They say the job of a U.S. Air Force pararescueman combines the skills of a Navy Seal, an Army Ranger and a medic. The training alone eliminates more than 80 percent of the people who try out for the job. Those who make it through find themselves surrounded by explosions, pain and killing. These are the guys who might drop into a valley in Afghanistan and fight back out with fellow soldiers who were pinned down under enemy fire. That’s what Roger Sparks did in 2010, helping nine wounded soldiers and earning America’s third-highest award for valor: the Silver Star. He served 25 years in the military before retiring in 2017 with a memory that, he says, was full of “powerful, destructive awe.” His experiences resulted in a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.
That’s when Rodolfo “Rudy” Reyes called him with a new mission.
Sparks had been Reyes’ instructor for Marine Corps Special Forces selection and training, and the two had remained friends over the years. Reyes, along with two friends, had just co-founded Force Blue, a nonprofit organization looking to unite Special Forces veterans—and their impressive training—with experts in the fields of marine science and conservation. The idea was to harness the skills that veterans have and put them to use in new missions. “Our guys are already the best divers in the world,” says Jim Ritterhoff, a Force Blue co-founder. “Governments have spent millions of dollars to make sure of it. We take that skill and put it into a mission of preserving, restoring and saving stuff. It creates the sense of doing something bigger than yourself again, and that’s what these guys are all about.”
Instead of saving people or places on land that are in danger, the veterans with Force Blue now save coral reefs. “Coral reefs are like communities,” Ritterhoff says. “They’re interrelated communities and they’re under threat. These guys, their entire military careers, have been fighting for communities under threat. Once they understand it, they’re unstoppable. They say, ‘Let’s go. Let’s do this.’”
To Sparks, as a newly retired veteran, the idea was intriguing. He had combat diving experience, but he had never really looked at something that most boaters take for granted: a healthy coral reef. The ocean, he says, “was like a hostile force, something very cold or very dark. It was this medium to force ourselves through.”
His thinking changed after he became part of the first team that Force Blue trained, in the Cayman Islands in 2017. Some of the world’s foremost experts on coral reefs and conservation flew to the islands to offer lessons. Scientists were there from Oregon State University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Even the renowned fishing artist and conservationist Guy Harvey participated.
“We thought it was a good idea on paper, but Seals and scientists are not from the same life experiences, so we had no idea how it was going to play out,” Ritterhoff says. “Oh my God, not only did it work, it worked better than we could ever have hoped. We had scientists who were scheduled to fly in for a day, give a presentation and go home, and they said, ‘I’ll pay my own way. I’m not going home. I’m not leaving these guys. I want to be a part of this.’ In the end, they stayed for the whole two weeks of training.”
Sparks says the experience helped to reshape his entire post-military identity. “We’ve seen a lot of very powerful, destructive awe in our lives, a lot of death and suffering, and we’ve caused a lot of death and suffering,” he says. “To be in the ocean is the exact polarity of that. It’s the dichotomy of experience, to be in the ocean and have vibrant life sitting all around us. It’s just the opposite of what we see in war. That’s why it has such a profound impact on us.”
Beyond that, Sparks says, was understanding the bigger picture of what veterans like him were seeing for the first time—the ecological threats facing the ocean, reefs and fish. The lesson was so powerful, he says, that many of the veterans cried the first time they resurfaced. “Once you realize, and you’re being asked by these conservationists to help champion what can’t fight for itself …” he says, his voice trailing off. “We as human beings are so destructive and we do so much damage to the ocean and the Earth. To be asked to fight for that, it affects you at a very profound level.”
So, Force Blue started fighting for the coral. Soon after they finished training, Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit. A team went to South Florida for 10 days to restore reef that the storms had damaged, including a coral structure known to boaters as Archie. “Our guys jumped in and rescued an 800-pound critically endangered pillar coral that was 500 years old and had been ripped off the reef,” Ritterhoff says. “NOAA, because of protocols, couldn’t do anything about it. Our guys got six airbags on the thing, got it back on the reef, cemented it down, and now this dinosaur of a coral is alive and healthy.”
NOAA was impressed, so much so that another Force Blue team was deployed, this time to Puerto Rico for a month. “The hurricane had come through and ripped up tons of elkhorn and staghorn coral,” Ritterhoff says. “You would dive and it looked like a boneyard. We would cache the fragments and take them to an area of reef where we could transplant them and cement them down. It’s a lot of heavy lifting. It’s not scientific; it’s like underwater gardening. And we were able to do it. It was somewhere approaching 2,000 transplanted pieces of staghorn, elkhorn and brain coral. Our guys are incredible.”
Meanwhile, the military veterans and conservationists were getting to know one another and realizing they could work together to lobby at the U.S. Capitol for a change in funding to benefit missions like theirs. “Here we are with these staunch Republicans, some grizzled old guy in his chambers, and he might have a Marine Corps flag on his wall. I can say I was in the Corps, and all of the sudden, I’ve got his respect,” Sparks says. “I’m going to have his ear. We met with these senators and congressmen to explain to them what’s happening with ocean acidification, and we got through to nine out of ten. It was a brilliant success, and The Ocean Conservancy said it was the best traction they’d gained. One of those guys had been working as a lobbyist for more than a decade. We got it done in a week.”
Ritterhoff says he’s been to Washington, D.C., five times since Hurricane Irma hit. There’s enough damage to keep two Force Blue teams in the water 365 days a year. Those 12 guys are wanted everywhere from Guam to the Carolinas.
But for the next three years, they hope to be working on the Florida Keys Reef Tract. The world’s third-largest coral barrier reef system, it’s been hit with a disease outbreak that kills about half the types of coral there. “If they get it, it’s fatal with a 100 percent mortality rate,” Ritterhoff says. To get there, Force Blue needs to raise $9 million, through donations at forceblueteam.org. That’s what it’s going to cost, Ritterhoff says, for them to go out and be heroes again, this time for everyone who cares about the marine environment.
“Six guys with Speedos can’t change the world,” Sparks says, “but we can raise awareness, and that will change the world.”
Their work will include everything from cleaning up marine debris to replacing hundreds of mooring balls outside a marine sanctuary, so boaters can stop dropping anchors on the reefs. “This is an opportunity for everyone to step up and join the fight,” Ritterhoff says. “We’re just the tip of the spear.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue.