Today’s profile is not just one peron’s story, but of three friends that came together to do a truly remarkable thing. In 2015 Jim Riotterhoff and Keith Sahm, got together at Sunset House on Grand Cayman Island. Sahm was the general manager of the dive resort and they had both been recreational divers for years.
The third member of their group was Rodolfo Reyes. “Rudy” also had lots of diving experience but of a darker nature. His diving had always been at night, covert, moving silently, in conflict zones as a Special Operations reconnaissance marine. Rudy was a veteran of combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan and he suffered from PTS and depression.
Finding A New Purpose
For Rudy diving in the warm, sunlit, waters of the Caymans, fully immersed in the beauty of the coral reefs was life changing.
“By day two Rudy’s smile was back.” Sahm remembers. “By day four, his purpose.” Rudy describes it this way “Like a mother holding you, that’s what the water felt like.” .
Out of this experience the three friends conjured a plan that would bring hope not only to fellow combat veterans but to the marine environment they cared so deeply for.
The Power to Restore Lives and the Planet
Thus in 2016, was Force Blue born, its’ mission is clearly stated: “To unite the community of Special Operations veterans with the world of marine conservation for the betterment of both.”
The three co-founders had begun: “To create a model of caring, cooperation and positive change with the power to restore lives and restore the planet.”
Giving Warriors a Cause. Giving a Cause its Warriors
The divers of Force Blue now have a new mission. To connect with the ocean and the underwater world in ways they had never connected before.
Learning from marine scientists and conservationists they discover that these Caribbean reefs and their marine habitats are in serious trouble. Although home to over 1,000 species of fish, 50% of these reefs have been lost since the 1970’s. Rising sea temperatures are causing massive coral bleaching. Weakened and vulnerable reefs are being decimated by coral diseases.
Force Blue Below Water
Working with Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), the vets learn to identify fish and monitor threatened marine species. These observations are added to REEF’s public database and is available to scientists and resource managers. This data has been incorporated into over 80 scientific publications.
On a recent mission to the Cayman Islands a Force Blue team joined with Scott Heppell, a marine biologist from Oregon State University to monitor the Nassau grouper population. Grouper numbers had plummeted from overfishing, down nearly 60% worldwide and causing them to be listed as endangered.
Fortunately, well informed observations led to Caymanian conservation policies that proved effective. Today, in the Cayman Islands, Nassau grouper numbers have started to recover.
Tackling Invasive Lionfish
The opposite approach comes when dealing with lionfish. Lad Akins the conservation coordinator for Force Blue taught members the basics of harvesting lionfish.
The highly invasive species (introduced from the Indo-Pacific) has spread uncontrollably across the Caribbean and threatens many native fish.
The best way to harvest lionfish is to spear them by hand, a task the vets of Force Blue have, not surprisingly, excelled at.
Replanting Coral Reefs
Patti Kirk Gross with the Coral Restoration Foundation, has been working with Force Blue vets to restore damaged reefs. After preparing areas on the reefs, young coral segments that are grown in offshore nurseries are transplanted onto the damaged reefs. In just two days the team transplanted over 120 young corals, another example of the vets successfully applying their team diving skills to a demanding task.
“Everyone was on a high,” Gross says. “They took ownership of it. They saw how they could now create life.” (photo – Working Pictures)
Will Hinkson a Force Blue diver puts it this way. “To be able to have all of us go in there and work as a cohesive unit and really come to love each other and love what we’re doing, I don’t even know how to quantify that,”
At the end of 2017 Force Blue joined with NOAA and CRF to access and restore coral reefs in the Florida Keys damaged by hurricanes Irma and Maria. Similar work was then carried out in Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria.
Becoming Citizen Scientists
The vets have become citizen scientists but ones with very special experience and expertise. Being superbly trained and mission focused, they are able to execute tasks that are difficult or dangerous for others. This capability brings a sense of being valued for their contributions. That is invaluable.
Vets often feel less valued after leaving the military. Combined with the loss of camaraderie and the discipline and intensity of a mission, this often leaves them with less sense of purpose and a frustration with the ambiguities of civilian life.
After diving the vets are able to share their experiences with team members and to access mental health professionals if needed.
“The coral reef system depends on an interaction of community for it to blossom. It’s the same message that we’re trying to bring to the veteran community,” says Angelo Fiore, Force Blue’s director of training. Fiore is a former U.S. Navy diver who served in Desert Storm and Desert Shield.
“Yeah, we’re damaged, and yeah, we have some issues. But it takes an interaction of community to help heal you.”
The members of Force Blue don’t call their program therapy although mental health is a clear benefit. And they are unsure if lessons learned at Force Blue can be applied to veterans with other backgrounds. However, giving vets a sense of belonging, camaraderie and personal self-esteem clearly seems to be vitally important. The vets of Force Blue would be the first to agree.
As Rudy sums it up “My brothers and sisters that are involved here in Force Blue are modeling a transition a mission of hope and being a force of good and change in the ocean, I’m not done serving”
Jim, Keith and Rudy, co-founders of Force Blue. Force Blue was established as a 501c3 nonprofit organization in 2016, Find out how you can donate or sponsor a veteran. Your donation will help fund a recruit’s airfare, accommodation, meals, instruction, dive equipment and training certification dives. Learn about new projects and meet many of the Force Blue Team here.. Readt more at NOVA,
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