These veterans are healing the ocean and themselves

It was a new and different mission for the seven special operations combat veterans (U.S RECON Marine Sergeant Rudy Reyes, U.S. Air Force Silver Star recipient Roger Sparks, U.S. Navy SEAL Lt. Geoff Reeves, U.S. Marine Will Hinkson, U.S. Army Green Beret Sean Moore, British Royal Marine Commando Jon Slayer and former U.S. Military combat medic Nathan Quinn).

The unit, Force Blue Team One, was on its first deployment to aid in coral reef conservation efforts in the Cayman Islands.

Preparation for the mission took 130 hours. Instead of getting ready for a military operation, training consisted of learning how to preserve coral reefs. World-renowned marine scientists dived with the team and introduced them to nuances of the fragile ecosystem.

Training included fish and coral identification, marine life patterns and behavior, underwater photography, lionfish culling and bioluminescent night diving. The team learned the value of coral reefs, the local and global stressors contributing to reef decline, ecological and social resilience.

Turns out the mission, besides teaching combat veterans how to preserving coral reefs, also helped heal the veterans from the horrors of combat, and to become a new voice for ocean conservation.

The idea for Force Blue was born during a dive trip that co-founders Jim Ritterhoff, who headed a New York ad agency, and Rudy Reyes, took to the Cayman Islands in the summer of 2015 to meet up with their friend Keith Sahm, general manager of Sunset House dive resort on Grand Cayman Island.

“For Ritterhoff and Sahm, experienced recreational divers who’d been reef diving for decades, this was just another week in paradise. But for Reyes, a former RECON marine who had struggled with post-traumatic stress (PTSD) and depression since returning home from multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, the experience was nothing short of life changing.” (https://forceblueteam.org/our-story/)

Like most special operations veterans, diving had never been about exploration or enjoyment for Reyes. To him, diving meant hauling 200 pounds of gear underwater to destroy some potentially dangerous target in the dead of night. Now he was seeing fish and beautiful reefs. It gave him a new perspective.

An excited Reyes suggested another trip to bring down more of his RECON brothers to Grand Cayman to share his experiences. But, after a few hours of brainstorming, the three new dive buddies came up with a different idea — one that would include combat divers from all branches of service, along with marine scientists, coral reef conservationists, journalists and even celebrities.

“We saw it as the ultimate win-win.” Said Sahm. “An opportunity to do some good, not only for our veterans, but for the planet as well.”

“Basically what we’re doing is we’re taking men and women trained to destroy stuff underwater and re-teaching them instead how to preserve it, and through the process, perhaps restore themselves as well,” said co-founder and executive director Ritterhoff in a documentary about the organization entitled “Mercy, Love & Grace: The Story of Force Blue.

“Keith and Jim, they saved my life. Two years ago, when this thing started, I was down and out in my soul,” Reyes said after a screening of the documentary. “I can make things look really good on the outside. I’m a warrior, I’m a fighter, and I fight and win. But that doesn’t mean that I am fulfilled, it doesn’t mean I’m happy, it doesn’t mean that I know where I’m going. Force Blue changed all that for me.”

Sean Moore, a former combat diver who was diagnosed with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury, agrees.

“Within two days of being on this team, I was starting to feel that sense of mission again, and it’s just an amazing feeling. It’s almost like coming home,” he said.

“You’re usually out there to do not so nice things. You don’t look at the fish. You don’t see things. It’s at night and dark, cold water,” Moore said.

“To be out in the Caribbean and see so much life and being on almost a life-saving mission instead of a mission of destruction is overwhelming,” he said.

Moore shared his insight on how the team may help bring together disparate views about the health of the ocean.

Many active recreational scuba divers are aware and concerned about the deterioration of reefs, and the rapid decline in the health of the ocean and its inhabitants caused by both human use and natural causes. But this view is not shared by many people.

“Traditionally, the environment has been a sort of a left-wing cause, and the military has sort of drifted to a conservative point. And we’re sort of standing in the middle,” Moore said.

“We’re trying to reach these people — maybe they won’t listen to the 25-year-old Berkeley graduate, but they’ll listen to the guy that has eaten dirt in the desert and knows that life.”

Roger Sparks, a highly decorated former Air Force para-rescueman, who was in special operations for 25 years said, “I started realizing … all coral reefs will be dead within 50 years on the current projection. All major fisheries will collapse within 10 years.”

Sparks shares Moore’s perspective on the politically neutral position of Force Blue members, noting that combat veterans can reach “an audience that doesn’t want to listen to that stuff” about conservation and environmental protection.

“And that is the power of Force Blue —i t depolarizes the left and the right,” he said. “It’s a very powerful thing.”

Former U.S. Marine Will Hinkson who served from 2003 to 2005 in Iraq, Southeast Asia and Afghanistan, got involved in Force Blue after talking with Reyes.

“When you look at the ocean from the Marine Corps mindset, you’re looking at something that you’re kind of fighting against. You’re not really working with it,” he said.

With Force Blue and conservation, “there’s a chance to get so involved with everything under there, you actually feel like you’re part of that.”

“It’s beyond words. It’s something that you feel, that actually becomes part of you,” he said. “To find that mission and to find that way forward — it’s everything.”

One of the major benefit of Force Blue is that the members can involve their family members during deployment – something that their wartime experiences didn’t allow.

When Reyes’ called Sparks, who had been Reyes’ recon Marine instructor, Sparks said he would come to Grand Cayman if his family could be with him.

“I realized 25 years of doing that special operations work, one of the biggest problems (was) I couldn’t share those experiences with my family, and I want to share the rest of my life with them,” Sparks said.

“It was a real bringing together of two communities that maybe didn’t understand each other all that well going in, but by the end our motto was one team, one fight,” Ritterhoff said of the first mission. (See: http://www.ntd.tv/2017/06/12/vets-become-special-ops-eco-warriors/)

“If combat divers can take their millions of dollars’ worth of training and repurpose it for ocean conservation, then it’s really a great symbiotic relationship,” he noted.

According to its website: “FORCE BLUE is a unique non-profit 501(c)(3) specifically created to unite the community of Special Operations Veterans with the world of coral reef conservation for the betterment of both. More than 40 percent of the 3 million men and women combat veterans of the Iraq & Afghanistan wars are likely to experience some form of post-traumatic stress (PTS,) due in part to difficulty adjusting to an unstructured life after military order and/or trouble relating their military skills to civilian work and how scientists and policy makers are working to build the resilience of coral reefs.”

Oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle, a leader in efforts to preserve the world oceans, says maintaining the health of the ocean is becoming more critical each passing day.

“Our near and distant predecessors might be forgiven for exterminating the last woolly mammoth, the ultimate dodo, the final sea cow, and the last living monk seal for lack of understanding the consequences of their actions. But who will forgive us if we fail to learn from past and present experiences, to forge new values, new relationships, a new level of respect for the natural systems that keep us alive?” (Sylvia A. Earle, “The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Oceans Are One.”)

Force Blue, which helps heal combat veterans who in turn help heal the reefs, is a welcome addition to the fight to preserve our endangered seas.

“For the world’s coral reefs, FORCE BLUE will serve as both a teaching tool and a recruitment vehicle – a highly visible way to raise public awareness and enlist a new generation of dedicated, determined advocates,” said Ritterhoff.

To see a trailer of documentary “Mercy, Love & Grace: The Story of FORCE BLUE” go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e_EYoGqK9tI

Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 30 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier five years ago, where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers. He can be reached at donrrhodes@gmail.com.