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Swimming with sharks helps veterans feel whole again

  • Story Highlights
  • Fish Wish program at Georgia Aquarium allows disabled veterans to swim with sharks
  • Program is open to the public, but waiting list is long and cost is $290
  • Veterans report feeling "equal" in the weightless environment of water
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By Judy Fortin
CNN Medical Correspondent
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Retired Army Spc. Scott Winkler had many scary encounters while serving in Iraq, but they were nothing compared with his recent experience at the world's largest aquarium: swimming alongside a massive whale shark.

Ret. Army Spc. Scott Winkler, 35, was paralyzed five years ago during an accident in Iraq.

The fact that Winkler, 35, of Augusta, Georgia, is a paraplegic made the once-in-a-lifetime experience even more challenging.

"It's like you're in space," Winkler said. "It's like you're an able body again. It makes you feel so free."

Winkler was paralyzed five years ago during an accident while unloading ammunition in Tikrit, Iraq.

He is one of more than two dozen disabled veterans who have participated in the Fish Wish program at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta during the past two months.

A separate swim and dive program is open to the public, but the waiting list is nearly full until the end of the year.

The experience isn't cheap. A half-hour dive costs $290. The veterans swam for free.

Therapeutic recreational specialist Susan Oglesby helps train safety divers at the aquarium to assist swimmers with disabilities. She explained there are very few limitations in the tank.

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"The water is the great equalizer. Once you get in, you're floating, you're weightless, and everybody becomes equal," Oglesby said.

Winkler was outfitted in a wet suit and snorkeling gear. He rolled his wheelchair down a long ramp to a dock floating in the 6.3 million-gallon tank of salt water.

After sliding out of the chair, he took a deep breath and pushed himself into the water.

"It is so amazing, he said. "It's like you don't have a disability, because you're just floating around with everybody else. ... The fish are just swimming by. It's a total other world."

In addition to four 23-foot-long whale sharks, Winkler gazed on a manta ray, hammerhead sharks, goliath grouper and sawfish.

He used his arms to move his body around the football-field-size tank.

Swimming next to him were two safety divers and Orlando Perez, another young veteran from Augusta.

"It's beautiful down there!" Perez exclaimed. "It's peaceful, and you just forget that you're in a wheelchair. You're one with the fish."

Perez, 33, a retired Army private first class, suffered a spinal cord injury during basic training 13 years ago. Like Winkler, he is confined to a wheelchair.

Perez likened the swim experience to floating on air.

"I never thought being disabled would bring me to do something so amazing," he said. "I think it's about overcoming the disability and not letting the disability overcome you."

Both Perez and Winkler admitted they were nervous when they first entered in the water. They settled down after being brushed by one of the passing whale sharks.

Winkler had a big grin on his face as he talked about the benefits of taking part in the program.

"Mentally, you're actually taking a stress break from life itself," he said. "Physically, it's great rehabilitation. Emotionally, your spirit is lifted, and you're able to enjoy yourself for once."

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