The Birth of SUDS | Servicemembers Undertaking Disabled Sports
By John W Thompson
In the summer of 2005 I walked through the doors of Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) in Washington, DC for the first time. I was there to have lunch with my wife who was doing her medical residency at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. I knew I would encounter some injured service members that day but it was beyond what I had imagined. To see all these young men and women with severe injuries was heartbreaking and a real gut check.
After my visit I couldn’t get the experience out of my mind, I knew I wanted to get involved and help in some manner. I decided to visit the American Red Cross (ARC) at WRAMC and volunteer. After a background check, 2 tuberculosis tests, a blood test and their orientation I was in. They decided to place me in the aquatic therapy department because of my water background. Before I moved to DC I had been living in the Caribbean for many years teaching and guiding dive trips.
Ana and Eric in the Dominican Republic. John's first encounter with injured young men and women at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology was heartbreaking and life changing. Photo © 2020 John W Thompson
My volunteer position with the ARC at Walter Reed didn’t have anything to do with scuba but it didn’t take me long to realize the potential of what could be accomplished. I had access to an indoor pool at the hospital, there was no shortage of injured service members and I was a dive instructor. I spoke to Colonel Barbara Springer, chief of physical therapy at Walter Reed, and asked permission to start a dive program for the patients being treated there. Col. Springer happened to be a certified diver and she saw the merit in what I wanted to do so she gave the green light to proceed.
Now I had to come up with the gear…and a name! I had been teaching scuba part time in Annapolis, Maryland, and the owner of the dive shop found out what I was doing and she gave us six brand new sets of dive equipment. Now with the approval of the hospital to start the program and new gear acquired we were ready to run our first class, that was in February of 2007. After much thought I came up with the name SUDS…Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba. I got the name SUDS from a line in the movie of The Shawshank Redemption.
Giovanni in Cuba. John and his wife had both been previously stationed at the Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and it seemed like the perfect place to complete the new certification of disabled vets. Photo © 2020 John W Thompson
When word got out about what was going on at Walter Reed we had some local dive instructors volunteer their time and more equipment was donated. I had a close buddy (Danny Facciola) that I used to work with at Olympus Dive Center in Morehead City, NC whose father was a Federal Judge in the DC area and he helped us locate a retired Navy JAG Attorney who set up our non-profit status. Danny is now the President of the SUDS organization.
As we ran our first few classes at Walter Reed we had to figure out where we were going to take the participants to do their checkout dives to complete their scuba certification. My wife and I had previously been stationed at the Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO) and I couldn’t think of a better place to do it. I emailed my Point of Contact (POC) at GTMO and ran the idea by her. After months and months of trying to get approval the powers that be in GTMO gave us permission to come down for a week and finish up the injured service members certification.
Jumping in with a housing and an anchor off the shore of North Carolina. John has been using Ikelite housings and strobes since 2002. All of the photos in this article were taken using a Canon DSLR. Photo © 2020 John W Thompson
The producers of the program “Real Sports” on HBO found out that we were bringing a group of wounded warriors to dive in GTMO and they wanted to film it. They thought that is was kind of a crazy story because we were bringing all these guys who had been severely injured in Iraq and Afghanistan to a location where a lot of bad guys including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were being detained. To my surprise the Brass at GTMO approved HBO to come down and film our program in action. A month or so later it aired on national television and that was the catalyst that helped kickstart SUDS. We have worked with hundreds of Veterans across the country and it has become my life’s passion.
To date SUDS has worked with hundreds of Veterans all across the United States and hosted trips to a wide variety of locations including Roatan, Dominican Republic, Kona, and Puerto Rico. Photo © 2020 John W Thompson
A few years ago we started offering other adventure sports in order to reach more wounded, injured and ill service members so we have officially changed our name to Servicemembers Undertaking Disabled Sports but diving is still our main focus and luckily we got to keep the SUDS acronym! SUDS is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and is a subordinate chapter of Disabled Sports USA.
In 2005 John W Thompson had an encounter with injured US service members that turned out to be life changing. He knew he wanted to get involved and do something to help bring new life and hope to these young men and women with severe injuries. That mission gained serious momentum after a collaboration with the HBO program "Real Sports" and the SUDS organization was born. Visit sudsdiving.org and show your support for these awesome guys and gals!