Editor’s Note: During the first week of Zeagle’s 40th Anniversary commencement we’re profiling FORCE BLUE, a nonprofit that recruits retired special-ops personnel (Navy SEALs/Marine Recon) to tackle unique, challenging aquatic conservation projects—predominantly coral reef restoration. In addition to their partnership with Zeagle, from now until the end of the year, FORCE BLUE sponsors will match—dollar for dollar—every donation made up to $50K.
To learn more, we interviewed FORCE BLUE Co-founder Jim Ritterhoff so he could tell us firsthand about the nonprofit’s origins, mission and plans for the future.
FORCE BLUE, as an organization, occupies an interesting niche. On the first day co-founder Jim Ritterhoff set up the nonprofit’s social media accounts, right away he noticed something fascinating.
Their very first follower was a bloody skull mask, second amendment, alt-right, off-the-grid guy. In a quick message, the new fan wrote: ‘Hey FORCE BLUE, great job!’ Later on the very same day, FORCE BLUE’s account received another follow—from the Sierra Club—who also said: ‘Nice job!’ Despite coming from radically different ends of the political spectrum, both parties appreciated FORCE BLUE’s mission and purpose.
In operation for a little over two years, FORCE BLUE has developed an apolitical reputation and has been asked to go to Washington DC numerous times to advocate for NOAA, The Nature Conservancy, and other environmental orgs. But as a general guiding principle, Ritterhoff says that FORCE BLUE avoids partisanship and always plays it down the middle of the road.
“There are some legislators that might not meet with science/environmental groups, but they’ll meet with us,” he says. “We are, essentially, a way to connect both sides. … And If we can get the polar opposite ends of the [political] spectrum to see value in what we’re doing, maybe we’re onto something?”
Originally founded during a dive trip in the Cayman Islands, FORCE BLUE is the brainchild of Ritterhoff, Rudy Reyes and Keith Sahm.
As a retired USMC Recon diver, Reyes had always known diving to be something miserable, done in the dark—and never for pleasure. And having suffered from long bouts of PTSD and depression, his experience diving in Cayman was transformative.
Reyes immediately proposed scheduling another trip so that he could bring down more of his Recon brothers to experience what he just had. But after a few hours of discussion, the three men hatched a different plan. One that would include combat divers from all branches of service, along with marine scientists, conservationists and journalists. Fast forward to today, and their seed of an idea has pollinated and taken root as FORCE BLUE.
In terms of its operation, Ritterhoff says that FORCE BLUE is successful largely because of a three-pillared mission strategy.
Pillar #1: A lot of veterans face a lack of purpose when they get home. “It’s very difficult to get these very high-speed guys and drop ‘em in a cubicle and say, ‘get on with your life.’ So, our idea was: ‘What if we could give these guys back that sense of mission and having a team?”
Pillar #2: At the same time, the special-ops vets that fill out FORCE BLUE’s ranks are incredible underwater operators. All military-dive trained, the elite skills and training possessed by FORCE BLUE’s divers are an incredible asset to the environmental community. “If we can partner them with the right scientists and researchers, then they can be a really great workforce,” Rittehoff says.
Pillar #3: As mentioned above, as a veterans’ conservation organization, FORCE BLUE occupies a unique and powerful political niche. “In this hyperpartisan world we live in right now, some people won’t listen to a scientist about climate change because they’re perceived to be snowflakes, or liberals, or whatever. But they’ll still listen to Navy SEALs and recon marines. So it’s a way to get a whole different segment of the population that isn’t currently paying attention to engage with the topic of climate change and conservation. “We don’t care if you get on board from the left side or the right side—we’re all in the same boat.”
Although FORCE BLUE is technically a 501c3 nonprofit, it perhaps makes more sense to think of it as a national guard or reserve unit. The criteria for admission is incredibly strict and once fully trained, members receive payment similar to what they’d get under government contract.
To get into FORCE BLUE, a person must be incredibly comfortable in the water. On top of that initial competence, the org mandates that all members must be military-diver trained, have deployed with a special ops unit, and been deployed directly into combat. So, the standards are incredibly high.
Just after its founding, FORCE BLUE got lucky and found their first mission doing coral restoration in response to Hurricane Irma. Word of their elite rapid response spread, and the work kept on coming. After the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria, FORCE BLUE deployed to Puerto Rico to facilitate reef restoration and maintenance.
Their most recent work includes a partnership with the NFL to build out a new reef in Florida.
As part FORCE BLUE’s 40th Anniversary partnership with Zeagle, we’ve sent over a new BC, mask and fins for use by their teams in the field. “It will be used,” Ritterhoff affirms. “It’ll go directly to a special operations veteran and become their work gear.
For most of FORCEBLUE’s team members, the ocean was always about blowing something up or rescuing somebody, but it wasn’t about the pure enjoyment of the ocean. To overcome this conception, a large part of FORCEBLUE’s onboarding is aimed at getting people to view the ocean in a different context.
“The ocean is nothing but an interdependent community that is at risk,” he says. “And if you think about it, that’s exactly what these men and women have been fighting for—communities that can’t fight for themselves … That reorientation then triggers that service mentality, like: ‘Let’s go—this is what we do.’”