DENVER -- A diver from Littleton has just returned from the assignment of a lifetime: He conducted scientific research underwater in Hawaii -- in a sacred place few have ever gone before.
In murky waters of Pearl Harbor, the wreckage of the USS Arizona was David Ortiz's science lab.
"It's very serene and peaceful in its own way," Ortiz told FOX31.
He's just back from his second dive at the very spot where the U.S. entered World War II.
"It's a sight that everyone from the world visits, so we're hoping to preserve it for future generations," Ortiz said.
His research, through a partnership with Pacific Historic Parks and the National Park Service, involves the oil so many tourists have seen bubbling up from the ship's 77-year-old wreckage. There are still thousands of gallons of oil from the Arizona under the sea, and Ortiz and other volunteers are studying the oil's effects on sea life off the coast of Hawaii.
"But they don't want just any volunteer working on the USS Arizona, so there was discussion about bringing veterans to help them do work on the Arizona, and someone else chimed in and said, 'What about veterans living with a physical or mental disability or permanent injury so we can show that they can still be of service to the nation?'" Ortiz said.
Considering what happened to him a few years ago, he is the perfect team member.
"I survived a helicopter crash when I was serving in Afghanistan in 2012. And it kind of went from bad to worse... it left me a paraplegic," Ortiz said.
"Eventually, [I] found my way here to Craig Hospital in Colorado, which changed my life, gave me my life back, made me independent again," he added.
Independent enough to take up diving, where he's found a renewed freedom and purpose.
It doesn't come without its hazards. More than once, he emerged from Pearl Harbor covered in smelly, decades-old ship oil. But it's nothing a little baby oil and dish washing liquid can't fix. In fact, it's a very small price to pay for the privilege of conducting research in one of the most sacred places a veteran could ever work.
"Projects like this kind of allow veterans living with physical or mental disabilities to see how they can continue to be of service," Ortiz said.