When an American tank plunged from a bridge into the Euphrates River after the driver was shot in combat, Reconnaissance Marine Rudy Reyes was one of the divers given the grim task of bringing up the bodies.
As a scout swimmer, he also led stealth incursions into enemy territory during the invasion of Iraq, using the water as his cover.
A combat diver and special operations forces veteran of wars in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan, Sgt. Reyes’s experience of the underwater universe is vastly different than that of most visitors to the Cayman Islands.
Surfacing after a dive on a picturesque reef off East End last week, he said it felt good to feel only the sun on his face and the sound of the waves.
Sgt. Reyes and his dive buddies, all elite combat veterans, are used to diving in extreme conditions to destroy enemy targets or rescue injured colleagues.
Now they are finding a new outlet for their skills and beginning a new mission as the first members of Force Blue, a new program that sends highly trained military veterans to help the marine environment.
Founded by Sgt. Reyes along with Sunset House manager Keith Sahm and their friend Jim Ritterhoff, Force Blue aims to help veterans, many of whom have seen extreme action in the line of duty, to deal with post traumatic stress.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, roughly 20 veterans commit suicide in America every day. The rate for elite special forces operators is believed to be even higher.
For many of them it is not echoes of gunfire or memories of bloodshed that make the adjustment so difficult; it’s the relative banality of civilian life.
“If your whole identity was the gun and life and death, and you come back home and it’s all about freaking shopping and the Kardashians? You got to be kidding me? No wonder we lose it a little bit. No wonder we are a little bit heartbroken,” Sgt. Reyes told the Cayman Compass in an interview.
Force Blue seeks to give the veterans a new mission and a new sense of purpose.
Among the inaugural group are Roger Sparks, a former Marine reconnaissance diver and U.S. Air Force pararescueman, who received the Silver Star for parachuting into a firefight in Afghanistan’s Watapur Valley to rescue four wounded soldiers. There is Geoff Reeves, a Navy SEAL officer turned actor, who helped write the standard operating procedures for nuclear submarine rescue missions. Also on board are former Recon Marine Will Hinkson, U.S. Army Special Forces veteran Sean Moore and Jon Slayer, a British Marine commando turned underwater filmmaker.
All six, in different ways, have struggled with the transition from war zones to everyday life.
“You don’t have to see anything tough on the battlefield to suffer from post-traumatic stress,” says Slayer.
“For someone who has been a part of that community and had that brotherhood and that purpose in their lives, suddenly you leave the forces and there is just an absence of that. It is that absence of something to wake up for each morning.”
Fast-talking and charismatic, Sgt. Reyes has had a colorful life outside the armed forces. He played himself in the HBO series “Generation Kill” about a U.S. Marine reconnaissance battalion during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Despite his success, he admits he has found the transition to civilian life difficult.
“Special ops sounds sexy because it is sexy and it sounds bad-ass because it is bad-ass, but that comes with a price. In some ways we are more delicate because we are used to operating at such a precipice of excellence.”
Many Marines, says Sgt. Reyes, hide their struggles behind an aura of invincibility.
“I never really adjusted. I was so talented and had such aptitude. I could still achieve. I’ve been in a general malaise, but I still made it look good.
“I was like that Z28 Camaro – bad-ass body, bitching paint job, but I was going in first gear with the emergency brake on, no clutch. I was not moving fast and I was burning out – you get it?”
Geoff Reeves gets it. As an officer in Navy SEAL Team 10 he took part in operations across the globe. Leaving that life felt like losing his family and moving from a world where every action could mean life or death and everyone had each other’s back, to an environment that seemed defined by selfishness and consumerism.
“When you were in, you had a mission. You watched FOX and CNN because this, what’s happening today, is affecting what you do at work tomorrow.
For some, the transition is too much.
“I just lost a Recon brother a few weeks ago,” says Sgt. Reyes. “I have lost four of my Recon brothers to suicide.”
For Sgt. Reyes, it was intervention from close friends Keith Sahm and Jim Ritterhoff, that pulled him back from the brink and set the whole Force Blue project in motion. “They invited me here to Cayman for a dive expedition because they were concerned about me losing my way. They wanted their friend to come back to life.”
Diving on Cayman’s coral reefs and learning about the threats that marine ecosystems everywhere face from overfishing, global warming and a myriad of social and environmental issues, was a transformative experience for the former Marine.
“I came down here and dived on these beautiful reefs and it changed my life. When I found out about what is going on with our oceans, the threats to our reefs … when I found out 73 million sharks were killed last year for their fins alone, I got angry, then I got sad and I said, ‘nah, not on my watch.’”
The experience gave Sgt. Reyes a new mission, and a new metaphor.
“Special ops guys, we’re like sharks – we have to keep moving to survive. We need that mission,” he said.
An alliance between warriors and the ocean
Inspired by his own experience, Sgt. Reyes combined with Sahm and Ritterhoff to create Force Blue, which they hope will develop into a force for good all over the planet.
Ritterhoff, formerly a marketer who helped promote Cayman tourism in the U.S., says they saw a perfect alliance between the warriors in need of a mission and the ocean in need of protection.
Force Blue, he says, is very different from the kind of “wounded warrior” dive projects that facilitate physically disabled veterans to dive for the first time.
“This is not therapy diving for veterans who have never been diving. This is mission therapy for the best divers in the world.”
Over the past week the veterans have dived with Caribbean reef sharks off East End, learned to cull lionfish and visited the grouper aggregation site in Little Cayman. They will also learn about Cayman’s coral nurseries and assist with a project to replant coral on damaged reefs in the islands’ waters.
They have received instruction from marine experts and lectures from some of Cayman’s conservation figureheads, including Guy Harvey, as part of a military-style training program.
Ritterhoff sees Force Blue evolving into a cadre of retrained Marine veterans who can form a rapid response team to help after environmental incidents.
For all the divers involved, Force Blue is providing a new sense of mission, and a chance to meet the ocean on different terms.
“You can really achieve healing in yourself by helping something else and turning your skills away from the battlefield and all that trauma to something different,” says Slayer.
For Reeves, it is another opportunity to show a different side of special ops veterans and reach a new audience with a message about marine conservation.
“We have been labeled as killing machine[s], as robots, but that is not correct. We joined the military to serve and protect because we care. We care about the world and the environment we live in.”
He sees potential for the Marines to be ambassadors for the underwater world that will help communicate an important message to those who need to hear it most.
Coming from respected special operations veterans, the Force Blue team believe the message will resonate more with an audience who may be turned off by what is sometimes seen as left-wing preaching about global warming.
For Reyes, the co-founder and figurehead of the Force Blue organization, the mission is nothing less than saving the planet.
“I’m passionate about this. I earned my name in the Marine Corps,” adding, “This is my mission now, this is my life’s work. I don’t know how to do much else but to do stuff all the way.”