Southern Heroes

Rudy Reyes: The Coral Commando

The Marine sergeant and his fellow Force Blue veterans find peace while diving to preserve vital coral tracts off Florida

Photo: tim k./the veterans project

During three combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, Rudy Reyes—a special forces recon U.S. Marine sergeant and elite combat diver—had executed countless amphibious insertions, jumped from helicopters into open ocean, and swum miles to shore in a heavy pack to infiltrate opposition-held zones. But for all the time he’d spent wet, he had never seen a fish underwater until a friend, Jim Ritterhoff, took him on a weeklong pleasure dive on Grand Cayman in 2015. 

Civilianized and aimless, Reyes—who had also portrayed himself in Generation Kill, HBO’s fictionalized miniseries about the 2003 invasion of Iraq—had been reeling at the time from post-traumatic stress, depression, and drug and alcohol addiction. But when he was there in the water, held in the ocean’s swaying cocoon, his mind calmed. He discovered a vibrant but ailing coral community—since 2014, stony coral tissue loss disease, suspected to stem from a mysterious and ravenous pathogen, has affected more than half of Florida’s 360-mile coral tract—and felt his purpose rekindled. “It saved my life,” he recalls. “I was physically fatigued but spiritually awake.” 

The experience inspired Reyes and Ritterhoff to found in 2016 Force Blue, a two-pronged nonprofit that deploys veteran combat divers into the embattled Florida reef to help mitigate their PTS through a revived sense of mission. Teams perform cutting-edge disease intervention work alongside scientist divers—removing lesions or treating them with chlorine-infused dental paste and amoxicillin—and brute-force work like righting battered four-hundred-pound, three-hundred-year-old corals and transplanting new ones grown on underwater farms. Force Blue’s efforts have already slowed the disease’s progression. “It’s the perfect mission of redemption,” Reyes says, “for combat divers to express themselves as warriors, as weapons of mass construction.”


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