While there’s more than one program that uses scuba diving as therapy for returned military veterans, there’s only one nonprofit that provides mission-based therapy for former combat divers over the long term.

The purpose behind FORCE BLUE is to take veteran combat divers and retrain and deploy them on ocean conservation, preservation and restoration missions around the world, according to Jim Ritterhoff, the organization’s co-founder and executive director.

Ritterhoff told DeeperBlue.com:

“We are not a dive therapy program, we are a mission therapy program. The point is, we take the best divers in the world, guys from militaries from around the world, we had a British Royal Marine on the first team, governments who . . . invest millions of dollars to make these guys incredible underwater operators, what we’re doing is repurposing that, teaching them about conservation and giving them missions, things to do to actively help, whether it’s replant a coral reef, or get involved with bycatch, any of the marine problems that we can help address by physically sending a team to help out. And the mission of doing that is the therapy.”

One of the misnomers a lot of people have when they hear of post-traumatic stress in the military veteran community is that it’s solely the result of what the vets have seen or experienced in combat, and while that’s a big part of it, another part of it is that these vets are coming back after in some instances six, seven, or eight deployments and it’s not as simple as just dropping them into some cubicle and telling them, “OK, enjoy the rest of your life,” according to Ritterhoff:

“Their mission — they miss that. And that is what we saw the problems that we hear about, the suicide epidemic, these guys need to feel like a part of something; and again, they’ve got a mission that’s for the greater good, so if we can say to them, ‘Look, we’re gonna train you, very much of a military-style training program, and we’re gonna give you these missions and you can see the effects of what you’re doing and it’s for the greater good and it’s like . . . helping the planet, they’re all in.”

The organization’s first group of divers recently returned from their first mission where they spent 10 days in the Florida Keys with helping the Coral Restoration Foundation doing assessment triage and restoration work in the wake of Hurricane Irma, Ritterhoff said.

“It’s great proof of concept for us because we had just trained our guys, and this is the first time we actually got to get in the water and go do some stuff with them.”

Another small group will be leaving soon for a similar short-term mission in Puerto Rico, according to Ritterhoff:

“Our goal over the next three to five years is to build a team of like, we have six now, we want build up to like 30 of these highly super-elite special operations combat divers, build the team, and then be able to deploy on missions all around the world. So for the next three years, we’re gonna be building, we’re gonna be doing training deployments like this one and at the same time doing things like what we just did with Irma, but everything from doing expeditions to remote places in the Indian Ocean, like the Chagos Islands, to we’re gonna hopefully hook up with the Billion Oyster Project in New York and help build oyster beds in New York Harbor. So, from very small things to month-long expeditions or couple-month-long expeditions. It’s all about funding.”

To that end, FORCE BLUE is aiming to raise US$25 million (~21.5 million Euros) over the next five years, according to an executive summary of the nonprofit’s mission booklet. For more info, check out the video below or go to the organization’s website at forceblueteam.org.

John Liang

John Liang is the News Editor at DeeperBlue.com. He first got the diving bug while in High School in Cairo, Egypt, where he earned his PADI Open Water Diver certification in the Red Sea off the Sinai Peninsula. Since then, John has dived in a volcanic lake in Guatemala, among white-tipped sharks off the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, and other places including a pool in Las Vegas helping to break the world record for the largest underwater press conference.

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