It only took a split second for U.S. Army Sgt. Chris Maddeford to get blown out of his Humvee by an improvised explosive device and land on his head 10 years ago in Afghanistan.
But that was plenty long enough for Maddeford’s life to change completely. Aside from his physical agony — a traumatic brain injury, spinal cord damage, a blown-out hip — Maddeford dealt with emotional issues and post-traumatic stress syndrome that were far harder to heal than his body.
“When I came back, it was chaos,” said Maddeford, 31. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t feel normal. The person I was before I left was gone.”
Upon returning home to Boston, Maddeford moved in with his parents. That lasted a day before his problems caused him to be kicked out of the house. Maddeford also found it impossible to keep a job.
“Life was just in complete disarray,” Maddeford said.
Fast forward a decade and Maddeford says he’s a “new person” thanks to his connection with Operation Blue Pride, which aims to train veterans injured physically and emotionally to scuba dive while raising awareness for ocean conservation, particularly overfishing and the plight of sharks.
The project is partially the brainchild of Jim Abernethy, the owner of Abernethy’s Scuba Adventures diving school in West Palm Beach, who has spent much of his life advocating for the preservation of sharks.
In July, 14 veterans spent a week training and diving off West Palm Beach. Footage for a documentary — titled “Operation Blue Pride” and set to premiere this year — was shot then and features three vets, including Maddeford. The other two veterans — U.S. Army Capt. Marlene Krpata, 42, and U.S. Army Sgt. Stephen Jackel Jr., 34 — are amputees injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively.
Abernethy said his original premise was to use the veterans’ status as “heroes” to gain attention for ocean conservation and to educate people on the true nature of sharks.
“My thought was that if you showed injured vets massaging a tiger shark, it’s going to be pretty hard for the Discovery Channel to say that sharks are monsters,” said Abernethy, referring to the cable network’s annual “Shark Week” series. “Sharks do not eat people except one week a year on Discovery Channel.”
It turns out it wasn’t only the ocean and sharks that have benefited from the veterans’ involvement. The former soldiers say Operation Blue Pride has provided them a sense of purpose and relief from the physical pain they’ve endured since they were injured.
Krpata was hit during a 2006 mortar attack in Iraq that eventually required her right leg to be amputated. Jackel has walked on two prosthetics since 2011 as the result of an explosion in southern Afghanistan. Maddeford has no visible injuries “but is the most damaged of them all,” Abernethy said.
Pain medication is a daily part of life for the vets, but Maddeford said he leaves his meds on land when he’s diving.
“The only time I’m not in pain is when I’m under water,” said Maddeford, who now lives in Chicago. “It’s the only time I’m at peace with myself. It’s given me the opportunity to be a normal person.
“I’m getting married in December. Who would have thought? I didn’t even think I would be alive right now.”
Maddeford serves as executive director for Operation Blue Pride, which began as a one-shot documentary deal and has morphed into an nonprofit that’s helped certify a dozen veterans as divers. Maddeford said he has a waiting list of 300 veterans.
The 14 veterans that came to West Palm Beach in July dove off Shark Canyon.
“I would dive West Palm Beach every day if I could,” Maddeford said. “The sea life is amazing.”
Abernethy said his vision of using the former soldiers as an army of conservationists has turned into a “win-win situation.”
“What I thought in the beginning was that I could get the military to help me save the oceans, but it’s come full circle,” Abernethy said. “It’s military saving oceans saving the military.”