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Dolphins help bring peace to Veterans

veterans swimming with dolphins

Dolphin therapy helps Veterans find peace while transitioning from combat into civilian life.

By Larry Gilstad, Miami VA Healthcare System
Friday, October 28, 2011

“There’s no magic pill with PTSD.”

But there are dolphins.

“It’s very peaceful when you get in the water. It’s stress-free and it brings out playfulness, happiness,” said Iraq and Afghanistan Veteran William Mulvey.

Mulvey, a 32 year old U.S. Navy Veteran from Homestead, Florida, is receiving care for PTSD and TBI from his combat experiences at the Bruce W. Carter VA Medical Center in Miami, Florida.

Two years ago the recreation therapy service at the Miami VA was offered the opportunity for combat Veterans and their families or caregivers to swim with dolphins by Island Dolphin Care, Inc., a not for profit organization in Key Largo, Florida.

“For the past few years we’ve been working with Veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan and that’s an honor and a privilege for us,” said Pete Hoagland, IDC Manager and co-founder. “We’ve even seen some vets from the Vietnam conflict and last week we had some vets from Korea and World War II which was just amazing.”

“To put a smile on all those people’s faces and give them an idea that hope lives, that joy is something that you need in your lives is just a wonderful thing,” he added.

Kim Severance oversees the marine science education and Veterans programs. She says the Veterans have provided consistently positive feedback. “The number one response has been ‘I can’t believe how good I’ve felt after… or for two weeks afterwards.”

Some research has been published regarding the effects of swimming with dolphins according to Tabitha Aragon, Recreation Therapist for the Post Deployment Clinic at the Miami VA Healthcare System. Aragon says the basic data they’ve collected so far shows overall improvement in anxiety and depression levels after just the one-day program.

“It’s the excitement and motivation of being in this environment with these incredible animals that is such a powerful tool. We use it to create opportunities for children and young adults with special needs and challenges, disabilities, life-threatening conditions, kids from “Make-A-Wish” and similar organizations, and our Veterans,” Hoagland explained.

“But it’s expensive… just maintenance and electrical bills, water bills, all that stuff… it’s about a million dollar a year budget,” Hoagland said. He added that IDC receives strong local community as well as national philanthropic support but is always in need of additional funding.

Much of that support goes toward paying for individual and group scholarships that allow those who otherwise could not afford the sessions the opportunity to experience the dolphins.

“Island Dolphin Care fund raises and gets grants for the entire (VA) program. No money comes from the Veteran or the VA,” said Aragon.

Island Dolphin Care was created twenty years ago out of a parent’s need to improve her son’s life. Deena and Pete Hoagland’s son Joe was born with a heart defect that required multiple surgeries to correct. After his third open-heart procedure, Joe suffered a stroke that paralyzed his left side.

Deena, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist, thought Joe would respond better to water therapy. She asked Dolphins Plus, one of the oldest commercial ‘swim with dolphin’ programs in the U.S., if she could try with her son. Joe met a 600 lb. Atlantic bottle nose dolphin called Fonzie and the effects were almost immediate. Deena recognized what worked for Joe could help others as well. Gradually Island Dolphin Care evolved into the nationally recognized dolphin therapy program now benefiting Veterans. “We’re all about taking broken lives and helping them move in a positive direction. It’s truly an honor and a privilege to work with these men and women that have given so much for us. I can’t think of a better job than to work here and help make those programs successful,” Hoagland said.

To learn more about the dolphin swim therapy program, call Miami VA Recreation Therapy at (305) 575-3295 or e-mail Richard.Vroman@va.gov.

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