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These Veterans Are Fighting A New War, This Time Against Attacks on South Florida's Coral Reefs

Aug 17, 2018
Originally published on August 17, 2018 10:22 am

A new group is using what they learned in the military to fight threats to South Florida's coral reefs.

After Jim Ritterhoff saw many of his veteran friends struggling with the difficulty of adjusting to life outside of a war zone, he decided the men needed a new life mission to give them purpose. He founded the non-profit Force Blue to work with marine scientists using the advanced diving skills learned at the military for important restoration work. The team is focused on saving the coral reef in South Florida, but their duty is as much about environmental conservation as it's about the well-being of veterans.

Ritterhoff and Air Force Master Sergeant Roger Sparks joined WLRN'S Sundial to explain the dual undertakings of the organization.

RITTERHOF: We say very simply that we're on a mission to preserve and restore. That means two things. It means we want to preserve our marine resources that are being threatened, but we all we also want to preserve and restore our veterans.

I think as civilians, Hollywood kind of conditions us to believe that things like post-traumatic stress disorder and the suicide epidemic that we hear about amongst our veteran community are all the result of things that have happened to them in their service. While that certainly plays a part, a lot of it is just a sense of coming back and not having a mission anymore. You can't ask people to spend a decade of their life at war and then come back and say, 'hey you know, sit in a cubicle for the rest of your life.'

That's really what we're about. We call ourselves a mission therapy program for our veterans. 

WLRN: Sparks, you were in the forces for over a quarter of a century. What kind of missions and deployments were you on in that time?

SPARKS: I joined the military right out of high school and definitely romanticize special operations. I wanted to see the world and see how bad things could be.

I retired this last September. It's very difficult to go from a surreal world of not only a military combat veteran but from the career field of special operations. It's such a distinct experience.

It's just very hard to assimilate back into and attempting to be a productive citizen. It's a very isolating experience to kind of remove yourself from that brotherhood or that camaraderie that you've been a part for over 25 years. I truly feel that for guys that have made a career out of special operations and have significant combat experience, it's very difficult to come home. I truly feel that to heal ourselves we have to heal other people and the planet.

At first, we didn't really know how it was going to work, but with these A-list conservations, all these organizations, we found similarities. We're dedicated to the mission, we're passionate about what we do and we're selfless in the things that we're doing. All of those things combined were really functioning in the same capacity. We want to use our lives and our abilities to affect things in a virtuous way around us.

Jim, let me let me ask you about the current [Key Largo] mission. There is a threat to the coral and it's not just the coral bleaching that we've seen. Briefly, what can you tell us about what's going on?

RITTERHOF: All that is known is that the threats are moving very quickly and are very destructive. We’re just hoping we [Force Blue] can get in the water and aid that. Everything from doing the restoration work to basically smoke jumping into the threat and trying to stem it before it ravages the entire reef track. 

Video courtesy of Force Blue. 

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