Veterans swimming with whale sharks this month at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta as part of their therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder.CreditMelissa Golden for The New York Times
ATLANTA — Thomas Harris slid into the cool, salty water of a 6.3-million-gallon tank at the Georgia Aquarium here and let himself float limp as kelp.
Mr. Harris, a former Army medic, gazed through a diving mask at a manta ray the size of a hang glider doing slow somersaults above shifting schools of silver fish. A 21-foot whale shark brushed silently by, inches from his face, its broad, spotted back taking up his entire view. Immersed in the moment, he forgot about the world.
This is not a weekend hobby. It is part of his therapy for the post-traumatic stress disorder he has been grappling with after his tours in Iraq. And like Mr. Harris, more veterans are turning to these sorts of outside-the-office treatment.
The broad acceptance of PTSD after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has posed an unexpected challenge. Acknowledging PTSD has only spurred a wide-ranging debate over the best way to treat it.
Traditional medical approaches generally rely on drugs and controlled re-experiencing of trauma, called exposure therapy. But this combination has proved so unpopular that many veterans quit before finishing or avoid it altogether. This has given rise to hundreds of small nonprofits across the country that offer alternatives: therapeutic fishing, rafting and backpacking trips, horse riding, combat yoga, dogs, art collectives, dolphin swims, sweat lodge vision quests and parrot husbandry centers, among many, many others.