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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Combat Divers Restore Ocean Health

Air Date: Week of

FORCE BLUE combat diving veterans help lift a heavy coral that was damaged during a hurricane. (Photo: NOAA)

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. Executive Director Jim Ritterhoff tells Host Bobby Bascomb about how these divers helped corals get back on their feet after Hurricanes Irma and Maria.


BASCOMB: There’s another really interesting part to this story that I came across in Puerto Rico, and that’s an organization called Force Blue.

CURWOOD: Force Blue?

BASCOMB: Yeah, it’s a non-profit that trains military veterans to do conservation work.

But these aren’t just any veterans. They are retired Navy Seals, Special ops – people who have really extensive government training in SCUBA diving. And they’re using that specialized training to do ocean conservation work, like the coral restoration in Puerto Rico that I just reported on. Jim Ritterhoff is the Executive Director and Founder of Force Blue.

So, Jim, I understand that you work with veterans. You call them combat diver veterans. What does that mean? What's a combat diver?

RITTERHOFF: Well, our guys are special operations veterans. They come from all branches of the military: Reconnaissance Marines, Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces, Air Force Pararescue. And basically what the designation ‘combat diver’ means is it's a type of training that our Special Operations veterans receive in the military. It’s one of many schools that they go to, to become these elite Special Operations troopers. But the combat dive designation is a particularly rigorous one. It's one of the more difficult schools in the US military. So, our guys have all been trained, you know – millions of dollars have been invested in them throughout their military careers to make them these amazing underwater operators. The idea behind Force Blue is, let's take the training these guys already have, and now repurpose it and re-tool them to do conservation work, to be able to apply what they've already been taught, but to do it in a way that, again, helps the greater good, which is what they're all about.

The FORCE BLUE team now consists of 12 combat diver veterans who can be deployed to restore coral reefs, remove invasive species like lionfish and remove marine debris. (Photo: FORCE BLUE)

BASCOMB: So, tell me about some of the conservation work that you've done with these veterans.

RITTERHOFF: Yeah, well, we trained our first group of guys last May, six guys that we put through a two-week… basically just an indoctrination into Force Blue. Our instructor staff featured some of the very best marine scientists and environmentalists out there – sort of just getting the guys to think about the ocean in a different way, correct. So, right on the heels of that, I mean, right after our training deployment, hurricanes Irma and Maria hit particularly hard in the Florida Keys and Puerto Rico. And we were immediately deployed to go down there and help do some restoration work. So, we spent about a month in the Florida Keys and then did two separate missions to Puerto Rico working with NOAA and the Ocean Conservancy, National Fish and Wildlife Federation.

Probably the most iconic thing that we've done, like, most sort of sums up what we're capable of, actually took place in the Florida Keys. There was a thousand-pound, 500-year-old pillar coral that had been ripped, literally ripped, off the reef by Hurricane Irma. Now, the guys we were with from NOAA, their protocols don't allow them to lift anything over 100 pounds. That's just the rules, right. They told us where this pillar coral was and they said, we can't do anything about it, but maybe you guys can. And our guys got six lift bags on this thing – you're talking about divers who have lifted predator drones off the ocean floor, you know. So that was nothing to these guys. They just got it up, cemented it back onto the reef, and when we came back to the dive boat, the dive guys who had taken us out, the operators, were crying because 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 like four of these giant pillar corals left in all of the Florida Keys, and this was one of them. And it's a lot of heavy lifting, and it's a lot of really hard work. And, you know, the conditions for this kind of work, particularly after these hurricanes… you know, you can’t see the water, it's very murky, it's a lot of current, it’s difficult conditions. But that's what our guys thrive in. The harder it is, the better.

BASCOMB: And you speak of your work in terms of missions and deployment. That's really the language of the military, so it seems like that's still very much a part of the mindset of what you're doing.

RITTERHOFF: Yeah, we’ve made a very conscious effort to make this seem – the training, the way we deploy – to feel as much like the military. It’s what these guys are used to, and it's how they respond. So, you often tell people like when we do our training deployment, we were in, you know, the Cayman Islands last year for two weeks, and that sounds like hammocks and and piña coladas.

BASCOMB: Sign me up.

RITTERHOFF: Yeah. [laughs] But it wasn't at all. It was very much… it was very much like, you know, the way a military school would be run. Up at 7 a.m. every morning for physical training, and then breakfast, and then classroom work, lectures, and then very mission-focused diving. So, every time we would go out into the water, the guys would have something that would need to be accomplished, right. So, we do try to use the language of the military and make it feel as much like home for these guys as we can.

BASCOMB: Right. I imagine it must be really hard for them to go from a really high-pace stressful job like serving in active military and then come back to the US and be expected to work at a desk.

RITTERHOFF: Yeah, I think that's very astute, and that is really what we're all about. I think as civilians, we hear a lot about issues that our veterans are facing – we hear about PTSD. But I think we tend to think of it as traumatic experiences that the guys are having problems processing. Well, that's certainly a part of it, but the bigger challenge in particular for our guys, the Special Operations community, is this sense of not having a mission anymore. What we always say is we're not a dive therapy program, which there are for veterans – there are some very great ones out there that that actually take veterans and teach them how to SCUBA dive, and that's the therapy. Our guys are already the best divers in the world. We're a mission therapy program. We're all about giving them back that sense of your skillset can still be utilized. We can put you – we can take the training that you already have and the qualities that made you so successful in the military, and now use those for the greater good for a cause larger than themselves, which is really all they're about. These guys, they want to save the world. That’s who they are.

BASCOMB: And so, what kinds of changes or what kind of reactions do you see in the veterans after they deploy on some of your missions, if any?

RITTERHOFF: Yeah, it's really interesting. I always tell the anecdote about my co-founder Rudy Reyes and I. He’s a dear friend of mine, and had been struggling with some of his challenges he was facing in assimilating back after five or six combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and he'd been everywhere. And we went… I took him SCUBA diving, and our very first dive he came up and he's like, "Did you see that fish?" I was like, "What are you talking about, there's a million fish. That's the whole point of it."

In 2017, the FORCE BLUE team saved “Archie,” a 900 lb, 500-year-old pillar coral off Key West that was damaged by Hurricane Irma. (Photo: FORCE BLUE)

He's a trained military combat diver and he had never seen a fish underwater, because that's not what diving was like for these guys. Diving for them was at night on a rebreather hauling 200 pounds of gear to go blow something up or rescue someone or, you know, very dangerous work. They never had the opportunity to kind of look at the environment, to see it and to understand it for the ecosystems that exist there. So, all of a sudden, you get these guys down there, and it's like opening a whole new world to them, and the sense of wonder and awe that they had – they were just like little kids experiencing something they’d never had before. So, yeah, we always talk about it in the terms of like seeing the light come back on. You just see these guys get back to who they were.

The other interesting part is we try to serve up the ocean in particular to these guys as a community, right, that is interdependent, interrelated and that's under threat. And if you think about it, all these guys have done in their careers is serve communities that are at risk, that are under threat. So, 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. And when you bring together the qualities that they have, the skillsets they have, and then you give them that motivation – they're unstoppable.

BASCOMB: So, I mean if they weren't necessarily environmentalists to begin with, is it safe to say that their friends, their community, that's probably not much part of the culture either. Are they taking this ethos back with and to their community at large?

RITTERHOFF: Yeah, that’s a major part of why we created Force Blue because look, our goal is to grow it, and four or five years from now have 50 to 100 guys that we're able to deploy around the world doing this stuff – but the reality is, those small numbers of people aren't going to change the world, right. 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. 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 another climate change scientist talk about global warming will go, oh, Navy SEALs, recon Marines, these guys are my heroes, right? If they're engaged in this fight, let me think about it, let me hear what they're saying. And we hope that that's a way to get a whole other section of the population engaged in at least understanding. We always say, hey, 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.

BASCOMB: So, what qualifies somebody to work with Force Blue? How do you choose who you're going to recruit?

RITTERHOFF: Well, the criterion is pretty simple, but it's pretty strict. You have to have been a military-trained combat diver. You have to have deployed overseas with a Special Operations unit, so again, Navy SEALs, recon Marines, Army SF. And you had to have actually been in combat, which – there are an awful lot of Special Operations guys who just throughout their careers, they don't actually deploy on combat deployments, but our guys all… that’s our criteria. Because we really want to help guys who need the help, they need the mission. And I talk a lot about the environmental side of things, but we also have PTS counseling as part of our training. All our guys, once they go through our little two-week “here's Force Blue and here's the ocean,” they all go away for five days of individual therapy with a woman named Dr. Carrie Elk who works with us who specializes in PTS issues with the Special Operations community. So, we need guys who actually need help. That's who we want coming into our program, guys who are just missing something. And this hopefully gives them that mission back in that sense that they can be productive and that their skills aren’t… it wasn't a waste, like, what did they do for 20 years of their lives. How do they use that now? Well, here's how: you can take that training and, as I said, repurpose it.

BASCOMB: Now, I notice that you talk a lot about our guys. Where are the women? Do you have any women in your group?

FORCE BLUE bills itself as a “mission therapy” program that serves highly-trained combat diving veterans by putting their unique skills to work and giving them a renewed sense of purpose. (Photo: FORCE BLUE)

RITTERHOFF: We do. Our operations director actually is a woman named Nicole Rosga who is still with the US Air Force. She's with the Air National Guard in Florida. We have a lot of our instructor staff like Patti Kirk Gross, Ellie Splane, Guy Harvey's daughter Jessica Harvey was one of our instructors. But the reality is the Special Operations community is men, is largely men. There are some Navy divers, some EOD – Explosive Ordinance Disposal – team members who are women, we just haven't found one yet. Most of them are still active duty, ironically, but that's out there. Our plan is not to just be guys, but for right now, it's 12 guys that are our divers.

BASCOMB: So, what's next for Force Blue? What are you looking at on the horizon?

RITTERHOFF: Well, we're really excited, Bobby, because in just a few weeks, we're going to be training our second group of veteran combat divers – six guys who've been selected and will go through a two-week training program with us. And then when that ends, early fall, we hope to be deploying again. There's a chance we may go down to Florida to do some more work down there. We've talked to people from Hawaii and the West Coast who have some projects they'd like to get us involved in, so it's really what we can raise the money to do and who needs us, because our guys are ready to go.

BASCOMB: Well, good luck with your missions, and good luck with all that you're doing.

RITTERHOFF: Well, thank you.

BASCOMB: Jim Ritterhoff is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Force Blue. Thanks, Jim, for taking the time to talk with me.

RITTERHOFF: Thanks so much, Bobby.




Restoring corals in Florida and Puerto Rico


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