Mil­i­tary Vet­er­ans Take a Plunge to Save the Oceans

Soundings - - Dispatches - Kim Kavin

They say the job of a U.S. Air Force parares­cue­man com­bines the skills of a Navy Seal, an Army Ranger and a medic. The train­ing alone elim­i­nates more than 80 per­cent of the peo­ple who try out for the job. Those who make it through find them­selves sur­rounded by ex­plo­sions, pain and killing. These are the guys who might drop into a val­ley in Afghanistan and fight back out with fel­low sol­diers who were pinned down un­der en­emy fire. That’s what Roger Sparks did in 2010, help­ing nine wounded sol­diers and earn­ing Amer­ica’s third-high­est award for valor: the Sil­ver Star. He served 25 years in the mil­i­tary be­fore re­tir­ing in 2017 with a mem­ory that, he says, was full of “pow­er­ful, de­struc­tive awe.” His ex­pe­ri­ences re­sulted in a di­ag­no­sis of post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der. That’s when Rodolfo “Rudy” Reyes called him with a new mis­sion. Sparks had been Reyes’ in­struc­tor for Marine Corps Spe­cial Forces se­lec­tion and train­ing, and the two had re­mained friends over the years. Reyes, along with two friends, had just co-founded Force Blue, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion look­ing to unite Spe­cial Forces vet­er­ans—and their im­pres­sive train­ing—with ex­perts in the fields of marine science and con­ser­va­tion. The idea was to har­ness the skills that vet­er­ans have and put them to use in new mis­sions. “Our guys are al­ready the best divers in the world,” says Jim Rit­ter­hoff, a Force Blue co-founder. “Gov­ern­ments have spent mil­lions of dol­lars to make sure of it. We take that skill and put it into a mis­sion of pre­serv­ing, restor­ing and sav­ing stuff. It cre­ates the sense of do­ing some­thing big­ger than your­self again, and that’s what these guys are all about.”

In­stead of sav­ing peo­ple or places on land that are in dan­ger, the vet­er­ans with Force Blue now save coral reefs. “Coral reefs are like com­mu­ni­ties,” Rit­ter­hoff says. “They’re in­ter­re­lated com­mu­ni­ties and they’re un­der threat. These guys, their en­tire mil­i­tary ca­reers, have been fight­ing for com­mu­ni­ties un­der threat. Once they un­der­stand it, they’re un­stop­pable. They say, ‘Let’s go. Let’s do this.’”

To Sparks, as a newly re­tired vet­eran, the idea was in­trigu­ing. He had com­bat div­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, but he had never re­ally looked at some­thing that most boaters take for granted: a healthy coral reef. The ocean, he says, “was like a hos­tile force, some­thing very cold or very dark. It was this medium to force our­selves through.”

His think­ing changed af­ter he be­came part of the first team that Force Blue trained, in the Cay­man Is­lands in 2017. Some of the world’s fore­most ex­perts on coral reefs and con­ser­va­tion flew to the is­lands to of­fer lessons. Sci­en­tists were there from Ore­gon State Univer­sity and the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion. Even the

renowned fish­ing artist and con­ser­va­tion­ist Guy Har­vey par­tic­i­pated.

“We thought it was a good idea on pa­per, but Seals and sci­en­tists are not from the same life ex­pe­ri­ences, so we had no idea how it was go­ing to play out,” Rit­ter­hoff says. “Oh my God, not only did it work, it worked bet­ter than we could ever have hoped. We had sci­en­tists who were sched­uled to fly in for a day, give a pre­sen­ta­tion and go home, and they said, ‘I’ll pay my own way. I’m not go­ing home. I’m not leav­ing these guys. I want to be a part of this.’ In the end, they stayed for the whole two weeks of train­ing.”

Sparks says the ex­pe­ri­ence helped to re­shape his en­tire post-mil­i­tary iden­tity. “We’ve seen a lot of very pow­er­ful, de­struc­tive awe in our lives, a lot of death and suf­fer­ing, and we’ve caused a lot of death and suf­fer­ing,” he says. “To be in the ocean is the ex­act po­lar­ity of that. It’s the di­chotomy of ex­pe­ri­ence, to be in the ocean and have vi­brant life sit­ting all around us. It’s just the op­po­site of what we see in war. That’s why it has such a pro­found im­pact on us.”

Be­yond that, Sparks says, was un­der­stand­ing the big­ger pic­ture of what vet­er­ans like him were see­ing for the first time—the eco­log­i­cal threats fac­ing the ocean, reefs and fish. The les­son was so pow­er­ful, he says, that many of the vet­er­ans cried the first time they resur­faced. “Once you re­al­ize, and you’re be­ing asked by these con­ser­va­tion­ists to help cham­pion what can’t fight for it­self …” he says, his voice trail­ing off. “We as hu­man be­ings are so de­struc­tive and we do so much dam­age to the ocean and the Earth. To be asked to fight for that, it af­fects you at a very pro­found level.”

So, Force Blue started fight­ing for the coral. Soon af­ter they fin­ished train­ing, Hur­ri­canes Irma and Maria hit. A team went to South Florida for 10 days to re­store reef that the storms had dam­aged, in­clud­ing a coral struc­ture known to boaters as Archie. “Our guys jumped in and res­cued an 800-pound crit­i­cally en­dan­gered pil­lar coral that was 500 years old and had been ripped off the reef,” Rit­ter­hoff says. “NOAA, be­cause of pro­to­cols, couldn’t do any­thing about it. Our guys got six airbags on the thing, got it back on the reef, ce­mented it down, and now this di­nosaur of a coral is alive and healthy.”

NOAA was impressed, so much so that an­other Force Blue team was de­ployed, this time to Puerto Rico for a month. “The hur­ri­cane had come through and ripped up tons of elkhorn and staghorn coral,” Rit­ter­hoff says. “You would dive and it looked like a bone­yard. We would cache the frag­ments and take them to an area of reef where we could trans­plant them and ce­ment them down. It’s a lot of heavy lift­ing. It’s not sci­en­tific; it’s like un­der­wa­ter gar­den­ing. And we were able to do it. It was some­where ap­proach­ing 2,000 trans­planted pieces of staghorn, elkhorn and brain coral. Our guys are in­cred­i­ble.”

Mean­while, the mil­i­tary vet­er­ans and con­ser­va­tion­ists were get­ting to know one an­other and re­al­iz­ing they could work to­gether to lobby at the U.S. Capi­tol for a change in fund­ing to ben­e­fit mis­sions like theirs. “Here we are with these staunch Repub­li­cans, some griz­zled old guy in his cham­bers, and he might have a Marine Corps flag on his wall. I can say I was in the Corps, and all of the sud­den, I’ve got his re­spect,” Sparks says. “I’m go­ing to have his ear. We met with these se­na­tors and con­gress­men to ex­plain to them what’s hap­pen­ing with ocean acid­i­fi­ca­tion, and we got through to nine out of ten. It was a bril­liant suc­cess, and The Ocean Con­ser­vancy said it was the best trac­tion they’d gained. One of those guys had been work­ing as a lob­by­ist for more than a decade. We got it done in a week.”

Rit­ter­hoff says he’s been to Wash­ing­ton, D. C., five times since Hur­ri­cane Irma hit. There’s enough dam­age to keep two Force Blue teams in the wa­ter 365 days a year. Those 12 guys are wanted ev­ery­where from Guam to the Caroli­nas.

But for the next three years, they hope to be work­ing on the Florida Keys Reef Tract. The world’s third-largest coral bar­rier reef sys­tem, it’s been hit with a dis­ease out­break that kills about half the types of coral there. “If they get it, it’s fa­tal with a 100 per­cent mor­tal­ity rate,” Rit­ter­hoff says. To get there, Force Blue needs to raise $9 mil­lion, through do­na­tions at force­blueteam.org. That’s what it’s go­ing to cost, Rit­ter­hoff says, for them to go out and be he­roes again, this time for ev­ery­one who cares about the marine en­vi­ron­ment.

“Six guys with Speedos can’t change the world,” Sparks says, “but we can raise aware­ness, and that will change the world.”

Their work will in­clude ev­ery­thing from clean­ing up marine de­bris to re­plac­ing hun­dreds of moor­ing balls out­side a marine sanc­tu­ary, so boaters can stop drop­ping an­chors on the reefs. “This is an op­por­tu­nity for ev­ery­one to step up and join the fight,” Rit­ter­hoff says. “We’re just the tip of the spear.” —

Force Blue puts for­mer mil­i­tary divers to work on dam­aged coral reefs.

These vets are some of the best divers in the world.

A vet saves coral in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hur­ri­cane Maria.

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