Juan Gonzales is a former United States Marine Corps (USMC) Sergeant who retired from the service after 12 years and three deployments in the hotspots of US military action around the world: two to Iraq and one to Afghanistan. Diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in 2004, he nevertheless stayed in the service through his final deployment to Iraq in 2012. Then, he came home and confronted even bigger challenges: reconnecting with his family and learning to live civilian life hampered by his PTSD. Fortunately, he found help for himself and his family through the W.A.V.E.S. Project (Wounded American Veterans Experience SCUBA), a small, non-profit organization in Southern California that provides US veterans who have service-related injuries opportunities to experience the healing effects of scuba diving. Juan shares his story, below.
Please fill us in on your background
I grew up in Woodland, California and I now reside here again with my children, age 16, 10 and 5. In 2014, I took a medical retirement from my position as a sergeant in the USMC, where I had served for 12 years as an artilleryman, and later as a heavy equipment mechanic and a welder.
How did your time away in military service affect you and your family?
Being away from the family was hard. I was trying to parent through the telephone. (FYI, trying to make sure the kids are doing their homework through a phone line doesn’t work very well!) Then, when I did come home, I didn’t want to be the disciplinarian, but it was a necessity, in our case.
Another challenge: I was an inconsistent presence in the lives of my wife and children. My schedule was constantly changing. I would go to school, then I’d go to the field, do training, and then deploy. Gradually, it became a lot easier to let my wife raise the kids, and focus on my life in the military.
What was it like, finally coming home to your family after you left the service?
Coming back was really hard. By that time, my wife and I were separated and going through a divorce. I asked if I could take the kids so I could be more involved in their lives. Adjusting to parenting – and single parenting at that – was a huge challenge. I wasn’t sure how to interact with my kids. I didn’t know what they ate for breakfast or what their daily schedules were. We kind of had to make it work from scratch, which was really interesting!
On a more personal level, coming back and trying to adjust from a deployment mindset to an at-home mindset was a struggle; it was incredibly difficult to leave the role of deployed Marine behind me and fill my new role as dad. To say the least, I didn’t adjust very well, primarily due to PTSD.
Please help us understand PTSD, and how it affected you.
It started with anxiety attacks. Eventually, I experienced additional symptoms such as night terrors, night sweats, and insomnia. When I was diagnosed in 2004, there was very little understanding of the syndrome – or treatment for it. The priority was to get me back out and doing my job as a Marine, and I ended up focusing on my military duties and emotionally disconnecting from my wife and my kids.
By 2006, I had developed such a callous over my feelings that it was a lot easier to deploy than to relate to my family. It wasn’t until I was medically retired in 2014 that I realized how thick that callous had become, how little I could relate with people around me, and to fully accept the depth of my PTSD.
To this day, I still have difficulty creating and maintaining interpersonal relationships. I get anxious in crowds and I’m easily startled. I am more comfortable isolating at home – not going out.
Did you find any treatment that worked?
While I was in the Corps, I dealt with the PTSD by ignoring everything going on around me and focusing my work. Later, I tried some of the medications they offer for PTSD, and sought help from a psychiatrist.
Ultimately, what’s worked best for me is finding things that I enjoy doing – things that are fun for me and my kids. My kids definitely helped me come out of it. We do a lot of family events to help me stay in the proper mindset and keep moving forward.
Which is where scuba diving comes in! How did you first hear about the WAVES Project?
My son, Marcus, and I were spending our first summer together in about 12 years when a friend called to tell me about learning to dive through the WAVES Project, which introduces disabled veterans into scuba diving. I said, “Great, that’s something I’ll look into when I find time.” However, my friend emphasized that I could take Marcus with me. We could learn to dive together – free of charge!
So you and your son obtained your PADI Open Water Diver certifications for free through WAVES Project?
Yes! The best and most unique aspect of WAVES is they allow the veteran to choose his or her own dive buddy; in my case, it’s my son, Marcus. I think this policy is extremely beneficial because the immediate family members of disabled veterans have a lot to cope with and need healing, too. It is wonderful that they include family members! It certainly was for me and Marcus. Diving has opened up a whole new world to us, providing an activity we can share together and a reason to spend time together.
Before the WAVES Project, Marcus and I were not nearly as close as we are today. My absence throughout so much his life and my role as disciplinarian put a real strain on our relationship. Scuba diving gave us an opportunity to reconnect and build a far stronger bond than we had before – partly of the increased trust we developed as dive buddies. Now, we spend a lot of one-on-one time together, checking our gear, creating our dive plans and driving to and from the dive sites. This has given us time to just hang out and be buds. I’m very grateful for that. Now, Marcus wants to pursue higher ratings, and I think I’ll tag along with him!
How does diving help you with your PTSD?
I can’t explain exactly how, but diving is one of the best ways I’ve found to diminish my PTSD symptoms. When I’m diving, I feel relaxed and at ease with what’s going on around me and with life in general – like there’s nothing else in my life that needs my attention at the moment. I feel my usual coping mechanisms slipping away and I am able to focus on diving and having a good time.
In many ways, diving is exact opposite of being on deployment. Deployment is the incredibly noisy with the racket of firefights, explosions and radio chatter. Contrast that to the quiet, calm and tranquil environment of diving. The sound of your regulator literally drowns most of the sound out around you, so you don’t hear much, but what you see and feel is absolutely amazing.
How has diving affected your son, Marcus?
One of the best things about diving has been seeing Marcus’s reaction to the new experiences and things that we see when we’re underwater, and hearing him joke around with people on the dive boat. I saw a huge transformation in Marcus once he started diving. Nowadays, he is interested not just in diving and where diving can take him, but in new things – like where he can go to college! He sees a future for himself that wasn’t there before diving.
Are you still involved in the WAVES Project?
WAVES Project is not just a place to get your certification. It’s a family – a community. They have kept in touch with us; they want to keep their veterans engaged with scuba diving. I’m really close friends with many of the members and I sometimes get opportunities to go dive with them.
Does the WAVES Project help veterans with disabilities other than PTSD?
Yes, but it wasn’t until I came across the WAVES Project that I learned about the therapeutic properties of scuba diving for treating PTSD, neuropathy, and other types of injuries that veterans experience. The WAVES Project takes each candidate and his or her dive buddy through open water certification, regardless of their injury. They work with all levels of the military and a wide range of disabilities, including veterans suffering from brain trauma, and double and triple amputees. Visit their website to see the stories of other wounded veterans who have benefited from the WAVES Project.
What does the future hold for you?
First of all, it’s great knowing that when things seem crazier than I can handle, there’s something I can do to re-center myself: go diving.
My hope is to see where Marcus and I can take our scuba diving adventure. We would like to eventually become instructors and start a program similar to WAVES in the Sacramento, California area so we can bring scuba to a new group of veterans and their families.
It’s a really important for veterans with PTSD and other disabilities to know that there’s a future…there’s a tomorrow… a next chapter. And the WAVES Project can help them get there.
How can the diving community help support WAVES Project?
The WAVES Project relies on donations and support from the diving community to provide services to veterans and their families. To contribute, please visit the WAVES Project fundraising page.
To learn more about Juan Gonzales and hear other inspirational My PADI stories, visit http://mypadi.padi.com.