Sun Sentinel: New mission for disabled military veterans: Helping restore coral reefs June 26, 2015

Twenty-five feet underwater in the Atlantic, Joseph Deslauriers felt at peace.

The pain in his back faded away and his mind cleared out.

His wheelchair remained back on the surface, aboard the American Dream Two, bobbing in the waves off the coast of Fort Lauderdale.

The Air Force master sergeant, who lost both legs and an arm in Afghanistan nearly four years ago, is one of three disabled military veterans who went scuba diving Wednesday with the help of trained partners.

“The only thing that you have to worry about,” Deslauriers later said, “is breathing.”

The trip was meant to be therapeutic, but also served a second purpose. It was the test run of a program that deploys disabled veterans to help restore a threatened species of coral. Called Restoring Our Oceans Together, or ROOT, it was launched by Nova Southeastern University and two nonprofits, legal philanthropic dive group DiveBar and therapeutic dive group Diveheart.

The idea is to help the environment and at the same time give injured veterans “a new mission.”

“That’s what these military guys were trained to do, go on missions,” said Michael Kaufman, who sits on the boards of both DiveBar and Diveheart. He added: “We’ve given them a new purpose in life.”

Just after 8 a.m., members from the three organizations met at Nova’s Oceanographic Institute in Dania Beach and helped the three veterans board the American Dream Two with their wheelchairs.

Along with Deslauriers, of Destin, were veterans Jeff Glasser, a Boca Raton resident who served in the Army, and David Williams, a Fort Lauderdale resident who served in the Navy.

Glasser and Williams were injured in non-combat incidents.

On board, David Gilliam, an assistant professor of marine biology at Nova Southeastern, outlined the mission: To re-attach staghorn coral fragments onto man-made reefs off the coast of Fort Lauderdale.

Working in three teams, they’d visit two dive sites. The goal is to foster strong, thriving reefs.

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