Veterans take to the water to swim with the largest fish in the world

Where do you go for healing?
Veterans find healing the depths of Georgia's Aquarium
Published: Aug. 4, 2023 at 5:43 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - A group of veterans are getting the experience of a lifetime with the world’s largest fish, but they’re after much more than adventure.

“I think in the water, everything is healing,” said Cooper, “It takes away, you know the gravity, the emotions just kind of melt away.”

For close to half an hour, eight men from the Wounded Warrior Project snorkel their way through the waters at Georgia Aquarium.

“The warriors who are here today are part of our Independence Program because they have brain injuries or spinal cord injuries or other neurological conditions that impede their ability to live independently,” said Katy Axtell with Wounded Warrior Project. “At first glance, they are swimming with fish. What is really happening is we are bringing warriors with similar injuries, similar experiences together.”

“Within a week we had eight guys blown up by IEDs,” said Sgt. Matt Cooper with Georgia Army National Guard, “I have those memories of being back there in a war zone.”

“When I was in the air force I broke my neck,” said Airmen 1st Class, Michael Belew with the Air Force.

These eight veterans have chosen to leave dry land on foot or wheelchairs and share the water with Georgia’s Aquarium’s whale shark, the world’s largest fish.

Whale sharks are known as gentle giants. They can weigh up to 41,000 pounds and they aren’t the only fish in the tank.

“Dude! I don’t even know all the fish that are in there, but we are about to swim with them so!” said Belew.

The event is as much for families as it is for the warriors. Families get to watch the whole adventure take place, but they also get to meet other people who are experiencing a reality similar to their own.

“It is like a group of people that have the same issues that I do. We can talk about the things we can’t talk to everybody else about because they won’t understand,” said Cooper.

To learn more about the Independence Program and how you can donate or get involved, click the link below.