• Wounded veterans swim with fishes at Georgia Aquarium

    Updated:

    ATLANTA - A program to help area wounded warriors is growing. It's now once a week, service members swim with the whale sharks and the manta rays at the Georgia Aquarium. Many say the experience brings them a peace they haven't found in a long time, including one of the aquarium's dive instructors.
     
    Four Army veterans recently arrived at the Georgia Aquarium, a little apprehensive, but excited.
     
    Susan Oglesby is the manager of the Dive Immersion program for veterans. She's also a recreational and aquatic therapist.
     
    "All those horrible things that are going on in your mind and your body are kind of put aside when a whale shark, with eyes 4 feet apart, comes by you," Oglesby said. "You're able to let go, release, relax and for some of them, it's the first time since they came back from deployment."
     
    The soldiers and their families stayed in the water for about 30 minutes, swimming atop the aquarium's Ocean Voyager. They came face to face with whale sharks, manta rays and more.
             
    When they emerged, you could see a sense of peace in their smiles.
     
    "It was awesome," said veteran Daniel Lowery. "When I first got in there, I was kind of nervous and I didn't know what to expect. But once we started and everything, it was awesome."
     
    Veteran Marquis Dixon added, "All my anxiety, it just basically went away. It was a beautiful experience."
     
    Aquarium dive instructor Mike Hilliard understands probably more than others. In 2007 while on deployment in Iraq, he got shot in the head.
     
    "Next thing I know I was lying on the ground, blacked out. And that's when my best friend came up to me and told me that I had just got shot," Hilliard said.
     
    Hilliard recovered and went back for a second tour in Afghanistan. But he struggled when he got stateside. It wasn't until he went on a diving trip that his life
     
    "Being able to dump all that stuff and get that chip off your shoulder and experiencing something this peaceful kind of opens up a whole new light," Hilliard added. "It kind of gives you a reborn feeling. Every time you come out of the water you feel like you shed 1000 pounds."
     
    On the day Channel 2 Action News visited the aquarium, the wounded warriors had some extra support from Geiger Aquarium benefactor Bernie Marcus. The immersion program is a source of pride for him.
     
    "When they're in the water, it's a soothing effect on them. It does have a calming and some sort of remedy to their souls," Marcus said.
     
    The immersion program happens every Wednesday at the Georgia Aquarium and is funded entirely by private support. There are other programs for the military too. From now through January, veterans get in free on Mondays. Active military and their families can get discounted tickets.
     
    Veteran Wayne Matthews said the support is welcomed, and to swim at the aquarium was an experience he'll never forget.
     
    "The whale shark, it rubbed up on me twice. That made my day, my year, my century," he said smiling. "It brought back the adrenaline that I missed from being in the military. It was awesome. I absolutely loved it."


    Next Up: