The Earth’s coral reefs needed a savior. These retired veterans needed something to save.
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Nature Valley

Force Blue is unlike any veteran rehabilitative program in the world. And it all started with a dive.

In 2015, Jim Ritterhoff noticed that his friend, former combat diver Rudy Reyes, wasn’t his usual self. After retiring from an intense career in the Marines, Rudy was struggling with depression and anxiety.

"He still looked like Rudy," Jim says. "But the light wasn't on."


Rudy and fellow veteran William Hinkson (left). All photos courtesy of Force Blue.

Jim asked Rudy to go with him to the Grand Caymans, where his friend Keith Sahm owned a recreational dive facility. Jim hoped that some time in the Caribbean would lift the veteran's spirits — but it ended up doing much more than that.

In just five days of diving in the Grand Caymans, Rudy was transformed. Though he was an experienced diver, this was his first foray into an underwater world that wasn’t dark or dangerous — it was a thriving biological community.

The fact that the ocean could have a rehabilitative effect on struggling veterans wasn't new. But what the three friends realized was that combat divers like Rudy also had something to offer the reef community — a unique set of skills that could be used to help preserve these coral communities.

The idea for Force Blue was born.  

The Force Blue divers are bound by their shared mission — to help preserve and protect the Earth's coral communities.

Force Blue is a trailblazing effort to harness the power of nature and use it to benefit both humans and the environment.

It’s a brand-new type of post-military program that would help former combat divers cope with their PTSD by refocusing their skills toward the mission of marine conservation.

We often assume that PTSD must come from a trauma of some sort, but for many veterans, that isn't the case. After having spent years — decades, in some cases — driven relentlessly by conviction, passion, and purpose, the sudden aimlessness of civilian life can be too much for some veterans to handle. This jarring transition alone can be enough to bring on debilitating cases of post-traumatic stress.

That’s where Force Blue comes in.

Force Blue's first team consists of seven highly trained combat veterans who have refocused their skills on their new mission: marine conservation.

"We don’t consider ourselves a dive therapy program. We consider ourselves a mission therapy program," Jim says.

Force Blue doesn't just keep veterans active — it gets them redeployed and back in service of a purpose far greater than themselves: restoring the coral reefs that are in danger of being depleted.

According to the Ocean Conservancy, coral reefs are suffering due to increasing ocean temperatures and acidification levels. But reefs are incredibly valuable — they house about 25% of marine species and, economically, generate nearly $10 billion in tourist revenue each year — so it's important that they have a protector.

Force Blue has found the veterans for the job. "We’re taking the most highly trained divers in the world, and all we’re doing is retraining them for a different mission — a positive mission, which is to help the planet in some respect."

And marine conservation is the perfect effort for veterans to redirect their sense of conviction.

"Coral reefs are a community. And that community is under threat," Jim says. "All these guys have ever done throughout their careers is protect communities." Once Force Blue's marine scientists get the divers briefed on the threat to coral communities, the veterans' protective instinct is automatic.

Team One learned from some of the world's leading marine scientists before deploying to their first mission in the Caymans.

So far, Force Blue has one team fully trained and is getting ready to add more teams soon.

Their cause has proven to appeal to people across all spectrums, breaking down barriers of difference not just between scientists and special operatives, but also between people of differing political beliefs.

Whether you care about veterans issues, the environment, or both, Jim says, "Guess what? We're all in the same boat."

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

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"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less