jULY 14TH -20TH, 2018
each year, we ask previous retreat participants to recommend military operations to name our annual retreat after. 2017 participant frank dailey submitted this year’s operation: operation anaconda. we dedicate this time together to the sacrifices made by many during the initial invasion into the shahi-kot valley of afghanistan. it was during this battle that air force technical sergeant john a. chapman would sacrifice his own life protecting and saving injured comrades. his sacrifices were honored with the presentation of the medal of honor by president trump,
The previous month leading into this year’s retreat has been more challenging than any other to this point. As a staff, we have learned from previous year’s and were more prepared but nothing can ready you for losing two key staff members within months of departure due to family illness. Luckily, both our counselor and chaplain recommended sound replacements that were able to join us last minute. Even more impressive was their ability to conduct dive training and refresher training, review the materials already developed for each session, and integrate into our staff as if they were a part of the team from the beginning. The addition of Julie as our counselor and Dave “Chaps” as our chaplain was a blessing from the beginning and we cannot thank them enough for their work before, during, and after this retreat.
as always, WE COMPILE DATA TO GIVE THE PARTICIPANTS AN IDEA OF WHAT ALL OCCURRED DURING THEIR WEEK AT SEA. it never ceases to amaze everyone how much is accomplished in one week -
this years group consisted of 18 veterans representing more than 260 years of total service and nearly 120 years deployed in combat operations.
this group flew a combined 58,000 miles between their homes, to nassau, and back.
we spent 6 days at sea and sailed nearly 120 nautical miles.
more than 25 hours of group sessions were hosted by our staff which is nearly 450 hours of combined counseling sessions among all the veterans.
the group had a combined 274 dives and spent a total of 179.6 hours underwater.
we reaching a total depth of 10,778 feet (2.04 miles) and EXPERIENCED a multitude of different marine life - shipwrecks, plane wrecks, different coral formations, drift dives, the blue hole, and night dives.
enjoy reading about our week at sea through the eyes and writings of our participants. this is their story of friendship and fellowship, of healing and forgiveness, support and compassion, and ultimately of hope and RESILIENCY.
Friday through Saturday, July 13th -14th, 2018
Beginning late Thursday evening and continuing through the early morning of Friday, all our staff began traveling from their homes as far away as Hawaii and as close as Virginia down into Nassau. Their arrival marked the beginning of Operation Anaconda. Friday was busy loading the boat, setting up equipment, preparing bunks, reviewing materials and rehearsing our daily routine. Our traditional evening dinner with Captain Drew marked the end of the evening and we closed in prayer knowing that some of our participants were beginning late night travels and others would be rising early for flights.
Saturday morning quickly came and staff readied to receive 2018’s Valkyries. These men and women represented every major conflict from the Vietnam war through our current conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa. Luckily, all participants arrived with their luggage and by the early afternoon we departed Nassau harbor sailing south towards the Exuma Cays. Our first dive of the week happened that afternoon and allowed staff to assess skill levels, ensure equipment was operational, and establish dive buddies. As in previous years, this group of Veterans came together rather quickly and began discussing common assignments and deployments as we sailed and ate dinner.
The evening was capped off with Chaps discussing the traditional story of David and Goliath while Julie helped establish the group norms. This laid the foundation for success for the upcoming week and all retired early to their racks for some much needed sleep.
Sunday, July 15th, 2018
Sunday was warmer than normal but a cool breeze helped to make it pleasant none-the-less. Our cook, Jenn whipped up an amazing buffet style breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, and fresh fruit. Everyone is adapting to living on a boat and working together. We quickly began our morning sessions hosted by Chaps and Julie and it is nice to have a little routine back in my life. Throughout the day I saw huge crabs and lobsters, a couple of big Nassau Groupers, sea spiders and many fish I have only seen in books. In our sessions we learned about trauma throughout history and how we are not alone in our experiences – critical in fostering trust to reach out to others.
Some of the Veterans in our group are seasoned divers while others are new. We have started to pair up with similar skill levels and the staff is great at leading dives for those not comfortable yet with going out on our own. Regardless of skill level, I am finding out that we all enjoy diving for many of the same reasons. I was able to experience real joy while diving because of the freedom of movement. For Veterans like myself, being weightless in the water is one of the only times I am free from pain. I have the feeling of flying where my body doesn’t hurt and my mind is quiet, my heart is at peace. While there are a lot of us here, you can still experience solitude in the best way possible as diving and being at sea allow you to start to process trauma as it relates to you – the individual Veteran.
Going forward, I hope to use this experience to motivate me to reach out to friends I have lost contact with even though they may not understand all that I am going through. When ‘life’ starts to consume me, I am going to reflect upon my breathing as I do underwater as a way to slow down and relax – a way to find peace during the chaotic times. I will reflect on the silence we experience underwater while seeing the beauty in the world to take me from a place of panic and chaos to peace and calmness. I pray that more Veteran have the opportunity to experience even one day with Deep Sea Valkyries. Thank you so much for what we have been given in only the first couple days – I cannot wait to see what awaits us in the days to come.
Monday, July 16th, 2018
Today’s weather has been perfect. We know that it is warm and humid but the sea breeze and the constant activities in the water have kept us all cool throughout the day. I have discovered quickly how different this program is from others in that meaningful counseling is truly the foundation of why we are here. For me, I didn’t think I was ready to participate in a program like this but the staff, chaplain, and counselor create an environment that is so open and welcoming that it is difficult to stay removed. For the first time in a while, I have felt connected with people and had an enjoyment in my life that I have not experienced in a long time.
Our topics during each session have been very powerful. These are hard hitting topics that no other program I have attended addressed with such passion. Even those that may not agree with all aspects are at least opening up and we are finding healing through our discussions. Our morning session was especially powerful hearing how trauma transcends the individual Veteran and permeates through relationships that many of us never considered. Hearing how it can impact a spouse, sibling, mother and father, son or daughter, or coworkers in a very raw and honest approach is refreshing. Sometimes we need to be reminded in a very direct and honest way of how we are changed – whether we want to hear it or not.
When I return home, I want to use this experience to remind myself that I need to be honest and real with myself. I need to check in with battle buddies from when I served. At the same time, I need to engage in activities that are for me – I need to keep diving as it helps to center me, better me, and provides time to reflect on where I am in life. Sometimes you just need to sit back and breathe. Finding a way to relax allows me to serve and assist other Veterans – it allow me to be the best ‘me’ there can be. I know that when life is challenging, that it is ok and I need to give myself space to grieve, to heal, to be human. Practicing ‘self-compassion’ is something I have lacked for years but with this group I see how that is hurting me more than helping anyone else. I am mentally calm and physically strong right now but I know now that at times, its okay not to be okay – I just need to reach out for help in those times.
Tuesday, July 17th, 2018
If a picture is worth a thousand words, this morning’s sunrise couldn’t be described with all the words in the dictionary. I awoke early and was one of the first ones on deck but it was worth it to have a moment to myself to reflect on the last couple of days. I have been blessed to attend several other retreats for Veterans but I am amazed at this experience so far. Everyone from the boat crew to the counselor, chaplain, dive staff, and the founders truly care about each of us. Even though we met only a couple days ago it feels as if we have been long time friends.
Evidently ‘Taco Tuesday’ is a common theme and yelling out “TACO TUESDAY BABY” resonates throughout the boat! Our chef Jenn does amazing things in a kitchen smaller than a phone booth… to say we eat well is an understatement and more than one Veteran has offered to pay her to be a personal chef!
Today we had 3 great dives, two during the day and a night dive. About half of the Veterans aboard are experienced divers and half are new. That being said, everyone seems to be seeing or experiencing something new during each dive which is amazing. We have seen turtles, sting rays, sharks, lion fish, eels, squid, octopi, and many tropical fish. It’s like diving in the most exotic, warm fish tank you can imagine and it doesn’t matter if it’s a shallow dive or a deep dive, the smiles on faces afterwards is infectious. Today was special for just about everyone as we conducted the shark feeding on the wreck of the Austin Smith. Many of us have watched “Shark week” growing up and for any diver, seeing a shark is a special moment. For this group, to watch a feeding on a ship wreck and then get to explore that wreck looking for shark teeth was even more meaningful as many conquered fears and others checked off ‘bucket list’ items. We are all eager to see the photos and videos!
Our sessions focused on over-valorizing Veterans which could be a taboo topic but needed to be addressed. One thing is for sure, this staff is honest and it’s what we need as a group. Too often, programs placate to Veterans but not Deep Sea Valkyries. They are honest and up front, I really appreciate this level of honesty. I know returning home that there are things out of my control. Asking for help is a good thing but I need to be in a place to receive that help even if I don’t like the answer up front. If I become angry, I can reflect on my time underwater where the pressure and silence can calm me. I can reflect on how I breathe and control those breathes to slow my heart and return to a place where healing can occur. Our group chemistry is great; we are feeling more and more comfortable sharing our ‘issues’ with one another and discovering that many of us share similar traumas from our time in service.
Wednesday, July 18th, 2018
I can’t believe that this week is more than half over! Where did the time go? The weather this week has been unreal. A light breeze has kept us generally cool even though it is warm and humid in the tropics. I think all of us can envision retiring here later in life. This morning’s breakfast started off just right with bacon and eggs, and the fresh fruit for snacks never disappoints. Lunch and Dinner are always a blessing to keep us fueled up for the day and evening activities.
Our dives today started out easy and relaxing. It began with a shallow reef where we saw turtles, sting rays, eels, a couple sharks, and numerous tropical fish. The afternoon’s dive was nothing like I have ever experienced. It is called the “Washing Machine” and for good reason. For everyone looking for an adventure and an amazing ride – look no further. All that can be said is no matter what you are briefed; it cannot prepare you for how much fun this dive is. It is 30-40 minutes of excitement where you experience one of the world’s best drift dive with some of the most amazing people on the planet. It is an experience no one can take away from you. The late afternoon was spent at a remote island where we snorkeled and looked for shells, explored a remote Island, took pictures and generally relaxed without a care in the world – something I am not all that use to.
Today’s discussions revolved around how we value our time in service and if we place more emphasis on that time, more importance in those moments that the life the lies ahead of us. This was an interesting set of sessions because we all identify as Veterans and for many, it is all we have known in our adult lives. Personally, I have realized that I have an empty drive in my own life. I generally have had a detached and numb response to events that have occurred outside of my own service even if they are important to my loved ones – that needs to change. Our evening session was especially powerful. As a group and as individuals we were asked to move well beyond our comfort zones. The exercise we conducted was powerful and meaningful to the extent that one would have to be there to truly understand what those moments meant and no words written or spoken could truly do it justice.
I am realizing through experiences that asking for help is a good thing. Exploration had been the only thing that drove me – now I know the importance of exploring my soul and to find God – hearing that He will always be there for me and know that He never left my side has not only brought healing but has been empowering. This adventure with Deep Sea Valkyries has consumed me. I have decided to make some changes in my life, I need to shift my focus from simply earning money to living my life to its fullest. My reliance on drinking and tobacco needs to change, I am going to focus on a cleaner lifestyle. This trip has done more for me than I thought it would – thank you for everything, the time for me and to love me.
Thursday, July 19th, 2018
Our last day at sea and no one can believe that we are heading back into port! This week has been amazing on so many levels and we all want it to start over again. Just about everyone is looking forward to the Nassau Blue Hole. For a couple of us, it is the ultimate ‘Bucket List’ dive as we have yet to experience a Blue Hole. Others are nervous since the reef sharks are breeding at this time of year so they expect there to be a lot of sharks in the hole. For the new divers, they are being partnered with the Dive Instructors to work on their deep dives and get to deeper depths. The rest of us are excited to drop to recreational limits for a brief time and see stuff we have never witnessed!
This dive did not disappoint. There were more sharks than you could count and just about everyone got deeper than they had been before. Aside from sharks we saw the resident turtle and sting rays. Some of the participants needed to be ‘encouraged’ to go over the ledge – after all it drops off from 60 feet to several hundred feet and can be very intimidating. That being said, everyone worked up the courage to go over the ledge and descend into the ‘shark-nado’ that was circling below us!
On our final run into port, I am amazed at what we have been able to experience over the past week. The entire experience transcends anything I thought was possible. The accommodations were minimal (as we were briefed) yet you felt at home. We were told to equate the experience to ‘camping at sea’ but we ate like Kings and Queens and were treated like royalty by both the boat crew and the staff of Deep Sea Valkyries. This was the perfect balance of healing and growth one could ask for in an adventure retreat. We were asked to write about what we experienced, learned, felt or how we would use this experience going forward. That is so challenging given the enormity of this week so here are some thoughts:
We talked about our ship mates. The Veterans that participated with us. Those thoughts are private and for one another…. Sorry. We reflected on experiences. We can gladly say that everyone was able to experience something new this week, regardless of their participation in other Veteran’s programs / retreats or in their own personal diving experience. We have all made new friends that will carry beyond this voyage. I am very capable, when in doubt slow down and BREATHE! Throughout life, it is important to remember how capable and strong I am. I need to say ‘Yes’ to new things that may seem intimidating at first but I should ask for help when I need it. I want to keep exploring this beautiful world and to care for it – I need to advocate for nature and this planet. I better understand myself and my own spirituality because of this experience and I realize the importance of a healthy Mind, Body, and Soul.
Friday, July 20th, 2018
This morning is probably more difficult for staff than it is for our participants. We have seen these Veterans come together in less than a week as a group and find mutual support AMONG one another. Many people ask us what all happens during a week at sea with DSV and it is hard to describe even through these ‘Captain’s Logs’. That being said, here are some raw numbers to reflect upon:
One week ago, 18 Veterans began the process of departing their homes on what we hoped would be an adventure for the books. More than 58,000 miles flown to Nassau and back home. The group conducted more than 450 hours of combined counseling sessions that helped individuals not only define trauma but also to understand what it looks like in their own lives and how it impacts the loved ones around them. Julie and Chaps sacrificed many hours of sleep to sit one-on-one with these heroes as many, for the first time, opened up to how trauma is affecting them. Some 120 n.m. sailed where 19 Divers had a combined 274 dives. Together a total depth of 10,778 feet, 2.04 miles (1.8 nautical miles) were dove. As a group, we had 12,575 combined minutes underwater; 179.6 hours or 7.4 days submerged. That’s longer underwater than we had as an organization in the Bahamas! The crew of the Morning Star filled more than 13,891 cubic feet of air – we consumed some 520,916 lbs of air. These Veterans represent more than 260 years of total service and more than 120 years deployed in combat operations… memories formed, tears of joy and sorrow, growth and healing for these patriots.
As our ‘Valkyries’ return home, we hope and pray that they will continue to write their next chapter post-service. The time spent serving their country is important and is meaningful, but life after service is just as important. We discuss and ponder as to what these men and women will do with this experience. Will they be able to reflect on their time and find peace when hope when darkness creeps in? Do they feel safe and comfortable reaching out to their new found tribe? Only time will tell. If history holds true, each of these Veterans will be positively impacted – big or small, one way or another.
On behalf of the Veterans we serve, we want to thank our sponsors. Whether corporate or individual, this program could not succeed without your continued support and commitment. We are forever grateful for your continued support as we offer voyages of healing for the Mind, Body, and Soul.
With love and respect from the entire staff of deep sea valkyries,
~Josh, Neysa, Julie, Dave “Chaps”, and Matt.