For veterans of combat diving, life after the military can lack a sense of purpose. Now, a nonprofit called FORCE BLUE is giving these military veterans a new mission by employing their unique underwater skills to restore ocean health.
Combat divers go through one of the most difficult schools in the US military, says FORCE BLUE Executive Director Jim Ritterhoff. The veterans working with the organization are retired from special forces squads in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.
“The idea behind FORCE BLUE is to take the training these guys already have and repurpose it, and re-tool them to do conservation work — to be able to apply what they've already been taught and do it in a way that helps the greater good, which is what they're all about,” Ritterhoff explains.
While Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) affects many veterans, a more common challenge, particularly for those who served in elite units, is the sense of no longer having a mission, Ritterhoff says.
“We're not a dive therapy program, which there are for veterans,” he explains. “We're a mission therapy program. We're all about giving them back the sense that their skillset can still be utilized … for a cause larger than themselves. These guys want to save the world. That’s who they are.”
FORCE BLUE trained its first group of six divers in May of 2017. The instructor staff featured marine scientists and environmentalists who worked at “getting the guys to think about the ocean in a different way,” Ritterhoff explains.
Surprisingly, the idea of the ocean as an ecosystem is new to most of these military professionals. Their dangerous, often urgent, work was their sole focus and they couldn’t pay much attention to their environment. During training, Ritterhoff stresses the idea of the ocean as “a community that is interdependent, interrelated and under threat.”
“If you think about it, all these guys have done in their careers is serve communities that are at risk, that are under threat,” Ritterhoff explains. “When you put it in those terms for these guys, they immediately get it and they're like, ‘What can we do? We got to go do something, we got to help.’ … So, we always talk about it in terms of seeing the light come back on. You just see these guys get back to who they were.”
Right on the heels of the first training, Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the Florida Keys and Puerto Rico. FORCE BLUE was immediately deployed to do restoration work in the area, Ritterhoff says. The vets spent about a month in the Florida Keys and then did two separate missions to Puerto Rico, working with NOAA, the Ocean Conservancy and the National Fish and Wildlife Federation.
The job that probably best sums up what these divers are capable of doing took place in the Florida Keys, Ritterhoff says. A 500-year-old pillar coral weighing 1,000 pounds had been literally ripped off the reef by Hurricane Irma. NOAA protocols prohibit their divers from lifting anything over 100 pounds, so they asked FORCE BLUE if there was anything they could do.
“Our guys got six lift bags on this thing — you’re talking about divers who have lifted predator drones off the ocean floor, so this was nothing to them — and they just got it up and cemented it back onto the reef,” Ritterhoff relates. “When we came back to the boat, the dive guys who had taken us out were crying. They were like, ‘You guys you have no idea what you just did. You just rescued a T-Rex.' That was what they said. Because there are only four of these giant pillar corals left in all of the Florida Keys and this was one of them.”
If these divers weren't necessarily environmentalists to begin with, it’s probably safe to say they are becoming more so and are taking this ethos back with them to their communities.
“Our guys aren't going to stop ocean acidification or rising temperatures or some of the real underlying causes of what's happening to our oceans,” Ritterhoff says. “But what they can do is be a megaphone to reach people who otherwise, for whatever reason, whether it's politics or just personal opinion, aren't getting the message about what's happening to our planet. People who are not going to listen to a climate change scientist will say, ‘Oh, Navy SEALs, Recon Marines — these guys are my heroes. If they're engaged in this fight, let me think about it. Let me hear what they're saying.’
“We always say, ‘We don't care if you get on the boat from the left side or the right side, we're all in the same boat.' So, one team, one fight — that's kind of our motto.”