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New Bill Aims to Support Veteran Conservation Divers

On World Oceans Day, ESP Advisors announces the introduction of the Don Young Veterans Advancing Conservation Act, a bill that aims to provide funding for nonprofit groups that “hire, retrain, and redeploy veterans to conduct coastal, Great Lakes, and underwater conservation missions.”

Show your support using the sign-on letter here.

When Steve “Gonzo” Gonzalez dipped beneath the waves off the coast of Florida in 2020, he didn't expect it to change his life. The ocean was a familiar setting for the former U.S. Navy Master Chief SEAL, who undertook hundreds of diving missions during his 34 years of service. This mission, however, was unique: the first time Gonzalez would ever see colors underwater.

The transformative experience was Gonzalez’ first deployment with FORCE BLUE, a nonprofit organization that provides “mission therapy” to Special Operations veterans through marine conservation work.

“All of the diving I did during those 34 years was done in the middle of the night, in places around the world where I could barely see my hand in front of my face,” says Gonzalez, who initially joined FORCE BLUE in an effort to plant coral in Rainbow Reef off Key Biscayne.

“That first dive with FORCE BLUE was like seeing a piece of art for the first time,” he says. “It moved me beyond belief. You have this small piece of coral that you’re attaching to the coral bed. By the time you go back and get your next piece from the scientist who showed you how to attach it, and go back down, there’s already marine life enjoying the piece of coral you just planted. They’re coming by, they’re curious. Just to see that…to see the instant feedback first-hand, was transcending.”

By recruiting former combat divers, training them under the guidance of marine scientists and conservationists, and redeploying them on marine conservation expeditions, FORCE BLUE seeks to address two seemingly unrelated problems: the declining health of our oceans, and the difficulty faced by veterans during the adjustment to civilian life. From monitoring disease in green sea turtle populations, to kelp and coral restoration, to invasive species and marine debris removal, their team of expert divers has aided in more than 20 conservation operations to date throughout Florida, California, and the Caribbean.

Now, a new bill aims to support and expand this effort.

Congressman Darren Soto (D-FL-09) recently introduced H.R. 7341, the “Don Young Veterans Advancing Conservation Act” (DY-VACA). As it moves through the legislative process, DY-VACA will create a new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant program to provide funding for nonprofit groups that “hire, retrain, and redeploy veterans to conduct coastal, Great Lakes, and underwater conservation missions.”

DY-VACA was originally drafted on behalf of FORCE BLUE by ESP Advisors Chief Strategy Officer Martha Newell-Kinsman. Newell-Kinsman is both a veteran U.S. Army medic and the former natural resources staffer for the late Congressman Don Young, who planned to introduce the bill with Rep. Soto as lead Democratic cosponsor. Following Young’s death in March, Rep. Soto introduced the bill in his stead and added Young’s name to ensure it would contribute to his legacy. The bill currently includes 15 bipartisan cosponsors. See the full list here.

After two decades at war, the difficulties faced by returning service members have been well documented. For many Special Operations veterans, explains Gonzalez, the biggest challenge is the disorientation that arises when foundational skills and the call to serve are no longer immediately useful.

“When you separate [from the military], whether you've done four years, 20 years, or 34 years, you think, ‘Okay… Now what?’,” he says.

Redeploying combat divers on conservation missions allows them to put the training they received in the military – the United States spends an average $1.5 million training a single Special Operations forces member – back into service. It also provides the resource-challenged scientific community with a highly-skilled workforce capable of executing difficult tasks under extreme conditions.

“Whether it’s posttraumatic stress or failure to adjust, people talk a lot about veterans’ problems, and for good reason,” says Gonzalez. “But we like to emphasize veterans’ potential. There are so many things that veterans are capable of. They just need a chance. Give them that chance, and they’ll surprise you with how eager they are to learn, how eager they are to reach that next ridgeline, and how eager they are to do a great job.”

If signed into law, DY-VACA will recognize an ongoing partnership between scientists and Special Operations veterans. The funding provided will enable FORCE BLUE and other organizations to expand both geographically and in number. Bringing more veterans into the fold, notes Gonzalez, is among the most important goals being made possible by the bill’s proposed grant program.

“I was such a hardened veteran after multiple deployments to combat zones,” says Gonzalez. “After that first dive, I went home and told my wife and daughter about it. They could see the joy on my face. They could see the spring in my step. To be able to bring in new people to experience this, to see the look on their faces when they come out of the water, to see how they change… This is why I did those deployments. I did everything I did so that now, I can bring something to the table to help scientists, help our planet, and in turn, help ourselves.”

ESP Advisors Senior Advisor Pamela Day, who served 12 years as Chief of Staff for Don Young, believes the late Congressman would be pleased to see continued support for this collaborative effort. Despite Young’s somewhat notorious public persona, she says, he cared deeply about his constituents and work.

“The DY-VACA bill is a great intersection of two issues that were very important to him,” says Day. “He was a veteran himself, and worked throughout his career to make sure that our coasts and oceans would continue to be here for future generations. He was so proud of the relationships he made with colleagues on both sides of the aisle. While he may be gone, those who are still here are following in his footsteps and pushing forward legislation that is important and impactful.”

Show your support using the sign-on letter here.

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