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EarthX 2019 featured several days of incredible presentations across multiple stages full of ideas, inspiration, and how-to advice on getting involved and information on topics impacting the planet today. One of the more rousing was a session from Force Blue, a team of military-trained divers who have embarked on the mission of saving coral reefs.

Force Blue gets a lot of media coverage, including a CBS Evening News short last year, and EarthX was able to catch up with Jim Ritterhoff, Executive Director and Co-Founder, Force Blue, after EarthX 2019 to learn more about these environmental warriors.

Tell me about the founding of Force Blue.

The idea for FORCE BLUE was born out of a chance reunion I had with my good friend and fellow co-founder Rudy Reyes on the streets of New York in 2015. Rudy, a Recon Marine veteran who had served on multiple combat tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa and had gone on to play himself in the HBO miniseries “Generation Kill” was struggling mightily in his transition back to civilian life.

He’d just gotten out of rehab and was having a hard time pulling his life together. As luck (or serendipity as we like to think of it at FORCE BLUE) would have it, I was going on a dive trip the following week with my daughter to visit another friend of mine, our third co-founder, Keith Sahm, who was running a dive resort in the Cayman Islands. I called Keith, told him Rudy’s story, and he said, “Just get him down here.”

A week later, at the end of our trip, Rudy confided that diving with us on the beautiful, still unspoiled reefs of Cayman had done more for him than any therapy or rehab he’d ever been through. He immediately suggested we bring more of his veteran buddies down to experience what he just had.  That’s when the light bulb came on and we had our “Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup” moment.

Keith and I had been active in the world of coral reef preservation for a long time and had grown increasingly frustrated at the environmental community’s inability to reach “beyond the choir.” We saw this as our opportunity. If we could create a program that would allow Special Operations combat veterans like Rudy to re-purpose their military dive training, but to do so in a positive way with a new mission — while simultaneously utilizing their hero status to reach an entirely different audience that currently isn’t getting the message about what’s happening to our oceans and our marine resources, we could do an immense amount of good — both for our veterans and our planet.

A year later we had our nonprofit 501(c)(3) status, and we were off to the races.

I understand the group has an interesting connection with EarthX.

We came to EarthX — then Earth Day TX — in 2016 at the invitation of Trammell (S. Crow), whom I had met through a mutual friend.  It was our “coming out” party so-to-speak. We didn’t have our 501(c)(3) yet and were little more than a logo, mission statement and a whole lot of passion. But we began to tell our story and quickly discovered there was genuine interest in our mission. EarthX gave us the confidence we needed, at a crucial time, to solider on. That’s why, three years later, we still think of it as our spiritual home.

Environmental issues aren’t partisan, but there are some in politics who would like to make them so on both sides. Because of your military backgrounds, the Force Blue team has a unique opportunity to get into some rooms and actually be listened to where environmental scientists and certainly activists would never have that chance. Can you provide some examples of this action and what it means to have that sort of opportunity to get a message across to a maybe otherwise unreceptive audience? 

That has been one of our biggest epiphanies and perhaps the place where FORCE BLUE can have its biggest impact moving forward — our ability to work “across the divide” and get people on both sides of the political spectrum to see something of value in FORCE BLUE. It’s not about compromise, which, as recent events have shown us, is near impossible in this partisan climate. It’s about appealing to what already interests people.

Odds are, if you are not all that big on climate change or protecting the environment, you probably do care about vets. And vice versa. We like to say, it doesn’t matter whether you climb on board with FORCE BLUE from port or starboard (left or right), we’re all in the same boat.

So far, that seems to resonate. The proof lies in the numerous trips we’ve made to Capitol Hill and the dozens of conservative legislators we’ve met with on behalf of partners like NOAA, the Ocean Conservancy and Oceana. I think it’s safe to say Navy SEALS, Recon Marines and Green Berets can kick down a lot of doors that marine scientists can’t.

During the EarthX 2019 presentation you shared a very emotional story about “Archie,” an extremely old coral. Would you share that again?

“Archie” was (and still is thanks to our efforts) an 800 lb, centuries old Pillar Coral that lives in the waters off Key West. It’s one of only a handful of big Pillar Coral colonies that still remain in Florida.

In the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma (Fall 2017), Archie had been ripped off the reef and flipped on to the sandy bottom below. When FORCE BLUE and our partners at NOAA arrived a few weeks after the storm, Archie was just days away from suffocating. Five of our guys jumped in and, using maybe a half-dozen lift bags and 25 gallons of cement, were able to get Archie cemented back on to the reef. Almost instantly the color came back, and the fish started moving in.

Our partners at NOAA and the local diver masters who were on board with us were blown away. They told us we’d “saved a T-Rex.” That is the moment when I think all of us at FORCE BLUE realized we were involved in something pretty special.

During your presentation at the event you also offered three main takeaways. Could you summarize those for everyone who wasn’t able to attend or watch the livestream? 

Sure. Basically, I relayed and expanded upon something I heard the Undersecretary of the Interior say at a Coral Reef Task Force Summit we were invited to in 2018. He called on all of us involved in coral reef restoration and preservation to adopt “radical creativity” in our efforts — basically saying that new thinking, partnerships and approaches are the only way we’re going to win this fight. As the Executive Director of an organization the pairs “SEALs with scientists” that was music to my ears. I’ve since tried to refine it to three main points.

(1) Opposites attract– Look for partners in strange places, perhaps even diametrically opposed places. You may find, as we have, that the differing viewpoints your partners bring to the party will help you solve problems in ways you never could have alone.

(2) Make it a mission– You would be amazed the power that word has in bringing folks together. All people, not just veterans, want to be involved in achieving great things. And when those great things also happen to be inherently good things, it becomes a crusade. The positive force you create is unstoppable. Once you’ve made it a mission, create a culture.

(3) Mission supersedes all— Mission is more important than self (ego and personal credit no longer matter), more important than organization (our logo doesn’t have to be bigger than yours) and damn sure more important than politics. All three of these points are summed up in what has become our FORCE BLUE mantra: “One team. One fight.”

What’s happening right now with Force Blue? What’s coming next? 

Last fall, FORCE BLUE launched something called “Project Protect,” which is our three-year plan to help rescue, preserve and restore the Florida Coral Reef Tract — the only barrier coral reef in the continental United States and what we believe to be “ground zero” in the fight to save coral reefs everywhere.

Since January we’ve had a team of divers deployed with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Nova Southeastern University to interdict the spread of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, which is devastating the coral colonies off South Florida and the Florida Keys. In June we will be deploying with scientists from the Turtle Hospital in Marathon, FL on a mission to pull data on a different disease that’s infecting Florida’s Green Sea Turtle population.

After that, we will be training our third team of FORCE BLUE divers. We have a number of other interesting irons in fire.

Is there anything about Force Blue that I haven’t asked about that you would like to share? 

I’d like to encourage everyone who believes in our mission and would like to play a part in its success to visit our website (www.forceblueteam.org) and donate if you can. As a small, relatively new nonprofit, we’re almost entirely dependent on private contributions to sustain our operations.

Every tax-deductible dollar raised goes directly toward training our Special Operations veterans, getting them back in the water and back on mission. If you can’t donate, please help spread the word by following us on social media (@forceblueteam) and telling everyone that might be interested in our mission to get behind us.

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