Alumnus Helps Wounded Warriors Dive Deep

By Theresa May, Alumni Association communications intern

Everyone has a niche. For some, their niche is apparent from a young age, and for others, it is found later in life. John Thompson (B.S., ’90) found his calling through an elective he took at Colorado State University. The course was scuba diving; he and fellow students became scuba certified while diving in Rainbow Pond. Through that experience, Thompson developed a love for diving that would lead him to help others.

John Thompson (B.S., ’90)

Thompson grew up near the Ozark Mountains in Oklahoma, where he developed a love for the outdoors, which only grew while attending CSU. He majored in social science and was a member of Alpha Tau Omega fraternity. Looking back, Thompson said that attending CSU was “a great period in my life.” He spent most of his free time in Poudre Canyon, fishing and camping with friends.

After graduating, Thompson worked for 20 years at the Colorado Outward Bound School (COBS) alpine mountaineering program as an instructor, course director, and staff trainer. “The climbing and diving seasons are opposite, so I would spend my winters in the Caribbean guiding dive trips and then my summers with COBS.” Thompson also served seven years in the Army National Guard. “COBS was life-changing. Military service gave me the discipline and direction I needed then, and in turn prepared me for COBS, which helped me gain the knowledge, skills, drive, and compassion needed to be a competent outdoor leader.”

This drive and compassion showed in 2005, when Thompson had lunch with his wife, who was doing her 3-year medical residency at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP)—the premier hospital for injured war veterans. During lunch he saw severely inured young men and women. Recalling this day, Thompson said, “I knew immediately at that moment, I wanted to get involved.” Soon after, Thompson went to the American Red Cross where, after a long process, he became a volunteer in the Aquatic therapy program. During that time, he had a life-changing realization: “I’m a scuba instructor,” he said to himself. “And here are all these young injured men and women—the light came on! Start an adaptive scuba program to help with their rehab!” After getting the go ahead from Colonel Barbra Springer, chief physical therapist and fellow diver, Thompson started making moves.

Fast forward to 2007, Thompson founded Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba (SUDS), a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the lives of disabled veterans through scuba diving. SUDS had brand new dive equipment donated to them and raised enough money for their first scuba diving trip to Guantanamo Bay in 2008. There were six warriors on this trip, all of whom were amputees. There was a remarkable amount of support for the trip, and it was covered by HBO Real Sports and Bloomberg News. According to Thompson, the media coverage is “what put SUDS on the map.”  Today, there have been more than 300 wounded warriors who have benefitted from SUDS, 75% of whom are amputees.

Thompson explains the SUDS diving process: “We get them in the pool, teach them the skills they need to learn to dive safely, help build up that confidence and self-esteem and take them down to Guantanamo, Cuba, or Puerto Rico.” Thompson spends 6 months of the year in Puerto Rico, helping warriors gain their scuba certification. When asked how he feels about all of the men and women he’s helped, Thompson replied, “Sometimes I wonder if I’m getting more out of it than they are.”

Diving with SUDS it isn’t a one-time experience for the wounded warriors; the veterans get scuba certified so they can continue their underwater rehabilitation. SUDS is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and completely free for the participants. The program offers 1-on-1 and group trainings and travel to diving locals outside the country, including Truk Lagoon, which is south of Guam and, as Thompson describes it, is “a mecca for wreck diving.” Beneath the lagoon lie  thousands of artifacts, including historic tanks.  SUDS not only provides physical therapy for its participants, but mental therapy as well. Thompson said, “I often hear that when they get out of the military they feel they have lost that camaraderie, but when we put them in our program and take them on a dive expedition with folks that have similar injuries and experiences, they are right back in an environment they are comfortable with.”

Thompson said, “It’s not all about diving, it’s also about creating a familiar surrounding with like-minded folks and giving them a goal and challenge to rise to.” Stalwart Ram John Thompson turned a CSU scuba class held in Rainbow Pond into an extraordinary organization that helps war veterans readjust to civilian life while experiencing the beauty of scuba diving.