ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - As he straps on his complex scuba gear in an Albuquerque swimming pool, Air Force Senior Airman Michael Malarsie is confident.
In previous classroom and pool sessions, he has learned where all the important parts are and how to assemble and operate them.
That's really important because he has to do it all by touch.
The Los Lunas native's eyesight was taken by an improvised explosive device--a notorious IED-- in Afghanistan. It took months for him to recover from all the injuries and become mobile.
Malarsie says he has not stopped moving since.
"After everything that had happened, I told myself, everything that I've ever wanted to do, every opportunity that I had passed up because I was too busy, I had too many things going on, I'm going to do it," he said. "Scuba diving is one of them."
Michael's 'adaptive diver' training and a new set of scuba gear are being provided by the national Dive Pirates Foundation . The foundation selects several wounded veterans each year across America to train and equip.
Stacey Minton, local Dive Pirates Foundation member and instructor at the New Mexico Scuba Center , feels Malarsie is a natural diver.
"The first time we had him underwater, I was amazed at how easy Michael caught on," Minton said. Dive Pirates instructors are specially trained to deal with all kinds of disabilities, and none of those disabilities are seen as barriers, she added.
"We're going diving," Minton continued. "Whether you are in a chair. Whether you have an artificial limb, you're blind. Let's go diving."
Michael enjoys defying obstacles.
Instead of discharging him, the Air Force made him administrator of a program that pairs airmen who've recovered from critical injuries with the seriously wounded fresh from the battlefield.
It is a territory Michael said he and other mentors know well.
"For me I wake up and I realize I'm going to be totally blind." he recalled. "Every goal, every dream, everything is totally gone. What do I do now?"
"To have somebody there who has experienced those same feelings and has the credibility that nobody else can bring, it really gives these guys a support system that otherwise they wouldn't have."
Malarsie is also helping test a synthetic vision system from Wicab, Inc. called the BrainPort
A micro camera on glasses creates a pattern on a plate of electrodes. The small plate rests on Michael's tongue.
Michael can sense individual shapes like letters.
"It's cool to be able to read again," he says with a smile.
As for the scuba diving, Michael has no time for naysayers.
"A lot of people are like, 'Well, you're blind, who cares?'" he said. "But the feeling of being under the water and knowing where I am and what's going on, it's really an exciting thing."
There's also the absence of the physical barriers that challenge him in the regular above-water environment.
"Anytime I'm walking somewhere or moving around I'm always bouncing off things," he observed.
That's not the case floating below the surface of the water with an air tank on your back.
"It's cool to be like suspended without anything pulling on me, and also to move around and not be crashing and bouncing off of things," he said.
Hours are spent in the pool practicing emergency procedures with a dive buddy. In Michael's case using mostly hand signals that can be shared by feel. Occasionally an underwater microphone system is used.
During emergency procedures air regulators fail, masks are ripped off and dive buddies need help.
Streams of intense air bubbles and twisted straps can create confusion.
Michael exhibits no trepidation.
"I know what I am supposed to do and as long as I keep a cool head everything is going to be perfectly fine," he said confidently.
For their graduation, and thanks to donations, Dive Pirates Foundation will take Michael and other wounded veterans to the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean to explore the wild undersea world. It is an annual excursion.
The foundation designs each dive experience to match the disability of each adaptive diver.
"We're going to find whatever we can for Michael to play with his hands," instructor Minton said. "We're going to be doing wrecks, whatever he can touch that is safe."
For Michael, scuba is part of "getting back to normal."
In his regular job, Malarsie helps newly wounded airmen find their own new "normal."
"One of the main things is that your old normal, you may not be able to reach that normal again, but you can reach a new normal," he said. "Life does go on. You can still contribute to society, and you can still accomplish things."
He feels it is a lesson from which even the nondisabled can benefit.
"Even people that have no disabilities at all, you can come up with tons of excuses to not do things," he said. "I'm not going to let being blind stop me. There's a lot of life out there, and I am not going to miss my chance."
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