Special Ops Veterans Become Guardians of the Sea
NEW YORK—A human with a purpose is a beautiful thing. A group of highly trained combat veterans with a mission is truly astounding.
Enter Force Blue, a nonprofit that brings together ex-Marines and special operations veterans to help save the oceans from environmental destruction.
“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 Jim Ritterhoff, in a video.
The idea for Force Blue grew out of a dive trip that Ritterhoff and former reconnaissance marine Rudy Reyes took to the Cayman Islands in summer 2015 to meet up with their friend Keith Sahm, general manager of local dive resort, Sunset House.
During a recreational dive, Reyes became excited about seeing a fish. He had spent countless hours in the ocean during his service, but he suddenly had a new perspective. The beginnings of a vision was born.
“We had nothing to offer except the pearl of hope and of transcendence through mission,” said Reyes.
The story of Force Blue unfolds in a new documentary, “Mercy, Love & Grace: The Story of Force Blue.” It follows seven veterans on a two-week trip to the Cayman Islands to help restore devastated coral reefs, while simultaneously allowing the experience and the ocean to help heal them.
“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 at New York University on June 6. “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.”
The film perfectly demonstrates how seemingly disparate groups—environmentalists and military veterans—share an understanding of the fragility of life.
“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 [said], our motto is one team, one fight,” Ritterhoff said.
Most combat veterans return with some form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or moral injury, and 22 veterans in the United States commit suicide every day.
Former U.S. Marine Will Hinkson served from 2003 to 2005 in Iraq, Southeast Asia, and Afghanistan.
“After we leave the military, there are a lot of schools of thought on what PTSD actually is,” he said.
“You had this very extreme circumstance and extreme situation that you experienced. … I think that can be true. But, I know in my case and in a lot of my brothers’ cases, it’s not as much that as it is not being connected into something that matters and that’s bigger than you. When you leave the military, when you leave your team, you leave that brotherhood.”
Hinkson, who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, also got involved in Force Blue after talking with Reyes. His experience of the ocean shifted dramatically.
“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.”
Dissolving Partisan Lines
Former combat diver Sean Moore, 29, who was diagnosed with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury, agrees completely.
“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.
As a combat diver, the ocean is the workplace, and Moore’s job included demolitions and clearing hazards. “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.
The trip to the Cayman Islands with Force Blue was a humbling experience for Moore.
“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.
An important factor of Force Blue is how the soldiers are embracing their responsibility to publicize environmental issues.
“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 pararescueman, was in special operations for 25 years, surviving “very traumatic, very grim combat events.”
“I know I’ve got a giant treasure chest of these unprocessed events,” Sparks said following the screening.
During the Cayman Island trip, Sparks 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.”
He said 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—it depolarizes the left and the right,” he said. “It’s a very powerful thing.”
Sparks was Reyes’ instructor as a recon Marine and the two have known each other for 20 years. He jumped at the chance to get involved, with the stipulation that he bring his family along.
“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.
Ritterhoff said more than 200 former special forces combat divers from Egypt, Israel, South Africa, and Australia have contacted him to find out how they can be involved.
“I think we have the potential to create an international mercenary force for good,” he said. But Force Blue is in desperate need of corporate sponsorship to scale up.
Ritterhoff said 60 percent of the world’s coral reefs are dead or in decline, but they’re also incredibly resilient.
“So are these guys. They just need someone or something to intervene on their behalf,” he said. If combat divers can take their millions of dollars worth of training and repurpose it for ocean conservation, “then it’s this really great symbiotic relationship.”
Reyes summed it up: “Nobody better can be the freaking superheroes of the ocean … than us up here.”
Force Blue has launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise money to tell the incredible stories of some of these veterans through film.