Buoyancy. Betterment. Belonging.
Three words that drive the mission of Force Blue, an initiative that unites the community of Special Operations veterans with the world of coral reef conservation for the betterment of both. Ocean Conservancy is proud to support these veterans and their mission. Julia Roberson spoke to cofounders Jim Ritterhoff and Rudy Reyes about their love of the ocean, the importance of NOAA and the opportunity to be a part of something bigger.
Julia: Where does your love for the ocean come from?
Rudy: It was the Marine Corps and doing amphibious operations and being a Recon Marine and a combat diver. The water became my work and the power, the beauty, the majesty of this entirely new element to this Missouri kid—well, it was magnificent.
Jim: I grew up in a Pennsylvania steel town. The ocean was a world away for me, you know? I went away to graduate school up in Syracuse, took up scuba diving, did a lot of lake diving. And then finally got to go to the Caribbean. It just changed my whole life. From that moment on, I have been involved in marine conservation in one way or another. When my daughter Krista was born, she was in the water at a year old with me. And then, when she was 12, I got her certified. Sent her to the Marine Institute for four summers to study marine biology as a high schooler and she was my dive buddy. Based on experiences with her, I wrote a children’s book about marine conservation and made a film. When the opportunity to really begin this program availed itself to me, it was like my life’s calling.
Julia: How did you think of merging ocean conservation and helping veterans?
Jim: You know, Rudy is a very visible and well-respected member of the veteran community. He deployed a number of times to some really bad places and had a tough time in his assimilation back. I hadn’t seen him in a couple years and I ran into him. I saw that he had been having problems. I was going diving the next week with my daughter so I invited him. That’s where we saw what the water could do for Rudy and what Rudy could do in the water.
Rudy: I had no job, no money. I had been doing counter-terrorism for some time but wasn’t sure that I wanted to carry a gun for work anymore and so, I said “I’m sorry, Jim. I can’t make it. I don’t got the cash.” Jim and Keith Sahm, our third co-founder, put it all together for me and after that, I just started getting fired up about all the communities underneath the water and the beauty, the gorgeous simple truths of organisms and life doing exactly what they’re supposed to do. After some time, I started calming down and started diving like a scuba diver instead of a combat diver. One night, Keith told me that this habitat was being destroyed and that it was going to go away. Jim was like, “We’ve got a lot of guys like you, a lot of warriors and commandos, maybe we could do something proactive to help this environment.” And that’s how it all started.
Jim: We thought maybe we could use marine conservation to help these heroes find a new mission, something larger than themselves that they can believe in again and get back that feeling of doing good. At the same time, maybe we can utilize them to reach an audience about marine conservation that isn’t going to listen to another climate change scientist.
Julia: Why do you think the conversation around conservation has become so polarizing, and how can Force Blue and the ocean help bridge the divide?
Rudy: It’s become so polarized with loving and taking care of our planet and loving and supporting our veterans. Here’s something that is a bridge. It’s about being the true hero, doing the right thing and protecting and preserving something that is tantamount to life on the planet. We all have kids. I want to dive with my kids like Jim dives with his daughter. And if we don’t take care of [the ocean] and we don’t get super proactive and really make a stand, and bring every ability and asset to the table, we’re going to lose it. That’s not going to happen on our watch.
Jim: These guys have devoted their military careers to protecting communities that are at risk. It’s that simple. We’re putting it in those terms for them—that the ocean is a community at risk that can’t fight for itself. You tell that to this group of guys and they’re like, “Where do we start?” You almost can’t contain how much good they want to do because it’s all they know. It’s what they’re conditioned to do.
Julia: Why are Force Blue divers uniquely suited to do this work?
Rudy: We’re mission-oriented, and success is the only thing we do. At first, I thought that we could maybe fix some reefs and rebuild some things. But what happened through this process was a healing and a transformation. I mean we couldn’t even imagine what a profound effect it was going to have. The definition of character we learn in the Marine Corps is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking. I couldn’t have done this if Jim didn’t bring me down there. He knew that there was something that needed to be done for our brothers. All those years at war and all the years of super high op tempo—we don’t really ever come home. And so that’s Force Blue—we just knew we had to do it bigger for more of the brothers, and what better mission to fight for than to fight for our oceans and reefs?
Julia: How have others in the military community received Force Blue and the mission so far?
Jim: Since our inception, which was a little over a year ago, we’ve gotten a ton positive feedback. But what I’m most proud of is that everyday somebody reaches out through our website that wants to help, wants to volunteer. We probably have 200 vets say “Hey, how can I be a part of this?” We’ve got guys from Australia, South Africa, Israel, Egypt—even one British Royal commando who’s part of our first team. This has moved even beyond just the US military. This really has the potential to be an international force for good.
Rudy: Force Blue is not just about the love. It’s about the mission of doing something arduous that’s filled with pride and making and rebuilding and creating something. This is the warrior mission for preserving and protecting. We’ve accomplished things that have never been accomplished before in the Florida Keys because of the excellence of these men. Don’t make me cry on this dang interview but it’s the proudest thing I’ve ever witnessed.
Jim: The great thing about Force Blue is that while we may have many, many, many deployments, the mission never ends. It’s not over in five days. It’s not over in two months. Everybody who joins Force Blue is in it for the right reasons, and it’s not going away. We’re going to continue to deploy and everybody can feel like they are now a part of something that has no expiration date to it.
Rudy: We go back to school to be warriors for conservation.
Julia: Ocean Conservancy is really excited to be partnering with you guys on your next deployment to Puerto Rico with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). What do you hope to accomplish?
Jim: (laughs) We’ll do anything NOAA asks us to do.
Rudy: Yeah, not only will we do anything but with these skill sets and the confidence and the team unity, we CAN do anything.
Jim: That’s not just us blowing smoke. Whether it was our NOAA teammates or the Coral Restoration Foundation folks we worked with, all of them said, you guys do three times the amount of work that one person normally does. As a team, you’ve done 20 times the amount of work that a five man team of volunteer divers would have done.
Jim: In Puerto Rico we will go to the areas that NOAA has already surveyed. We’ll see the areas that were hardest hit, most damaged by Hurricane Maria—areas where the coral has literally been ripped off the reef and is now lying in the sand, suffocating. What we’ll do is cement these fragments back onto the reef. Or if that particular reef is too damaged or the substrate is not conducive, we will bring the fragments back to the boat and transport them to another reef for planting. There’s a great metaphor that gets lost in all this sometimes—it’s how much these veterans are like coral. You see coral that is sort of been left for dead or left–
Jim: Yeah, forgotten. And all you have to do is put it in the right place, and not only will it thrive on its own, but it will cause an entire community around to thrive around it. There’s a particular story that I think exemplifies this. When we were in the Florida Keys, there was a 1,000 pound pillar coral. There may only be five or six of those left in the Keys. It had been ripped off and was lying about 15 feet below the reef. So this dinosaur, this 500-year-old, 1,000 pound pillar coral was going to die. It was left for dead. Our guys got on it. Long story short, with six lift bags and 20 gallons of cement, we managed to get this pillar coral up righted and back on to the reef. You can see it in the footage we filmed, the color comes back almost immediately.
Rudy: It exploded into color.
Jim: We got back on the boat, and the dive masters who have worked down there for years were in tears. They told us, you guys just saved a t-rex. And then it started to hit everyone. It dawned on our guys that they hadn’t just moved a big heavy object, they had actually saved something incredibly important. My hope is there will be at least one or two of those little instances when we’re in Puerto Rico—when our guys will come to the rescue of something that otherwise would have been left for dead.
Julia: That’s so wonderful. Could you talk a little bit about your work with NOAA?
Rudy: First of all, it’s such a prestigious and absolutely credited organization specifically in science and in conservation.
Jim: When you’re dealing with governmental organizations, you see these acronyms, and they become nameless and faceless. But when you meet the individuals who work there Tom Moore, Michael Nemeth—they care so much. They’ve dedicated their lives to ocean conservation. They’re passionate people. It’s a giant governmental organization but what it’s made up of is people who care very deeply about this.
Rudy: They’re the recon of the ocean.
Julia: I love that. “NOAA is the recon of the ocean.”
Jim: Yes! They understand the situations. They’re three steps ahead of the next storm. I don’t care if you have 10,000 Force Blue divers in the water, it’s not going to matter if somebody isn’t out there assessing and understanding what needs to happen. That is what makes NOAA absolutely essential to marine conservation.
Rudy: They’re the deep dive, they’re the recon and collecting information that we can turn into intelligence so that we execute our mission. We couldn’t do it without them.
Julia: What can people do to support the work that you guys are doing?
Jim: Well, first and foremost, we are privately funded. We are, right now, a 100% volunteer effort, and we absolutely need financial support from anybody who’s willing to offer it. The easiest way is to go to our website and donate. But beyond that, it’s about awareness. Everybody involved with Force Blue understands that our story is a compelling one. What it’s doing for veterans who deserve more than just a pat on the back and a clap at the airport. They deserve to be given new ways to utilize what they are already the best in the world at. On the environmental side, this program truly has the potential to be a vanguard for the entire conservation movement because of the excellence represented by our guys and the new audience that they alone can reach. If we can get influential people, corporations and other like-minded organizations to take notice of what it is we’re doing, I truly believe the sky is the limit.
Rudy: This is such a profound movement, and we dream big. We are here. We were born to save the world, and I know we can create a revolution and a whole new way of thinking to make our world better. Fund us so that we can continue to achieve great things. Give us the chance, and that’s what we’ll do. All of us are service people. We love service and fighting for things that need to be fought for.
Julia: That is a perfect note to end on. You guys are incredible—thank you for sharing your story with us! Ocean Conservancy is so excited to be working with Force Blue and NOAA on this trip to Puerto Rico. We can’t wait to report back to our members on what we accomplish together.