After receiving a Purple Heart for his service in Iraq, Dale Dunford, of Ravenna, tackled a new challenge when he came home; he went to commercial dive school.
Dunford served four years on active duty in the Marine Corps. In September 2006, he was deployed to Barwana, Iraq. On Sept. 24, Dunford’s squad responded to a call that he will never forget. Dunford and his squad rushed to protect a wounded Marine who had been shot several times in a firefight. While the wounded Marine was being medically evacuated, a sniper fired a single shot that pierced Dunford’s shoulder.
As he recalls, “The bullet broke into three main pieces. One part of the bullet exited through my left trapezius muscle, another stopped inside my neck just under my skin and the tip of the bullet went up into my head. All major parts of the bullet were removed and only small fragments remain in my left shoulder.”
Dunford was sent to Germany to recover and eventually returned to Iraq to finish his deployment. After Iraq, he returned to Hawaii for a short time before his last deployment to Iraq in 2008.
While at the Marine Corps base Hawaii in Kaneohe Bay, Dunford often flew in helicopters and performed helicopter crash training with water crash simulations. The training taught Dunford and fellow infantrymen how to stay calm and find their way out of a sinking helicopter with no visibility and little air. They used small cylinders to help them breathe until they reached the surface.
Dunford was awarded the Purple Heart after he returned from his first deployment in 2007. The Purple Heart Award is an outstanding honor recognizing those members of the U.S. armed forces who have sustained wounds in the hands of enemies during combat.
After Dunford was discharged from the Marine Corps in 2009, he attended college at Kent State University with the vision of earning his degree in Organismal Biology and becoming a wetlands biologist. In the summer months throughout high school and college, he would also help his father with construction projects; he had been doing so since junior high. In May of 2013, he landed an internship with EnviroScience, Inc. in Stow and experienced his first commercial diving project on the Ohio River.
From then on, he was fascinated with underwater construction and mussel diving surveys and extremely impressed by the Malacologists and Marine Services Group at EnviroScience. This experience lead him to change career paths. He no longer wanted to specialize in wetlands; he wanted to become a commercial diver.
He explains, “I learned a lot from the three mussel specialists (malacologists) on staff: Dr. Marty Huehner, Greg Zimmerman, and Ryan Schwegman. These three really gave me a better understanding of the significance of freshwater mussels and how they help to filter and clean our waterways. I learned more in the field from these three men that I did in the four years it took to attain my degree.”
Although Dunford had some prior diving experience, he still had a lot to learn about commercial diving. With the help of ES dive supervisors Patrick Evankovich and Nicklaus Shoots, Dunford gained an understanding of the topside aspect of diving.
Dunford explored the possibility of enrolling in commercial dive school to be considered for an open position on ES’s diving team. ES agreed that if Dunford could get his ADCI certification, his military, biological and construction experience would be the perfect mix of construction and technical skills to fill the open position. However, because of Dunford’s medical history, it was uncertain whether he would be cleared for diving school. After extensive medical examinations, his hyperbaric doctor determined him “fit-to-dive.”
EnviroScience then made Dunford an offer he couldn’t refuse; ES would pay for his dive school if he would agree to come back and work for EnviroScience fulltime. Dunford immediately took the offer.
He says he had a great experience at the Minnesota Commercial Diver Training Center (MCDTC) in Brainerd, Minn. The program allowed him to explore searching procedures, underwater salvage, rigging, underwater welding and cutting. Training included a combination of hands-on, mechanical, physical and anatomic exercises lasting 60 hours per week for eleven weeks.
Being the only biologist in his class of eight, Dunford was able to share his appreciation and understanding of conservation efforts with the class. In May 2014, he had completed all of his certifications.
The average person doesn’t know the difference between commercial diving and recreational SCUBA diving. The two have very different procedures and use different types of equipment. For instance, commercial divers use full helmets and surface supplied air that allows them to stay underwater for significantly longer at deeper depths, but with a high level of safety.
Also, commercial divers have hard-wired communications with the crew topside. A third major difference is that while recreational divers use fins to swim from place to place, inland divers experience limited or no visibility and typically walk along the bottom of a body of water to reach a destination.
From military drills to diving exercises, Dunford’s ability to adapt and emanate excellence in everything he does is admirable. When asked about how the transition was for him going from Marine life to college and diving school, he said:
“The transition wasn’t too bad. College was different because I was older than most of the students and the maturity level was quite different from the Marines I served with. I wrote my own will and testament at age 19, which most college students have not even thought about. I was just at a different time in my life than the other students when I went to college.”
All of Dunford’s hard work to receive specialized knowledge of diving, construction and environmental science paid off. He now travels across the country with EnviroScience’s Commercial Diving Team to aid in train derailments (and other disaster relief), restoration projects and mussel surveys.