Retired Army Sgt. Chris Maddeford is in pain nearly all the time after being hit by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan about a decade ago. The 31-year-old Chicago vet has four anchors in his right hip and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
But the pain disappears when he goes scuba diving — a pastime he took up as therapy a couple of years ago. Now with 500 dives logged, Maddeford has been named executive director of the nonprofit Operation: Blue Pride, whose mission is to introduce vets to the underwater world and enlist them in a new army defending the marine environment.
“My mission is to provide vets the opportunity to get involved with marine life projects … to be in team-building events,” Maddeford said. “We need to raise funds to get as many vets in the water as possible.”
The word-of-mouth and Internet draft campaign, funded by donations and bolstered by a new, hour-long documentary, seems to be working. Maddeford said there’s a 350-vet waiting list to join Blue Pride. He’s busy lining up volunteer instructors such as professional deep-diving pioneer John Chatterton of Fort Lauderdale to train and certify new scuba divers.
“Certify them and give them a mission,” Maddeford said.
A 2012 diving expedition to the Bahamas with Blue Pride cofounders Jim Abernethy, a West Palm Beach dive operator and underwater videographer, and mobility equipment maker Sue Chen of California opened Maddeford’s eyes to the plight of the world’s sharks. With two other disabled vets and British aeronautical tycoon Sir Richard Branson, Maddeford got to swim with a friendly and photogenic tiger shark nicknamed Emma. Learning that millions of sharks are being maimed and dumped overboard worldwide to make shark fin soup spurred him to action.
“When it started sinking into me what was happening in the oceans, it’s unacceptable,” he said.
So Maddeford and other Blue Pride volunteers got to work: They are lobbying the Florida Legislature to pass a law prohibiting all trade and distribution of shark fins in the state and imposing criminal penalties for violators. They also plan to help the Key Largo-based non-profit Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) conduct fish surveys and cut down exotic lionfish populations. They mentor youth divers — and they dive just for fun.
Last week, a group of about two dozen Blue Pride volunteers and boosters — including a handful of newly-certified vets — took a half-day scuba trip with Capt. Slate’s Atlantis Dive Center in Key Largo. On their first plunge to about 25 feet on the wreck of the City of Washington, the group gathered around captain Spencer Slate and colleague Annette Robertson as they hand-fed a six-foot green moray eel. Maddeford and Army vet Jason Beedy of Maine got to hold the eel briefly in their arms.
“Squishy, like a big, chubby cat,” Maddeford said.
“That was something else,” Beedy said in agreement.
Beedy, 33, said he has been going through some hard times the past few months struggling with post-traumatic stress. Newly certified as an open-water diver by Chatterton, he said he loves the sport.
“It’s so relaxing, so peaceful,” Beedy said. “There’s no stress, no anxiety, no survivors’ guilt. I feel free down there. It’s been a long time since I’ve had satisfaction like that.”
He said he plans to return to the Veterans Administration hospital in Maine and “find some guys and turn them on to Chris. I see these guys that are like me, how they live their lives and it makes me want to be a better person — the old me.”
Chatterton, a Vietnam War veteran and a dive instructor since 1987, says the Blue Pride vets are the easiest students he has ever trained.
“From an instructor’s standpoint, you couldn’t ask for a better group of men and women. They are all highly motivated,” he said.
Chatterton, a diving pioneer best known for his identification of a lost World War II German submarine sunk off New Jersey that was documented in the bestselling book, Shadow Divers, said military veterans are an “incredible resource to tap into” to help solve problems confronting the world’s oceans.
“Civilians haven’t been successful; they’re losing the war,” Chatterton said. “The military has a different mind-set. They have a focus and determination for the mission. These vets get something out of it, and at the same time, the marine environment benefits and so we all benefit.”
• For more information about Operation: Blue Pride, visit operationbluepride.com.