We are all connected to REEF for one reason or another, either we care for marine conservation or are avid divers who want to see our beloved coral reefs and fish species. However, it is difficult to imagine how life-changing diving and conservation work can be until you have heard it from the prospective of a special operations combat veteran. Last month, REEF was privileged to work closely with Force Blue Team 2 during their recent deployment in the Florida Keys. Force Blue is non-profit organization designed to provide former military combat divers a sense of purpose through the restoration of marine habitats. Founded by Jim Ritterhoff and Rudy Reyes, Force Blue provides an avenue for psychological healing through participation in marine conservation and coral reef restoration projects. Although many of these men have been diving for years, some having logged thousands of dives, most of them have not had the opportunity to experience recreational or scientific diving. Angelo Fiore, Director of Training at Force Blue, explained, “these men are mission driven, to achieve the result that needs to be achieved...the community is what you fight for, and that is what we are doing at Force Blue.”
Angelo further explained that the idea of Force Blue “is for everyone to come together to collectively work and accomplish a shared goal just as they did in the military.” Force Blue's motto, “One team, one fight” was a prevalent theme throughout the deployment, and demonstrated the group's dedication to their mission of protecting the environment. Angelo also explained, “[each team member] came from a diverse background, however there is no force more intensely trained…as long as [they] have the training and skill set [they] can do anything, and adapt to anything underwater.” That is exactly what these men did. Following the inaugural deployment in the Cayman Islands last year, Force Blue designed a schedule to focus directly on coral reef impacts in the Florida Keys. REEF staff and interns led the group through lessons on artificial reefs, invasive lionfish, marine ecology, and coral and fish id. The activities included classroom sessions as well as hands-on training dives. REEF Education Program Manager Ellie Splain said “Force Blue is an incredible organization that gives an environmental voice to veterans, engaging them in conservation projects. To see a group of highly trained individuals devote their energy to a cause we are so passionate about here at REEF, gives us the motivation to continue our work.”
Overall, the two weeks spent with the Force Blue Team 2 were extremely rewarding for everyone involved. According to Dan Skidmore, Team 2 member, “our experience gained through [the] teachings will stay with us and has helped raise awareness to the oceanic environment. We look forward to continually working together in Florida.” At the conclusion of Team 2's deployment, Force Blue announced they will be dedicating their focus for the next three years to protecting and restoring the Florida Keys reef tract. We look forward to continuing to work with Force Blue and seeing all that they accomplish in the future.