One of the largest coral reef barriers in the world extends from the Florida Keys along the east coast of North America. It has for more than 10,000 years.
And it’s falling apart.
The reef barrier has suffered massive damage from pollution, dredging, disease, and an expanding human presence, Quartz reports. A group called FORCE BLUE is hoping to save the reef from destruction.
FORCE BLUE was founded by US special forces veterans with the mission of saving the coral reefs, help veterans flourish in civilian life, and to advocate for environmental issues to the military. Members of the Force Blue team are adept divers as well as educators. Wherever they go, they promote conservation efforts, and back it up with experience.
FORCE BLUE’s three co-founders were Jim Ritterhoff, a marketing facilitator; Keith Sahm, a 23-year veteran of marine environmentalism and a scuba diving resort general manger; and Rudy Reyes, a recon marine. All three were experienced divers, but unlike Ritterhoff and Sahm, Reyes saw no recreational benefit in the pastime. To him, it was simply the nature of another potentially dangerous mission, which may have served as a way of helping the veteran face his fears.
Because of his training, Reyes had no problems carrying his oxygen tank, but the invisible scars of post-traumatic stress were a much heavier burden. Reyes had served in the early stages of the Iraq war, and had been dealing with anger and frustration ever since.
In Grand Cayman, Reyes found a new way to deal with those frustrations thanks to friends Ritterhoff and Sahm. His story isn’t unique, either. Along with combat divers from all branches of service, FORCE BLUE involves marine scientists, conservationists and journalists.
“[W]e can use our veteran community to help the environment and reach an audience that currently isn’t getting the message,” Ritterhoff told Geek. “[They] may not listen to scientists, but they’ll listen to Navy SEALs, and they’ll listen to Marines because these guys are their heroes.”
FORCE BLUE members are provided two days of PTSD counseling as part of each recruitment and training exercise. This readies the veterans for a new mission, and lessens the possibility of PTSD triggers.
FORCE BLUE teams helped the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and the Coral Restoration Foundation assess and restore parts of the reefs damaged by hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. Today, they are concentrating on preventing stony coral tissue loss disease by applying antibiotics to sections of the coral, and digging trenches to stop the deadly disease’s march forward.
Ritterhoff wants people to understand how important coral reefs are to the world. He believes that making a difference by saving the coral in Florida could be a model for other reef restoration projects around the world.
“Don’t think that because you’re not a scuba diver or a scientist, coral reefs don’t matter in your life, because they do. It’s not a stretch to say that if this reef dies, the next thing that’s going to happen is nobody is going to want to go to the Florida Keys. Then pretty soon, nobody is going to be able to go to them because they’re going to be gone,” Ritterhoff said.
Learn more about what is being done to save these reefs in the video below, then scroll down and help FORCE BLUE make a difference!
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.