Burmaster, a special operations officer based at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla. Col. Burmaster, a certified instructor with the National Association of Underwater Instructors and the Handicapped Scuba Association, organized the class with post officials to coincide with vacation time during which he was visiting family in the north country.

In addition to supplementing the unit’s stock of wet suits and air tanks, Col. Burmaster offered his services free.

“Being in the military, and understanding what they do ... they deserve it,” he said.

Usually, the post will pay instructors from outside the area about $650 per soldier for similar certification courses, a price that doesn’t include the filling of air tanks.

The class was supported by the Morristown Fire Department, which filled the group’s air tanks for free, and the National Association of Underwater Instructors, which provided the course materials for free. They usually cost about $86 per student. Delta Divers, Rome, also supplied wet suits.

Soldiers in the course also filled out paperwork that will supply them with $250 worth of diving materials from Oceanic Worldwide.

The course started with two days of training at a pool on the post before moving to the village’s waters next to River Hospital.

1st Sgt. Jeffrey L. Johnson, who oversees the unit’s diving program, said the activity is one of the most popular, and is accessible to soldiers with a wide range of physical ailments.

“Once they get in the water, it’s painless,” he said. “All their aches and pains just go away.”

Staff Sgt. Scott J. Moreau, a reservist who injured his right shoulder in July 2011 while hauling emergency room materials in Basra, Iraq, said diving was something he had always wanted to do.

“I love fishing. Now I’m down with them,” he said.

Sgt. Moreau, who also has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, said he was surprised to find that diving hadn’t bothered his shoulder much at all.

The New Hampshire native, who has been in the Army for 18 years, said he was going to return to his original unit, the 912th Medical Forward Surgical Team, in about a month.

Emerging from the water following what he called the class’s “graduation dive,” Col. Burmaster said the soldiers were “awesome,” and credited his students with working together well in the water.

“They really looked comfortable and confident out there,” he said.

Perhaps the largest transformation of the weekend belonged to Staff Sgt. Anthony L. Birch. The Syracuse native, who has been in the Army for 19 years, described himself as a nonswimmer who would go only into waist-high water.

“I go to the beach, and I just hang out in the sand,” Sgt. Birch said.

He said learning how to dive was “quite challenging, but exciting at the same time.”

“If I can do it, anybody can do it,” he said.

The mechanic, listed with a right knee injury and PTSD, said he would leave the military after a 19-year career after he recovered from his injuries.

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