Wounded Veterans in Parks
World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument
Dave Conlin, Chief Archaeologist, NPS, Submerged Resources Center
It’s Sunday afternoon at home, Easter Sunday to be precise, and the poignancy of the day is not lost on me as I sit at my computer and try to write. Easter—the holiday of rebirth and renewal—a fitting day to put words down on a screen and to try to describe what Pacific Historic Parks (PHP) and the National Park Service (NPS) is doing with our new initiative for some of our country’s most deserving individuals. Wounded Veterans in Parks (WVIP) is an innovative program supported jointly by PHP and the NPS to re-engage with our service members and allow them to renew their commitment to our country with specific, mission focused scuba diving operations. The newly launched WVIP program will involve our wounded service members in the scientific study, interpretation, and protection of one of our nation’s most important memorials to military service and sacrifice—USS Arizona. The program will augment NPS underwater specialists with disabled veterans trained as scientific scuba divers who will assist the Park Service with its ongoing management responsibilities for this American icon.
76 years ago, on the peaceful Sunday morning of December 7th, 1941, a brutal wave of history broke over USS Arizona and the Pacific Fleet in Hawaii. In a cataclysmic raid that heralded the end of the battleship era, aircraft from six Japanese aircraft carriers sprang an incredibly well planned and effective surprise attack on the naval forces of the United States. Tied up with the rest of the fleet, Arizona was a sitting duck in the narrow confines of Pearl Harbor. At approximately 8:06 AM, a colossal explosion obliterated the forward half of the battleship killing 1,177 of the ship’s sailors and marines.
Arizona sank to the floor of Pearl Harbor and burned for two days despite the heroic efforts of naval personnel to contain the damage and save the vessels that had endured relatively undamaged. Arizona was too far gone to be refloated or saved, and after several years of painful salvage work during which almost 200 bodies were removed from the ship, the vessel was declared a total loss. The men who remained unrecovered were declared “buried at sea.”
Although the ship was lost, it was never forgotten—“Remember Pearl Harbor” became the rallying cry for a nation fully engaged in the war with both Japan and Germany. After the war, Arizona remained a focus for reflection and remembrance, and in 1962 the current memorial was dedicated. In 1980, the NPS joined with the US Navy to tell the story of Arizona.
In the almost 40 years that the NPS has been the steward of Arizona, we have seen signs of rebirth and renewal on the ship. Rich colonies of coral, schools of fish, and environmentally sensitive species such as seahorses have partially transformed the shattered remains of a battleship into a carnival of life. Above water, as the years march onwards, change happens as well, and we work diligently to connect the story of the ship and her loss to new generations of visitors from all over the globe. In our interpretation of Arizona, we emphasize service, sacrifice, and commitment to goals as a nation. One group that has always grasped these messages are the men and women in uniform who work to protect us every day.
Because our veterans understand what Arizona means, it seemed fitting that they should be able to assist the NPS with the science and studies that will help preserve the ship for future generations. Who better than some of our wounded veterans—men and women who still feel drawn to serve, and those who have been marked by their service—to help the Park Service and Pacific Historic Parks in the solemn duty of protecting and preserving one of America’s most important military memorials?
The NPS Submerged Resources Center and PHP are connecting to veterans organizations with the drive, commitment, and mandate to assist with the NPS program of research on Arizona. The Wounded American Veterans Experience Scuba (WAVES) Project is a 501c (3) non-profit that has been established to provide an opportunity to American Veterans with service connected disabilities and a dive companion of their choice the experience of scuba diving for free. By training our wounded veterans as scientific divers and assisting the NPS with ongoing Arizona research, we will be moving the activity of scuba diving from recreation to meaningful work on a site that has profound connections to all our service members. In addition, involvement with the NPS could highlight a path forward to a potential career that will allow these committed individuals to draw upon the skills of teamwork, task focus, and service to a greater good that they acquired in military in a new agency with a civilian mission.
In early March, staff from the NPS Submerged Resources Center teamed up with four members of the WAVES Project to measure oil release from Arizona and to document the current condition of the ship. With an estimated 500,000 gallons of oil still remaining on the battleship, the NPS is continually doing research - such as remotely operated vehicle interior investigation, re-acquiring known GPS points, and oil collection in effort to monitor change. The March project was designed to utilize veterans along side SRC divers to deploy specifically designed oil catchment tents over known areas of the ship to determine the current 24hr oil release rate. This short pilot project sponsored by PHP demonstrated that scientific diving within the wounded veteran community could be done safely and effectively on Arizona. While the stories of each of the veterans involved in the project are theirs alone to share, the site and their experiences on the project clearly touched them deeply. While continuing their service to our country in a new way, our hope is that a reaffirmation of the value of their service and of their sacrifice via work on USS Arizona will foster rebirth and renewal in each of them in a way transcends the project and carries into their everyday lives in the civilian world.
I just want to start by saying Thank You to everybody that made this incredible trip possible. This trip was very inspirational and humbling to say the least. I was able to see the names of my two great uncles who served on the USS Arizona inscribed on the wall and visit their resting place. I really enjoyed the project of collecting oil samples that are still floating up from the ship. I feel that WAVES Project, National Park Service and Pacific Historic Parks are starting a great program here. I hope to see it continue because being able to work with fellow Veterans is just what I need, and it shows that No One Is Ever Forgotten. I look forward to being involved in other projects with the WAVES Project, National Park Services and Pacific Historic Parks.
Thank you,SSG Jeffrey Pickard, USA (Ret.)
This injury will never be okay for me; but I always have, and will, consider life a gift. Joy can be found anywhere, and not just in the good times but in an even more meaningful way when faced with challenges and obstacles … during the setbacks. My most fulfilling moments come from overcoming and succeeding in the face of great challenges. That’s what my life has been post injury. The recent Pearl Harbor Wounded Veterans In Parks (WVIP) project sponsored by Pacific Historic Parks in conjunction with the National Park Service (NPS) Submerged Resources Center (SRC), Wounded American Veterans Experience Scuba (WAVES) and World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument gave me and our team the opportunity to overcome numerous challenges.
The partnership between PHP, NPS SRC, and veterans that live with a disability might seem like a photo op on the surface, but when you dig deeper, the message and meaning this project conveys is profound. Who better than a veteran to participate in the NPS stewardship of these sites that are iconic to our military and to our nation? But why a veteran living with a disability? At first glance this concept might seem foolish considering the potential additional time and accommodations needed to accomplish a mission. This partnership is clearly about more than repetitive motions and accomplishing work underwater. Don’t misunderstand me - completing the mission of oil collection on various sections of USS Arizona was paramount for our team. But incorporating veterans living with a disability (physical and/or mental) is genius.
Service members transitioning into civilian life deal with a unique set of challenges; even more so when living with a disability. BUT we also bring a unique set of strengths, again, even more so with those of us living with a disability. Through the Pearl Harbor WVIP project we are given an opportunity to show that we can still be of service to this nation. It shows the abled body community what is possible. Perhaps in doing so we can begin to shatter preconceptions on what those with disabilities can do – rather than just what they can’t. Incorporating veterans living with a disability may motivate other veterans to grow and push past that moment – to engage. I truly believe future veterans participating in this project may surprise and motivate themselves. That’s what this project was for me. An opportunity to educate those around me and learn; about this site and about myself.
Gail Chew, Director of Development and Communications at PHP said it perfectly, “You all touched the soul of this place.” That is definitely true, but that site...the men that gave their lives that day...the resulting battles in the Pacific Campaign...that war...everything that’s wrapped up in that place also touched us. I know this project profoundly impacted all involved, whether they were doing work underwater or supporting the project behind the scene.
David Ortiz, WAVES