Shane Yost was terrified of the water. His ankle bears a tattoo of a line with the words Do not fill above this line. He wasn’t comfortable exceeding that depth, and he lived by those words.
But on a day out from the Aspire Center, a veteran residential rehabilitation treatment program based in San Diego, he put aside that fear when a girl meekly asked if someone could join her boogie boarding.
“One of my weaknesses is when someone asks me to do something,” says Yost.
So he crept into the ocean — and stayed there. Thirty minutes passed, and the post-traumatic stress disorder survivor realized he’d started having fun.
Next came an invite from a friend to go snorkeling. One taste of swimming with seals and sea lions and Yost was hooked, devoting every weekend to his newfound hobby.
“I started buying extra gear off Craigslist and inviting other Aspire Center people, and 30 people would show up,” he says. “I wanted these guys to find something that they enjoyed in life.”
Then, in October 2016, Yost learned about the Wounded Warrior Project when another graduate of the Aspire Center suggested he give scuba a try.
“I got in the pool and the fear came,” says Yost. “I started freaking out in the shallow end just breathing underwater.
“But I hate having fears. Fear pisses me off.”
And so he consented to trying scuba in the ocean. Luckily, something clicked.
“As soon as we went in the ocean, the fear went away. I was in a different world. It wasn’t dark and scary. There was no boogeyman. It’s a wonderful place, and I was so in awe.”
Now, Yost is an instructor in the Diveheart program, working toward having 30 adapted dives under his belt, which would greenlight him to teach, passing the gift of diving to other vets.
“For me, scuba is a reset button. I can have all this stress and anxiety, and sometimes when I reach the ocean, part of me wants to just sit there and be miserable,” says Yost, who struggled with depression and other symptoms after returning home from serving in Iraq.
“The PTSD manifests as anger or aggression or depression, so there have been a lot of ups and downs,” Yost says. “I lost my mind, and I’ve had suicide attempts.” But Yost knows what’s waiting for him under the water’s surface, so when he sets aside time to shore-dive, he makes it a point to follow through.
“Scuba helps me center all of that. It’s like meditation. I’m a really high-strung guy and can’t sit down,” he says. “But underwater, I can stop and just be in my own world, just feeling the water surge flow back and forth. It’s like an out-of-body experience.”
And maybe, in a way, he has left the body of the person he was after returning home from the Iraq War.
Says Travis Adams, who introduced Yost to scuba, “When I first met Shane, he was close-minded to pretty much everything. He can be very intense, but after he started diving, he was always smiling, joking and laughing.
“And now he’s putting himself out there, encouraging other people to see scuba as a form of self-care that shuts off all the noise.”
The words inked on his ankle no longer seem to fit. Says Yost, “Now, if I’m not by or in the water, I don’t feel right.”
Working with any child, adult or veteran with a disability, Diveheart provides educational scuba diving programs to foster emotional, psychological and physical well-being. Founded by Jim Elliott, this nonprofit is based in Downers Grove, Illinois, and run entirely by volunteers. One of the largest adaptive-scuba organizations, Diveheart is able to offer trainings throughout the country, including weekly ongoing programs in several locations in Illinois, as well as monthly trainings in South Florida. diveheart.org
— Photos and Video by Zach Stovall