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How Scuba Diving Is Being Used To Heal Wounded Veterans

How one man is making the disabled capable of scuba diving

Image via SUDS Diving, Inc.

When Shawn Jones joined the Navy in 2008, he wanted to be an air rescue swimmer, jumping out of helicopters to save soldiers in choppy waters. Jones didn’t make the program—instead spending his five years of service as a crane operator, event planner, and weapons specialist—but in his retirement, he has found another way to help soldiers struggling to swim. Jones is currently developing the world’s most advanced prosthetic flipper.

Prosthetics designed specifically for water sports started appearing in the last decade, driven by veteran rehabilitation organizations like Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba (SUDS) and California Polytechnic State University’s QL+ Laboratory. It’s a unique engineering challenge: Most underwater leg prosthetics only function as fins or flippers, but not pegs, so amputees can’t walk into the water.

3D model of a Triton prototype (Image via Shawn Jones)

It’s not just a recreation accessibility problem. Organizations like SUDS, Wave Academy, and Operation Blue Pride (where Jones has volunteered for over a year) promote swimming and diving to disabled veterans as a way to treat physical injuries and mental health issues like post-traumautic stress (PTS). A recent Johns Hopkins study, in fact, showed that PTS-diagnosed veterans who participated in weekly Wave Academy sessions experienced a 28-percent decrease in symptons—including improved sleep, decreased pain, and lower anxiety.

Shawn Jones

Jones’s prototype, Triton, is the first prosthetic to double as both leg and flipper. The dual functionality is made possible by an attachment system Jones developed while studying design at Northeastern University, where he graduated this spring. Now, funded by a grant from 3D printing startup Shapeways, Jones wants to “break this into something huge.” He talked to GOOD about the design’s inspiration and future.

How did you first get involved with disabled scuba divers?

Northeastern University has a Student Veterans Organization. They had a meeting and said, if you’re interested in scuba diving for free, [Operation Blue Pride] will hook you up. I was like, well that sounds exciting. I had never gone scuba diving. I think everyone is kind of nervous about going 90 feet underwater without that much oxygen.

They taught me within four or five weeks to scuba dive, gave me certification, and then I started working with them. Last year, I actually took a handicapped scuba diving course where I learned how to be a scuba buddy for paraplegics and blind scuba divers.

What sparked the idea for Triton?

There was a guy coming through the [Operation Blue Pride] program. He was a single leg amputee. He ended up quitting after a couple weeks because he couldn’t perform as much as the rest of the guys. I thought, here’s a problem that we need to solve. This guy can’t really function in the water with his current prosthetic. Maybe with some of the skills I learned, I can create something for him. I came up with a few drawings of what I wanted to make, and I started printing mechanical components for this piece. It looked nothing like the one I actually created for my second prototype, but it was a way to get my foot in the door.

Image via SUDS Diving, Inc.

How has the design evolved? What were some challenges?

One of the first prototypes I made was going to be a straight leg [with] a flipper at the very bottom. But you can’t walk on it. After taking my capstone class, I worked with a mechanical engineer and masters student [to study] the feasibility of what I could actually do with the design. We decided it would be the best option to make it so you can walk on it. Something like a peg.

My second design was one where you attach [the flipper] to the socket, which is carbon fiber, where he puts his stump. It screws into the regular screws that already exist. It’s basically like a cane that I took from my regular walking cane. Then I added a fiberglass flipper that I created myself. That was a diaster the first couple times. The connection point that I used for the crutch and his prosthetic, I 3D printed. I only had plastic as an option. It was good and then it snapped.

How does scuba diving help wounded veterans?

Therapy [through] scuba diving has really benefited those with post-traumatic stress. I actually taught somehow how to scuba dive underwater. I was like his buddy. He was freaking out underwater. Right as he went underwater, he had to regulate his heart rate and his oxygen tank. Just by doing that, he actually calms himself down. He’s in his own environment down there. Same thing with amputees. They still have PTSD. They feel more calm underwater.

Image via SUDS Diving, Inc.

How has diving helped you personally?

I am actually getting into the medical research on how water therapy helps legs build muscle. I know from personal experience. I destroyed my back in the military and the water helped me. I went from not being able to walk after my surgery, to walking and running. It took about a year to get back to where I was. Even today, it’s still a bad pain. But swimming is my place to go. You don’t have any pressure.

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